To criticize or not to criticize
- Lalitha Venkat

September 5, 2014

A well organized and well conducted seminar on ‘Dance Criticism - The macro and micro perspectives’ was organized by Lalit Kala Kendra at Pune on August 27 and 28, 2014. There were four sections to the program. Critics and editors spoke on day one, dancers and readers spoke on day two.

Bharatanatyam lecturer Parimal Phadke spoke about how for the past three years, the dance department has been doing an annual seminar on research projects covering a wide range of subjects covering practicals and theory. One year it was the jati project from the angle of a nattuvanar. Next year, it was tracing Kathak’s existence to ancient dance texts with this year the focus being on dance criticism. Having such a seminar had been on the agenda for a few years, since the importance of dance criticism is a very special area and this has all been seen only on a macro level but not so far on a micro level. This report briefly touches upon what the critics had to say on their different topics on dance criticism.

Leela Venkataraman, Dr. Sunil Kothari, Manjari Sinha, Veejay Sai, Shyamhari Chakra
Photo: Lalitha Venkat

Dr. Sunil Kothari spoke on constructive criticism.
Dance criticism is a thankless task. There is no one way to write constructive criticism. Readers glance through dance reviews in the paper to see if their views coincide with that of the writer. With x-ray eyes, dancers read more into it, so it becomes a dialogue between writer and dancer.  Criticism creates an unhappy atmosphere between dancer and critic.

A critic has to be well versed in dance techniques, theory, aesthetics in dance, musical forms etc and that is a tall order. Knowledge of Sanskrit is essential to the reviewer and knowledge of several versions of mythology helps when seeing the dance.  When we have so many forms of dance, it is impossible to know about all these forms especially the dance music for these forms. 

Criticism in Indian context is not understood by dancers. If there is no praise, the dancers feel hurt, more so when criticism is done in harsh words. They carry this resentment for a long time.  Dancers moan and groan about how they have sacrificed so much and so on. Dancers have even sent legal notice to dance critics and editors, so the editors got fed up and clamped down on dance criticism.  Critics were told not to comment on physical attributes.  No more Subbudu style criticism is seen now and it is now part of history. Dance in India is populated with tinsel goddesses. However gently a criticism is stated, dancers don’t like it. They take it as an attack on them. Criticism is like walking on the edge of a sword. Dancers do not like criticism and despises the critic as one with a hidden agenda. Closing down of arts coverage killed dance criticism.  So journals and e-portals are important sources of dance criticism, but importance of print media continues to exist. 

Critics should never settle scores through the written word. The critic in print media is aware of his power. Dancers should also be careful when commenting on the critic. Now limited space for dance criticism also creates problems and the dwindling number of critics is a matter of concern.
The critics and dancers have to go together and not in isolation. A critic has to grow and sharpen his way of writing and act as a vehicle of change.  

There is no organization for dance criticism in India like the Dance Critics Association in the US. If the discipline of dance criticism could be introduced in the dance departments, it would be helpful. 

Leela Venkataraman spoke on terminologies in dance criticism.
Dance terminology has become more and more different as years go by to the kind of jargonism that has come into play. Classical, modern, experimental, authentic etc is used by dancers and writers. It has been sort of categorized. Our dance history has been chequered, redesigned, revisited and has been contemporized to present times.

Lot of people from non-traditional background came in to make the dance forms into its present avatar.  They came into a life style very different from professional dancers and brought in their own sensibility. Craft is same, but the way in which we use this craft and see this craft is called tradition. Tradition is what is coming down from old times over generations. When somebody goes against convention, there is a hue and cry. They are said to be breaking tradition.

There has been responsible reconstruction where the inspiration is from Maharis and Devadasis.  There are so many constructions today like Gaudiya Nritya from Bengal and we have the examples of Nrityagram, Swapnasundari and Chandralekha. Their idea was from tradition, but what was presented was so different. In the case of Chandralekha, Contemporary Bharatanatyam was not the right word. It could be traditional in form, modern in content or modern in form, traditional in content, traditional in form and content, or modern in form and content.  But how do we describe it?  “Then it was not like that.” How far back was then? Tradition for us goes back to thousands of years. We have a treasure trove of vocabulary that has come down to us. A great critic has to be able to express changes in correct terms. 

Manjari Sinha spoke on the relevance of content in criticism.
The word criticism sounds negative. The Hindi word sameeksha means assessment of both good and bad and that seems more suitable. Our culture was part of temples and durbars. During the Mughal period, after the performance there used to be discussion on qualitative assessment of the performance. This enriched the knowledge of the spectators. This was the original state of criticism in our country.  Only in the 20th century, criticism came from Western culture.

In Western culture, there is a proper criterion to judge performances. In our culture there is no  fixed criteria. Every artiste performs the same thing differently. In our music and dance, spirituality is the hidden agenda. Through your art you express your inner most self.  So in art criticism there is nothing fixed, as same ragam and same varnam is done differently by different artistes.

