Audience: The tug of the credulous and the credible
- Ramaa Venugopalan
April 12, 2015
Audience - the most important factor for any Bharatanatyam performer. We grouse about the audience a lot. We want them to come in large numbers and yet, have absolutely no idea how to lure them performance after performance! It seems that the success of a performance and the performer is so dependent on the audience turnout that one of the first post-performance thoughts for any dancer would be the proverbial "Oh! I wish there were more audience to watch me..."
Who are these audiences anyway? Observation and logic will lead to the following categorization of the audience:
The Knowledgeable: They know dance, are dancers or performers, gurus, musicians or other artists who can understand and appreciate the craft. This lot is a premium. Since they are performers themselves, it is a challenge to sacrifice the rehearsal / practice / teaching time and venture out to watch fellow dancers perform. Eventually, it is impossible to straddle the multitudes and travel in the horrific traffic across the city to support or just watch a performance.
Critics / Reviewers: A debatable section, very few and far, are present only when the who's who is dancing, or if it is one of the best curated / organized festivals, or if they have a personal rapport with the dancer. They are an enigma and through their pen they dictate their thoughts, opinions and judgements (if they actually sit through the performance and engage themselves with the dance objectively). They are sparse and certainly not regulars for every performance in town.
Connoisseurs / Organizers / Curators / Chief Guests / Guests of Honour / Special Invitees: The established, popular celebrities who supposedly wield a lot of power. They are generous to accommodate a few minutes of undivided attention (amidst constant messaging and watching the phone screen, hushed phone calls, screen, shaking hands with other dignitaries, exchanging pleasantries...) to watch the dance and mostly rush out mid-way to another commitment. They appear and disappear and have very few but courteous words to say. Their presence is required to make the event seem 'important.' Some do watch for talent (I think), some want to perhaps make their powerful presence felt and of course, there are very few who genuinely provide opportunities to talented dancers. This is one lot I admit I have never understood much but, as is evident, I can describe them well!
The Curious Amateurs: They are familiar with the name of the dance form, are curious about classical dance (not a-la-Bollywood), have watched it on television, and do not mind spending a couple of hours watching it. When I was working in the corporate sector, several of them had never heard of the word Bharatanatyam. This opened my eyes to the truth that the dancer's world is indeed small, and there is a large world out there absolutely unaware of the existence of a dance form. Considering the demanding hours of the sector, their number is negligible!
Relatives / Friends / Extended Family: Family / friendship obligation plays a huge role here. They attend performances to support and just make their presence felt. Their understanding of the dance form is not deep, but they genuinely spend the time and effort to keep their obligation.
Parents: No offence meant, but mostly they are around to judge how the whole scene works, just so they can go back and discuss endlessly on how to make it extravagantly better for their children. Or, they are present because their child is dancing, are overtly proud, constantly click pictures, videos and immediately Whatsapp them or upload them on Facebook! Do they really watch the dance? Well…
Students: The loyal lot to support their teachers or fellow dance mates. They are strictly instructed to stay throughout the performance, and the fear or respect for the Guru is an important factor that commits their presence. Some of them will hover around back stage or go back and forth and act busy. Mostly, in their head, they are just wondering when it will be their turn to dance on the stage! Dreams!
The Elderly: This is one range of audience, whom I respect immensely. They are the most affable and endearing lot, genuine, unbiased, and non-opinionated, who can enjoy the happenings on stage (including the extra-long speeches!). Through my years of observation, they truly enjoy dance in whichever form it is presented. I have watched elderly women laughing excitedly at any gesture of a young Krishna enacted on stage. I have observed elderly gentlemen clap profusely at the list of accomplishments that the compere is reeling out of the paper, and they truly believe everything. I have watched them snore and sleep through performances, but they will stay till the end, clap and walk away quietly and slowly. If you do happen to meet eyes with one of them, they will bless you and trod away with a smile.
The 'Checkout' Audience: I made this one up, but there are several people who just walk in mostly to watch pretty dancers.They just want to while away time, have no clue about the dance form and don't really care. I have encountered men asking me inane questions, peeping into the auditorium, sizing up the dancer and then walking away like they do from a bar or a boring party.
Amateur / Wannabe Photographers: This sudden trend of photographers with their sleek state-of-the-art cameras, are lurking around everywhere and are one of the major attendees of a performance. They usually know nothing about the dance form, and are just enamored by the glamour. They engage less with the object of their photography but promptly upload their multiple captures (with Photoshop effects), replete with adjectives for the dancers. They sure are 'divinity-makers', for through their captures, every dancer is a Shiva, Parvati, Lakshmi, Krishna, Saraswathi or Lord Nataraja incarnate! Excellent feed for dancers when those little insecure ghosts creep into the dancing mind once awhile! Save a few, who have a vision while they shoot, they are major ego boosters! The age of Facebook after all!
