Socio-Economic Issues of Dancers: Now

Paper presented at the seminar on “Socio-economic issues of Dancers: Then and Now” organized by the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) on 28 April at the mini hall of the Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai.

The morning session focusing on the “Socio-economic issues of dancers – Then” was overwhelming, giving rare and lovely insights into the past. Times have changed from Then to Now. The milieu has changed, attitudes have changed. In the session on “Socio-economic issues of dancers: Now” – we come to the ground realities.

Change is unchangeable and inevitable in life. All art forms have undergone change, are undergoing changes, and will continue to change. Dance in general, and Bharatanatyam in particular, are no exceptions.

Changes in the context of the dance, and changes in the socio-economic state of the practitioners and propagators of the dance form, have influenced the dance scene a great deal.

With the transition from Sadir to Bharatanatyam, the art has gone global. The economics of the dance is such that performance alone is not lucrative. So come summer, most dancers fly off to the West to the US, Europe, Australia, or South Africa to conduct workshops and also to dance. The foreign currency they earn, when converted into Indian rupees when they return before the Chennai season, keeps them going for the rest of the year. Bharatanatyam is now looked upon as a universal “dance vocabulary”. Dance has moved from communion to communication. Today, the dancer often takes on the role of a social commentator. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the tenets and standard of Bharatanatyam are maintained!

Now, there is no stigma attached to the dance. It is actually “fashionable” to learn Bharatanatyam. Dancers are respected, though male dancers have not found the going easy. The situation has improved of late.

Overall, we cannot deny that there have been changes in the performing space, changes in the type of practitioners and custodians of the art form, changes in patronage of the art form, and changes in the audience for the dance. Let us look at some of the factors influencing change.

Performing space

Let us first and see how changes in Performing Space have influenced the dance and thrown up issues. As you know, the dance moved away from temples, royal courts, private chambers and moved into bigger impersonal urban halls. As the rectangular dancing stage got bigger and bigger, the dancer too started thinking bigger and bigger and the movements are now choreographed with a view to “cover” the stage. So now the issue of “How do I cover space, and how do I reach out to the audience?” has become more important for the dancer! To reach out to the audience seated far away, subtle abhinaya is increasingly giving way to exaggerated dramatic portrayals in dance. The dancer now finds more horizontal and vertical space to explore, which she does by weaving in athletic movements and resorting to what I call “Ottam adavus” – wherein between segments in the adavus, you run around on stage as you perform the hastas! This brings in a lighter cinematic touch to Bharatanatyam. You cannot deny that it does distort the structure of the adavu. Graceful, nuanced and poetic dancing is being replaced with broader, sharper geometric patterns and cutting body language, thus changing the texture of Bharatanatyam. The young dancer is left wondering: “Do I dance the traditional way or do I mix and match to win applause?”

The shift in space from temples and courts to the proscenium has also brought in a shift in the mindset of dancers, organizers and the audience, which has resulted in the addition of secular themes to the existing religious, royal and spiritual themes, thus widening the scope of Bharatanatyam. If the themes are well researched and presented aesthetically, they are a welcome addition. The young dancer, however, is in a dilemma: “Do I perform a traditional margam or should I present new items?”

Practitioners and teachers

Over the years Sadir/ Bharatanatyam has moved from specific communities to a broader section of society. Once upon a time, the devadasis and the natyacharya-s from the Isai Velalar community reigned supreme. Now you have Bharatanatyam dancers and teachers hailing from different backgrounds. This was inevitable under the changing circumstances. We respect and look up to the devadasis who were the practitioners and the nattuvanars who were the custodians of the art form. The traditional dancers and the nattuvanars were well versed in all aspects of the dance – in literature, music, fine arts and dance. Then there came a new breed of dancers who had a holistic understanding of the dance, and had worked really hard to equip themselves in the various aspects. They are the veterans and very senior dancers who are now at the top.

The scenario Now is that many young girls from well-to-do families, with pushy parents, want to learn dance because it is glamorous, fashionable to do so, you can add it to your CV, you get to be seen on stage, you get written about – you get noticed – which is what everyone wants these days! Many dancers are not trained in music. There is a lot of dance without hard work. This results in lack of discipline, and a deficiency in technique. As in every aspect of life, classical dance too is increasingly being influenced by materialism. Then, most dancers learnt the art for art’s sake, in order to know more about the dance form, our arts and culture. Now, most dancers learn dance mainly to Perform – to get on to the stage! The dancer wonders: “Do I dance for name and fame? Can I make some money through my dance? Do I learn dance for arts sake, and perform without making compromises along the way?”

