The Covid Conundrum
- Ranee Kumar
October 20, 2022
Of late, classical performing arts are posing a challenge to the practitioners. The up and coming, younger crop of artistes are at crossroads. Passion be in its place but patronage and publicity - one on a pedestal and the other for a price - the young dancer is always at the doorstep of some organisation or promoter, pleading for an opening to prove her/his talent. This was the standard scenario till 2020. After which the entire dance fraternity went into a tizzy as Covid reared its hideous head, dealing a sort of death blow to dance performances. As if in defiance, the 2020s saw n number of online dances from gardens to terrace tops, kitchen to dining rooms, riversides, and sand dunes - everybody started dancing in every possible space and not just that! The recording with all its flaws would be uploaded as private videos or on YouTube and posted. That wasn't all either. The number of 'likes' and comments was the trophy to self-satiation. Not to be left behind were senior dancers holding round-table conferences on whatever issue came under the purview of dance. Teachers/gurus lost out on income Zoomed in with classes, a la academic style with all the pitfalls in tow. The bottomline was actually anxiety crisis of being quarantined indoors especially in a career that spelt out visibility on stage as one's identity. All this sustained for a year. The year that followed, viz., 2021 doused the initial flurry of activity as death tolls mounted due to the Delta wave and online private posts dwindled by the day. A few sustained but this time around the viewers got Covid fatigue!
The pandemic's two-year tenure hit hard on young talents who had invested a fortune on their passion both in terms of finance and sweat. Unlike the earlier generation, they were intelligent enough to equip themselves with professional qualifications that could come in handy when the going got tough. Though in right earnest they yearned to establish themselves as dancers and would have made a career out of it if things worked out. Despite, talent in abundance, youth and agility, an added attraction, willing and encouraging parentage, an asset, the younger generation that came of age to take to the stage found it a self-degrading rigmarole of begging organisers for an opening, garner audience and feed publicity makers. There was no guarantee that a well-applauded first performance would ensure a next. If still under an institution and guru, well, there was some chance to showcase but to those who were out of the learning mode and pretty much on their own with creativity to choreograph, it was an uphill task to find takers to platform them.
Many a promising talent like Purnima Ashok (guru Ananda Shankar), Satvika Ranganathan (guru Hemamalini), Radhika - the list can go on - simply left the field, opting for lucrative jobs abroad much to their gurus' grievance. They entered the field with stars in their eyes: name, recognition for their talent backed by diligent practice, though they knew it could never sustain them on monetary terms. Now, in the year 2022, when the auditoriums have opened their doors after the two-year hiatus, it is shocking to find that many have opted for steady jobs rather than a nebulous dance career. "The passion and fire is still there. Where is the opportunity? Seniors are lined up for performances; they can pool their loyal audiences. We are asked to wait endlessly and then the additional task of gathering an audience is also on us. It is very frustrating. We are too young to settle down to teaching when we should be performing," stated a dancer requesting anonymity.
Arupa Lahiry who shifted base from Delhi and joined IGNCA as regional head in Baroda comes out with some home truths. "We have taken parallel jobs to sustain so in turn we can sustain our passion. The pandemic has made us realise how economically unplanned an artiste's life is. It's best not to complain and pull up the sock and make best of whatever is available. I'm saying this because it is no longer the Government sponsored art scenario of the 80s when the Festival of India kept the scene glorious and glowing. Today's global India has no identity card for us and our generation of artistes need to find personalised patrons in the form of husbands or parents. My safety net, like those of others of my tribe has been my education. This has kept my hearth burning."
Kiranmayee Madupu, Bharatanatyam talent from Hyderabad, who had made a name for herself surprisingly diversified into entrepreneurship in dance related field. An engineer by qualification she had the knack to venture out with Tha thi kita boutique that sells dance jewellery and sarees. "I had my priorities right. I stalled marriage till I felt I was proficient in performing. I did give quite a few memorable performances with the help of my guru and to an extent my talent which was largely appreciated both here and abroad. Post marriage I thought I would continue with performances as that was my dear guru's ardent desire. Unfortunately, I got into mental health fatigue, seeking venues to perform and begging people to come to see my shows whenever I performed in cities other than mine. Constant upgradation of ahaarya with no returns can be tiring. Now I have at least validation for my entrepreneurship. There are still many of my age who have sacrificed their personal normalcy like marriage and struggling to keep themselves afloat. I'm privileged enough to feel that I don't have to earn through dance; I don't need to constantly compete and compare about the number of performances of mine vis-à-vis others of my age and stage. I'm enjoying my work. I know I'm not able to fulfill my guru's dream but knowing her, I'm sure she understands me from up there and blesses me," her voice trails off with a catch in the throat.
Delhi dancer Shreyasi Gopinath, now off to Reunion Island to take charge of cultural department there says, "In a way, the last two years opened the gates of the social media far and wide. It unveiled a host of opportunities especially for young dancers who are savvy and made the best use of it. It gave me lot of scope; I had chances to model for brands like Fab India, DLF, Google. Honestly, I have always multi-tasked. I've been a model, done lots of voice-overs, theatre - my aim for doing multiple things is to support my performance career which is an expensive one as we all know. For me, the present job with ICCR and Ministry of External Affairs has been a big opportunity. The tenure suits me better and I hit the age bracket right in the mid of the pandemic and I need this exposure especially in a foreign land. It's also a learning process and I look forward to greater opportunities."
Dr. Smitha Madhav, a performing musician-dancer puts the cap on all this when she states, "When we took up dance, we all dreamed of being performers, not art administrators! Like all artistes before us we lived in delusion that we are a sacrosanct lot while others who are not artistes are lower human beings. Even then, it was an unstated fact that teaching fetched the regular income. Though our lot knew that being performers alone can never be financially lucrative to sustain, still the satisfaction and appreciation kept us going despite the practical frustrations time to time. Post Covid, teaching has also taken a beating because we are not able to find avenues for our students to perform. Then what makes them stick on to spending so much learning dance? There's no incentive and we are not able to encourage them as we ourselves know the futility of making dance a career option. There was never any commensurate payment for performing even earlier. But at least some sort of ratification was there; now it's only leaking pockets!"
These instances are just the tip of the iceberg. On the surface, as of now, they seem far and few. But the ball is set to roll. A look at the bigger picture shows us that the onus doesn't lie with the dance scene alone; it's a whole new thought process that has come into play after the disastrous affaire d'Corona!
Ranee Kumar is a journalist who brings in three decades of hard core journalistic experience with.mainstream papers like the Indian Express and The Hindu to arts reporting. Her novel 'Song of Silence' and guest editing of attenDance widen her horizon.
Thank you for this very important article, Ranee ji. As Kiranmayee rightly put it, dancers often have to knock on a hundred doors to get one program. Add to this the problem of nepotism - those whose gurus are well known will get visibility and those whose gurus prefer a low profile do not even get a response. Noted festivals by senior names will only feature students of their friends, making it exhausting for other dancers to keep getting rejected not because of their lack of credentials or talent, but simply because they are not a known name.
Hoping for better times in the future.
- (Nov 3, 2022)
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