Waiting in the wings
e-mail: arangham@gmail.com

December 16, 2010

(This article was first featured in The Hindu dated December 14, 2010)

There is a moment in every performer's life. All the days of rehearsals, the sweat, grime and self doubt that hover around like annoying mosquitoes are swatted away. The day of the performance dawns and the hours fly by to the appointed time. At that magic hour, the curtain rises and the dancer holds herself for a moment in the wings before she steps onto the stage.

During the annual season of Margazhi, this city is the centre of the dance universe. At least that is what I was told years ago when I made my debut during the season as a nervous teenager. Today I look at the hungry and empty eyes of so many dancers who have talent, skill and looks in their arsenal but not the vitamin that is most needed to leave the stage wings behind. Vitamin M for Money. With that vitamin, talent is secondary and the mighty heft of the 'daalar dancer' fills the season calendar.

Today's young dancers have a stone to roll up the hill like Sisyphus. They research, rehearse, plan, pray then proceed to beg, plead and prostrate before all the gatekeepers for a performance opportunity. Our mobile phones are drowned with sms messages that begin with "respected Akka" with long descriptions of their latest dance venture. They dance to a meagre public and almost no media coverage. They return to their homes and dance studios to begin the entire process of pushing the stone uphill once again the following year.

Media too has to bear its share in the landscape of declining standards. Part-time writers assigned to dance coverage want to earn their stripes by praising only the senior gurus and the dancing divas due to a combination of diffidence and misplaced reverence. How can young dancers get watched and reviewed in this incestuous atmosphere? Why are the sabhas, who feel they are doing their best, unable to segregate the programming in the December season by marking out the 'Main Stage Performances' from the 'Emerging Stars' and a separate section for NRI artistes? Why cobble them all together to make for an incoherent festival where standards are so uneven and some shoddy performance opportunities are so obviously 'bought'. And what about the hapless male dancer, who is far more focused and serious than his more glamorous female colleague?

On the national scene, the selection process for international festivals is so flawed that the young dancer is rarely picked for special events. When four lovely young artistes were selected to perform for Michelle and Barack Obama at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the names were guarded like a state secret and the day after Delhi's senior dancers were up in arms about their omission. When will our young talent find their place in the spotlight? Only through experience of repeated performance and the constant touchstone of rehearsals, showing and sharing does an artiste develop her inner core.

On the outside, it would seem that all is well and that dance is flourishing. Yes it is. As a business. But not as a serious art form. The truth is that dance is in a state of crisis. Today we need the coming together of senior dancers, teachers, scholars, choreographers, mentors, media, educators along with corporate backing and state support to assist in making a second wave for professional Indian dance. The time to act is now before many wonderful young dancers resign themselves to full time teaching and conducting meaningless 'workshops' overseas to untalented but wealthy patrons in order to survive. Already many classical dancers can be found dancing in five star hotels to a film song just to pay their rent. The senior dancers are ageing, the audience is graying and the young are not interested in dance as a profession. In this state of crisis, we may have genuinely good dancers waiting and withering in the wings.

Dr. Anita R. Ratnam is a contemporary dance-actor. She is a regular contributor to several publications on performance, culture and serves on the board of many arts organisations in India and overseas. She is the founder and managing editor of the award winning dance portal www.narthaki.com


Excellent article by Anita Ratnam in The Hindu. At least she had the guts. We are facing this day in and day out in Andhra. Hats off to her.
Venkat Vempati

Ms. Anita Ratnam
Your piece in The Hindu - hats off for the candid writing. I doubt if any artiste would stick his/her neck out and speak his/her mind the way you have articulated in the article. Hopefully, all those connected with the art will wake up and do something before things slip beyond control.