The attitude Now is to learn ‘Items’ for a hefty fee, pay to get performance opportunities, pay to get written about, and generally “market ones dance-ability”! Packaging dance and presenting it have become more important. There are thus thousands of dancers in this metro and mediocrity is rampant. The serious dancer today is in a dilemma as Sheen has now become more important than the Substance. This mad rush to perform ‘asap’ on stage has led to many malpractises.

Dance students are rarely taught the History of Bharatanatyam and other classical dance forms. There are dance institutions which do that, and some dance schools too. Young dancers must develop the urge to learn. There is an urgent need to build pride in children about our culture and heritage. They must be moulded into “thinking dancers” – dancers who can question, analyse, read treatises and commentaries on dance and allied arts. In this context, the role of dance gurus and dance teachers becomes important. Do they go beyond teaching “items” to inculcate a holistic approach to dance in the student?

One of the issues senior dancers and gurus are worried about today is “How to assure a certain quality in the field of dance? Senior dancers and gurus could arrive at a system of grades for dancers, dance teachers, and for accompanying artists. This will also help to fix remuneration slabs which are very haphazard now. In olden times, we are told, there was a proportion in which payments were made to the nattuvanar, the dancer and members of the orchestra. One wonders if a different system can be worked out on the basis of grades and proportion, so that sabhas can directly pay the accompanying artists in dance, just as they directly pay the accompanists in a Carnatic music kutcheri ! This could relieve the dancers from a great burden they face.

Dance coverage

This brings us to another issue in the dance scene – the space and time allotted to classical dance in the media. Except during the Chennai Season, classical dance does not get the coverage it deserves. Outside Chennai, the space and coverage for the classical arts is dismal. Very few TV channels devote time to telecast classical dance programmes and some do it when most people are asleep at night! The quality of dance writing too is a cause for concern. Dance writers must equip themselves well, not be swayed by money and influence, and must uphold ethics. The publishing and telecasting of “paid news” is a cause for concern.

Patrons and organizers

Let us look at the patrons, organizers and sponsors in the dance field. In olden times, dance was patronized by connoisseurs, and performed in their midst. When sabhas came into being and started playing a major role in organizing programmes, the teams running the sabhas, led by the sabhanayakas, have in a way become cultural power centers. Here one must remember that every organization is not a sabha; there are many fly-by-night operators. While there are a few good sabhanayakas who pay the dancers, there are many more organizers who demand money to give dancers a performance slot. Here, the dancer too is to be blamed. Talking in economic terms, as the supply of dancers far exceeds the demand, there is a rush to get the slots at any cost. For every 10 principled dancers who will not pay, you may find 30 half-baked dance students who are more than willing to compromise in order to grab a performance slot ! This is a major issue in the dance scene today. Very often such dancers perform to half-empty halls. What then is the purpose of such dancing?

The audience

Let us look at the audience for dance. For whom is the Dancer dancing for Today? No doubt, a dancer dances for herself -- atmaanubhavam, but when dance is performed on stage in a hall, it is a two-way process – of rasanubhava. Decades ago, the dancer was fortunate to have connoisseurs in chamber concerts and royal courts. Now we have a mixed bag in sabhas – you have a heterogenous, cosmopolitan audience. This throws up the issue for the dancer – “What do I perform? A margam or something different?” “Should I present more nritta or abhinaya? Should I present more stories through sancharis? Can I include explicit padams? Use more body language than suggestive gestures?” “What is the formula for success?” On the one hand, the dancer has a large audience, ranging from curious children to knowledgeable nonagenarians, with varying aesthetics and sensibilities. On the other hand, the performance time has shrunk from three hours to one-and-a half hours or less. “What to present and how” is a dilemma faced by dancers now…

The organizers, for their part, can try to identify dancers who have taken totally to dance and are not “multiple activities” performers. In Natyarangam, of which I am a committee member, the monthly programmes and the Thennangur Camp are open to young dancers and dance teachers. There we are able to observe and evaluate the various dancers and their special qualities. Apart from this, we watch a lot of dancers throught the year. For the annual thematic festival we try our best to choose dancers who are serious about their art. Am not sure whether we can use the word “professional” in the sense it is used in the West, but organizers could give such “serious dancers” more opportunities to perform.

I wish to conclude by saying that all the players in the field of dance – whether they are dancers, dance teachers, musicians, organizers, or critics, must have a passion for the dance form and realize that they are all part of a composite whole. Unless we believe in and understand what we are doing, and do it with devotion, dedication and sincerity, we will only add to the corruption and falling standards. Each component must work for the betterment of the art. The dancer is certainly the most important component, for—without the dancer, there is no dance!