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The Arts

Why the Solo Classical Dancer Needs to be Saved

Government apathy and commercial compulsions have led Indian classical dance towards group performances and away from where its true genius lies — the solo artiste.

Show me how a community dances and I’ll tell you if they are healthy or not.

– Confucius

The lack of a National Cultural Policy, poorly equipped cultural administrators and managers, and impaired comprehension of the cultural economics of Indian classical dance and music has made these traditions vulnerable.

On the surface, the large number of festivals and social media traction these get makes it appear as if these art forms are in great health, but below are complications that endanger the core of these traditions.

Central to the rupture is the pivotal nurturing of solo art in dance. Barring Manipuri and Kuchipudi where the solo format is still evolving, most Indian classical dance traditions are solo in character. The knowledge pool of trained solo artists are essential as breeding grounds for star performers, choreographers, thinkers, performing arts critics and the gurus of tomorrow. 

Failure of government institutions

Anita. Credit: Ram Rahman

Anita Ratnam performs contemporary dance in front of a portrait of Birju Maharaj. Photo: Ram Rahman

Indifferent government cultural institutions and offices in India, manned by ill-qualified cultural administrators and management is the most important reason for the crises as the state remains the single largest patron of the performing arts.

The legitimisation and identification of talent in classical dance and music is largely based on:

(a) the grading system instituted by government agencies such as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Doordarshan and the All India Radio; and

(b) the awards established by the state such as those given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Central government’s Padma awards.  

The administrative and governing bodies in state institutions function with their own biases. Manipulation of results quite often result in the marginalisation of deserving candidates who could be young or established soloists, gurus or scholars. A system like this implies that even the awards organisers (state or private) end up promoting mediocre talent on several occasions. 

The inefficiently administered Sangeet Natak Akademi and its affiliated bodies such as the Kathak Kendra, Kalakshetra and Manipur Dance Akademi, have taken to promoting average talent. In addition, they have stunted vision statements and ineffective action plans. For instance, the mismanagement of the Kathak Kendra is evident from the fact that the administrative staff is larger than the community of artistes it serves and that most of the staff are relatives of the unproductive top administration. 

Instead of nurturing or promoting solo Kathak performers, the management invests in a production unit ‘repertory’ to churn out group performances, which are economically more attractive to the institute. The productions have become more about cloned performers and packaged products. 

The problem is further augmented by ‘pay to perform’ and ‘pay to write’ scandals where a solo dancer is asked to pay organisers so that he or she can perform and writers are paid to write previews or reviews. While the former forms a disreputable nexus between organisers and senior dancers, the latter advocates for advertisements – there are now elaborate previews and prepaid reviews. 

Economics and the guru

Most gurus have registered societies and schools under which nurturing soloists is less profitable than organising group productions. The government needs to come in to introduce and monitor incentives to gurus and establish mentorship programs.

Solo dance performance opportunities are few. The sustained efforts of the SPIC MACAY that provides opportunities for all age groups of performers, the month long performance season in Chennai, the Mudra Festival organised by the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, festivals only for young soloists like Aarambh by the Raza Foundation and Raindrops by the Sam Ved Society in Mumbai are lone examples.

Also read: Nurturing and Embracing Womanhood Through Dance

The cultural economics of these performance spaces comprise sponsorship, grants and tickets. Largely funded by government grants and private contributions SPIC-MACAY, for instance, “aims to build discerning audiences through lecture demonstrations and performances,” says its artiste committee national advisor Ashok Jain. For the Chennai performance season, however, subsidised ticketing is not enough and the hefty financial requirements necessitate private funding. 

Marginalisation in festivals

The 1980s saw the opening of the economy coinciding with a series of festivals of India. The latter was a new, hyped model to display Indian classical dance. The dynamic Keshav Kothari, former secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, who was trained in Kathak and cultural management (about which he wrote a book) said, “While a few solo stars such as Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai were born in the course of performing in the festivals of India; the more prominent result was staging a group choreography to convey a polished, professional and global finished product which could be compared with the likes of the Swan Lake presented at the Bolshoi.”

The result was the creation of a new generation of avant-garde choreographers like Kumudini Lakhia (Kathak) and Chandralekha (Bharatnatyam). They brought professionalism and discipline in the creative community along with design, minimalism and an abstract element in their work that was appealing to the contemporary and the global market. At present, the Ministry of Culture is still frozen in the archaic model. 

Showcased displays of group dance are commercially viable but kill the instinctive element that soloists bring. Photo: The Wire

Thinker and  diplomat P.N. Haksar who wrote the Haksar Committee Report that studied the efficacy of the three art academies said, “The festival model will result in mushrooming of impresarios with little understanding of the dance. The spectacle, showcasing and money will dictate the patronage pattern impacting the core of these traditions. India requires cultural administrators who are both subject experts and educated in cultural management specific to postcolonial contexts.”

The dance company phenomenon

The prophetic observation by Haksar is evident in the rise of a number of event management companies who now are central to showcased displays of dance. The emergence of private dance companies is also something that was foreseen. Of the several listed companies just a few seem to function as ‘commercial’, professional dance organisations. Most ‘companies’ are registered societies engaged in the teaching of dance; their event-lists comprise self-produced or commissioned performances and random events. The Abhinava Dance Company by Nirupama and Rajendra in Bengaluru and the Dristikon company of Aditi Mangaldas are two examples of organisations which work as actual companies. Apart from teaching, they hire the services of artistes, professionally market performances and present group productions as a spectacle product. Their target audiences and platforms are generally the neo-Indian urban and foreign markets. 

Also read: Annapurna Devi, the Legendary Musician and Guru

The character of their productions are ‘contemporary’ and packaged. They do not factor in the essential spontaneity or openness which is the measure of individual genius marked by upaj and manodharma — impromptu creation and improvisation.  Recorded music, designer costumes, sound and lighting effects define the productions. This money-making product dazzles but on most occasions leads to camouflaging mediocre dancing and increasingly diminishing content.  

The solo performance is the ‘centre’ of Indian classical dance. Nav Pallava, a recently launched counter-movement against the ‘pay to perform’ model is being spearheaded by SPIC MACAY’s Ashok Jain. It is a collaboration of senior gurus and dancers of various regional cities. The programmes present promising individual talent and the audiences donate at the entrance to pay the performer. 

The indifference of the government too needs to be addressed soon. Replacing the current administrators with those who are subject knowledge experts and trained in culture will help. These positions need to be upgraded by offers of better pay, functional independence and higher official status. Only then will cultural policies and the effective ‘vision action’ be realised. This is what eminent poet, cultural administrator and patron of arts Ashok Vajpeyi meant when he said, “While there is a popular pressure or demand for the group, it is in the solo artist that the individual genius is seen, and the traditions of dance secured. The government has to rigorously promote the solo artist in dance.”

Navina Jafa is vice-president of Centre for New Perspectives, a think tank that works on intangible heritage, traditional knowledge through research and pilot programs for sustainable development.