Broadly, the above categories define an audience. Yet, any panel discussion on the happenings in the Bharatanatyam world place most of the blame or reason on the audience. "The audience are tired of the Margam","the audience want something new in Bharatanatyam", "the audience find Shabdam or Jathiswaram boring", "the audience never relate to Padams ", "the audience want to hear only compositions in Kannada", "the audience will not understand Sanchaaris","we worked very hard but the audience did not like it", "the audience don't like the traditional pieces, they need contemporary thoughts", "the audience want to be entertained, our boring Varnams can put them off", "I started doing thematic concerts because the audience love it","I don't believe in Margam because the audience are bored of watching them again and again", "the energy in the audience was dead", "the audience will come only if the artists are from Chennai", "everybody in the audience went into raptures with the exhilarating perfect display of emotions of the dancer..."
The verdict is always in the court of the audience. Invisibly and invariably, they determine the success of the dancer and veer the course of what Bharatanatyam is and will be.
As I ponder about this enormous importance placed on the audience, I do wonder, who are these people? We performers perceive them to behold this invisible power to determine the success or a failure of our own identity. Why do we give them so much importance? Do we, as performers, really know them? Do we acknowledge their presence? Do we truly seek, appreciate their feedback or value their true opinion? Have we genuinely sought their perspective, made that extra effort to appreciate or value their presence and interact with them, opened our communication channels outside of performance with them, or discussed their view about the dance form? I cannot think of any such instance where any of the above possibility has occurred as a norm. What we seem to want, however, is that maximum heads must fill the auditorium seats. If we see overflowing audience, even better!
When I attend dance performances, I am acutely aware of my own state of mind, my moods, my pre-conceived notions, my judgements and opinions. I sit as an audience, I observe the people around me, and wonder what really the purpose of attending a performance is. As a performer I may have vested interests but, as I watch the audience I wonder what goes on in their minds. Do they have any basic expectation when they watch a performance? How do they understand Bharatanatyam? What is their take away? Do they even think about it after? Do they feel motivated to keep coming back or watch other performances? Is this just another leisure activity that fills in their evening hours?
As a performer, do I really want to understand and know my audience? Do I know the range of their knowledge? Do I know why they are spending hours of their personal time to come watch my performance? How much effort do I make, however small or big, to either interact or converse with them after the performance? Beyond, as a performer do I really need to go that extra mile to find out the answers to these questions? If I do not, then why do the numbers (dwindling or not) bother me?
Who determines the path of the art - audiences or the practitioners? Do artists dictate to the audience or does the audience dictate to the artists? Is this dance form a premium or is it easily saleable to different perceptions?
It does seem more like an array of questions, than answers. And while they loom in my mind, I also wonder why is it that a nuanced art form like Bharatanatyam, which is subtle in nature, deals with deep emotions, is a surrender of the self to an infinite concept, and beyond all is a form of self-expression so dependent on large audiences? Will a person sitting 30 feet away at the end of the auditorium connect to my emotions?
I believe we performers have to rethink, ponder and question the purpose of why we perform or dance. What do these large numbers mean to us and our intent to dance? Through this inward enquiry perhaps, some answers or change in the mindset may emerge…?
Bharatanatyam can be both entertaining and elevating. If entertainment is the goal, large audiences are definitely the answer. If elevation is the goal should not a part of Bharatanatyam be exclusive to quality, sensitive and a small number of people who are prepared to journey with the dancer and are willing to allow their emotions to be touched by the dance form? Would this not make the effort and experience meaningful?
If the intention is profound, then it is a matter of quality and not quantity. Is it not the onus of the performers to question the intent of their performance, decide what they want to project and most importantly decide with whom they want to share their experiences of the art form? Should performers seek or demand niche audiences? If there be a rule that only small audiences can watch our performances, will the quality, value and appreciation of the art form increase?
I believe it is a cognitive, deliberate and an intentional choice and realigning the expectation to perform for a large audience most of whom are lackadaisical or a niche, small, sensitive, concerned, interested audience who truly want to engage, enrich and journey with the dancer and the dance.
And obviously, it just does not end with making this choice!
Ramaa Venugopalan is a Bharatanatyam dancer from Bangalore.
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