KT Jagannathan

Dear Anita Ratnam,
I was in Chennai on a day's work, and I happened to come across your essay in The Hindu on young artists waiting in the wings. I am writing immediately on my return to compliment you on the essay. You have said in a forthright manner what has needed to be said for a long time, but has remained largely lost in the common variety of sniggers on the subject. Your observations are sharp, your descriptions accurate, and your expressions to the point. Well done!
I may only add that your observations are true of all the performing arts in India and, perhaps, all of the arts and literature as well. The bigger question is: WHY? What can explain this rather unhelpful state? A satisfactory explanation may perhaps suggest a realistic remedy. I have been seized with the significance of this malaise for a very long time. My personal research and analyses in the subject leads me to a tentative explanation for the state of the theatre arts in India. I would not dare to generalize from that to dance or all of the performing arts.
Warm regards,
Vijay Padaki

Dear Ma'am,

I am Shruti from Chennai. I am your ardent fan and a dance enthusiast. I was so happy reading your article in the newspaper the other day. A very thought provoking article! I really liked the points you voiced about dance as a profession which is losing its essence in today's generation. Dance being such an ancient and divine art form is perishing because it's not very glamourous as the movies, is that so? It is losing its significance and getting diluted by the way the media is portraying? What are the visible steps we as responsible young citizens should take to bring about a difference? I strongly believe that there's got to be a way to reach the larger masses in a dynamic manner.

Shruti Reddy

Dear Madam,

I read your article with interest. Nowadays dances are not performed (mostly) or taught not for art sake...
Let people realize something from this article. Thanks.

Srinivasan Gopalakrishnan


Read your article in The Hindu. It's really thought provoking. It's sad to know the pathetic condition of senior artists & newcomers. I would like your views and expressions should be in Hindi media as it's a mass language.

Deepti Angrish

Dear Ms. Ratnam,

Very well written article! However, why is there a need to separate an "NRI artiste"? Don't all serious artistes invest the same amount of time, effort and energy in their art, regardless of where they are based? Pt. Ravi Shankar is based in California, USA; would he also be categorized as an "NRI performer"? I believe serious artistes, regardless of where they are based, should be given the same opportunities as those based in Chennai. It is time the sabha gatekeepers and others appreciate the effort and sincerity with which non-Chennai / non-India based dancers put into their art. The next "Emerging Star" may just as well be from UK or USA and not Chennai, if only Chennai would open up and accept them without blindly categorizing them as "NRI performers." They need to be given same opportunities as Chennai based dancers, based on their merit and talent and not the dollars they bring in.

With that said, I am glad to see that you have dared to bring up this topic. I hope your voice will be heard. We really appreciate all you do for the dance fraternity through Narthaki! Thank you.

Divya Devaguptapu

Dear Anita,

There wouldn't be a better introduction than to say that I am your fan. This morning I had the opportunity of reading your article in the Hindu. I was moved by your passion for the cultural roots of Chennai, that stems hard on our festive season of music and dance. I completely agree with your commentary of changing times and the acute need to enroll the audience, organizers and stronghold of current legends in helping budding talents into the system.

This perhaps is the best way to stem the rot (declining standards) and also engage audiences not just from Chennai, but from the rest of the world in making our season as the panorama of global art and culture. I am sure the days aren't too far.

J Sashikumar

Hello Dr. Anita

Am a big fan of yours. I reside in Germany. I have a question to ask.

1. Why classical dance has not been given a huge welcome compared to other form of dances like hip hop, western etc
2. Secondly, why there is no media supporting classical dances except for some channels like DD and Doordarshan.

Mohamed Arif

Respected ma'am,

I am a Bharatanatyam dancer. I was truly moved reading your article in The Hindu. You echoed us youngsters' feelings and thoughts. I have always yearned for an article like this. Though many thought so, none brought it to the fore. My most sincere thanks to you.

Sathvikaa Shankar

Dear Anita akka,

Namaste. I am a disciple of Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vempati Ravi Shankar. I came across your article today in the Hindu. I think this was a great article and hats off to you for really speaking your mind. I appreciate your candor on the current state of affairs.

Yamini Saripalli

Dear Anitaji,

I read your article in Hindu...very true scenario...really all budding talents are waiting for their turn to come...and those budding also now have become middle aged people...something has to be done..we all should come together and do something...we admire great artists, but we should get chance to show our talent and let public decide our future, not organizers...

Meenal Mategaonkar
Hindustani classical vocalist, Mumbai