Music and dance are transient arts. Once presented, it is over, vanished. So you have to be a rasika, get the rasa out of it, recreate it in your mind and write about it. When you express rasananda, you must know the art, grammar and technique to share it with your readers. You must have the feel for the art and sensitivity to reach the artiste’s core. Otherwise you won’t have the sympathy for the artistes. Your criticism should be constructive and when you see potential, encourage it. See the dance, not the dancer. The critic’s sensitivity and knowledge comes out in the writing. Manjari finds technical terms more amenable in Hindi and vernacular. The irony is Hindi coverage has a bad reputation, because the reporters just reproduce the dancer’s notes.    

Brilliance is described in two ways: creative brilliance that the artist has and the one absorbed, experienced and expressed by the writer – Bhaavyitri Pratiba and Kaaryitri Pratiba.  Feel it first and then make readers feel what you feel. What a dancer wears, her skin tone, her features are not important. Her art is important. A reader would like to know why something was good or bad. A true critic informs and educates the audience. Kala sameeksha is a serious job, a work of great responsibility. Art reviews work as archival records. The written record is also an authentic documentation of an art that does not exist beyond a performance. This becomes a social, cultural and reference point of the art. It needs real commitment, goodwill and love for the art, or else you won’t take the trouble. This is also a way of propagating our culture. The critic is like the wind that carries the fragrance of the art.

Rekha Sane spoke in Marathi and it was difficult for the non-Marathi speaking audience to understand the import of what she said. But the students enjoyed it and her talk was immensely appreciated by them. 

Shyamhari Chakra spoke on dance criticism in the contemporary print medium.
He said the standard of writing has deteriorated. When he started his career as a journalist, reporters had to return by 7pm to file their report by 8pm, so how could they write on something without watching it?  They had to collect the hand outs from the dancer or the organizer. In fact the media had only one person to write on dance, theatre and other fields. From covering crime, a writer was promoted to covering culture. So, what standard could one expect in dance criticism?
“There are no dance critics in Odisha. Till I was 29, I never saw a dance performance. The first time I saw dance was when I was told to cover culture!” Editors think anyone can cover culture. Papers should not send junior writers to cover important shows.

Young dancers can find writing challenging but nothing is impossible. As for prospects for a dance critic, there is enough scope to make it a career. If you are serious about your work, you will definitely get the opportunity to write in various media, but you have to explore and contact the media prospects. One should not confine oneself only to criticism. One can also write on dancers, dance institutions, books on dancers as these are very few and rare and much needed by upcoming dancers to refer to. Apart from English, to write in one’s own language would help reach out to the common people. Research and documentation is another area. Why write only on classical dance? There are folk and ritualistic dances too. Have a spirit of adventure, trust in yourself and your work will pay off.

We lament on shrinking space for dance because papers have become very commercial and cover any number of fests like food fest, flower fest and so on. There is such a shortage of critics that organizers are forced to invite critics from other cities. “As long as we write good reports, everything is fine. The minute we write something critical about a dancer, the paper gets a threat to be sued unless the writer apologizes. The editor felt this was a headache and asked me to write only good stuff and renamed the column as ‘Leisure’ instead of ‘Review’!” An alarming trend is, dancers read only reviews and articles on themselves. 

When govt institutions don’t want to conduct courses on dance criticism or dance appreciation, how can one learn? Someone has to break the ice. There is need for a dance critics association on the lines of the DCA in US. There must be a chance to meet established critics and learn from them. It would be nice if elders could help groom future dance critics. Challenges faced by a dancer and dance critic are not very different. One has no space to write, the other has no space to perform. “Dance writing does not pay much money. Our writing is but a service to dance,”   concluded Shyamhari.   

Veejay Sai spoke on the critic as catalyst.
There are commentaries of old writers to refer to. Now the English influence has come in and we have the critic who can opinionate on various genres. Criticism is still a subjective task. It is like a kind of argument. It is like voluntarily taking on an agitation of sorts. The idea of criticism is bigger than the criticism itself.

Rasa is the exclusive privilege of the audience. The critic is between the process of art and understanding of art. The critic works in absence. Never in history has it been so easy to establish a thumbs up or thumbs down to a critical report. A critic knows what he is looking at but through the gaze of critical appreciation, he must see how far back he can relate to it.

A critic is an involved rasika. A performance speaks beyond the stage. Where do you situate the whole thing? You not only see the art form, you go beyond that and see metaphorical and psychological aspects of the art form. Criticism is the beginning of history, the opinion you form now will make an imprint. Aesthetically what appeals is the privilege of the audience. The critic’s job is as a professional aesthete trying to stretch himself to keep a tally of the head and heart. The critic is a catalyst, someone who can trigger a reaction. Inform, amuse and irritate was Kushwant Singh’s idea of a critic. Criticism is open to all but the critic is the unseen catalyst who shows the difference between good art and better art.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of

More on the seminar:
Criticism…under the scanner
- Leela Venkataraman

Editors and the Edited
- Veejay Sai