Technology and social media in dance
- Shveta Arora
February 11, 2024
Indradhanush Dilli is a festival of arts conceptualized in 2008 by Bharatanatyam exponent Kanaka Sudhakar, who is its creative director. It is organized by her NGO S.U.N.A.INA and curated by Bharatanatyam dancer Aparajita Sarma. It features artistes from across the g;obe showcasing their skills in Delhi through performances of dance, music and visual arts and participating in workshops and seminars. S.U.N.A.INA has been doing its service to the field of classical arts tirelessly.
On Nov 3, Indradhanush Dilli 2023 featured two discussions that had great relevance for artistes.
Digital revival: How technology breathes a new life in traditional performing arts
Photos courtesy: S.U.N.A.INA
Veteran music and dance critic Manjari Sinha put emphasis on the role of technology in the arts, especially the live streaming of performances, which came to the aid of performers as well as artistes during the COVID-19 lockdowns. On the other hand, she said, there is no direct contact between the artiste and the audiences in digital interactions. Also, audiences have become too lazy to commute long distances, with all the traffic snarls of city roads, only to watch a performance, when they can sit in the comfort of their homes and watch the performance when it is streamed.
Bharatanatyam exponent Prathibha Prahlad was called upon to elaborate the terminology of 'digital'. When we talk of digital, she said, it is not just about our technicians, that is, the people handling light, sound and other tech-related aspects of a performance. When we think of a performance, we first get in touch with the people who develop the sahitya, the scriptwriters, our vocalists and musicians, and technology comes last. Even if we have a piece that we have developed in terms of technology, we do not always find places equipped with all the technology and we make do with whatever we have. Technology comes to us last. For us, dance is a temple art form and we have god as our audience, we reach out to him. In western dance, the stage craft people, the costume designers, sound and light are part of the initial set-up. In the Indian dance tradition, we start training under a guru at a tender age and by 13-14 years of age, we have a rangapravesham, after which we step on to the stage as professionals. We teach and learn dance and by the age of 20, we have already performed 100 to 200 times. It is we who make our dance, not the technology.
Even at the threshold of 2024, India is not as technologically evolved as the East or the West. So technology has to be put aside since we are nowhere close to having all that is provided in an opera house or an auditorium abroad. Nobody would be performing on a stage like this (pointing to the stage). There has to be proper buffer and cushion and then linoleum spread on it. When the internet came to the world, few people knew about it. In the past twenty years, we have seen a sea of change, with everything going online. There has been a digital revolution starting with YouTube, Facebook and now Instagram and chats, with nothing happening in the physical form and everything, all content, based on online apps. Everything today online depends on the internet brands - it has been 'commercialized'. The digital revolution has impacted tangible and intangible arts in different ways. She emphasized the need to not let the digital apps earn out of the work of our artistes and heritage. We should not accept the culture of influencers and two-minute 'stars' who probably dance for a clip of two minutes on Instagram and become stars. Plagiarism is another issue she touched on, highlighting that work that is showcased on social media is sometimes stolen. The ideation is most important, it is plagiarized, and in India, there are no laws to protect the copyright. She established the fact that the discussion was about technology and not about digitization, as in using the net to showcase your work.
Manjari Sinha responded to Prathibha's argument by narrating an incident when Shambhu Maharaj was once asked whether he wanted a yellow light or a red light on stage. His retort was 'Main kalakar hun, apni kala ke prakash se nachta hun. Tum mujhe kya prakash doge?' (I am an artiste. I dance in the illumination of my own art. What light can you give to me?). Manjari went on to reiterate the fact that the legacy of our arts and their sanctity should not be compromised by the coming of technology. Technology and digitization is meant to further the arts rather than diluting them. The thousands of likes that a performer gets for a short reel on the net are deceptive and the influencers and two-minute stars on the net do not portray the artiste's proficiency.
The next speaker was Kuchipudi dancer Abhinaya Nagajothy. Abhinaya elaborated on the subject by dividing her discourse into two categories - historical advent of technology with reference to Kuchipudi dance, and the present-day status of digital technology in the classical arts. She cited the case study of technology in Kuchipudi, describing how, about a century ago, performances were transformed radically by the introduction of electrical supply. The use of electric lights was adopted by theatre companies in Maharashtra, which then travelled to Andhra to promote and introduce their systematic adoptions of technology in the form of stagecraft, lighting and costume. Where earlier performances could be held only in the day when there was daylight, electrical lighting meant they could also be held after sundown. Telugu audiences took to the new tech, and so Kuchipudi gurus at the time took the opportunity to import these innovations into the dance form.
The advent of celluloid brought about a sea change. The audience could work during day and be entertained at night. The sun was no longer necessary as a source of light. Kuchipudi dancers started to act in films and Kuchipudi songs were used in films. Vedantam Raghavaiah from the Kuchipudi village, was the first to act in a Telugu film and went on to become a director and dance director. Kuchipudi dancers became choreographers for some films for classical and semi-classical numbers. There were also films which were centred on Kuchipudi and this encouraged young people to learn the dance form.
Another advancement was the showcasing of the classical arts on Doordarshan channel in programs such as Nupur and Surabhi, which were given the primetime slots. Learned, iconic gurus performed at 9pm and 11pm on TV and this brought classical dances to the comfort of the home. State patronage helped classical dance programmes to become accessible through TV. The IGNCA and DD are digitizing the classical arts in their institutions, to be made available for public viewing. But now, satellite TV programmes based on TRPs, the internet and social media have drastically changed the pedagogy of teaching and learning the classical dances. Now, it is the influencers who influence the arts in a manner that has dismayed the previous generations but have allowed the classical arts to make their way into the hearts of Gen Alpha or Gen Z.
The categorizing of production technology has been done in three parts: pre-production, onstage technology and post-production. In the pre-production category, the first thing that comes to mind is the digital libraries of performances. Also, the ancient texts can be made available in digital format for the script or ideation of a performance - original manuscripts like the Natyashastra, Kalidasa's poetry, Sangam poetry etc. This does not eradicate the need for actual libraries since a choreographer has to read in order to access the different translations and interpretations of the manuscript. The choreography can be helped by a laptop or an iPad, where details like the placements of the dancers can be marked prior to a performance. The colours and textures of the textiles used in the costume can also be visualized prior to the actual performance. Even the budget and finances can be worked out at the time of conceptualizing.
Digital recordings of the music and audio of a piece is done for using during the performance. Dancers can choose between live music and recorded music. The dance has come from the streets to the stage in an auditorium. Dancers can now choose to use a studio recording or a recording from a previous performance of their own. This way, they also save the cost of a live music team each time. They can perform countless number of hours without worrying about the cost of the musicians. Of course, the presence of the guru is very important to supervise the practice. Short performances are better with recorded tracks since one can use various sound effects, can enhance it at any time and add to it at any stage. Festival organizers also prefer to have dancers using pre-recorded tracks since it becomes much more affordable rather than having the entire team there. Mics and mixers used in a performance, whether live or recorded, enhance the impact of the performance. The foot mics used can effectively make the footwork, with its intricate taalas, be heard. Coming to lights, they can be used to enhance a performance by introducing colours and effects. Creative use of lights can help to transcend space and time. They can also be used to illuminate and make the background beautiful, as in festivals held in front of historical buildings like Old Fort, Khajuraho, Konark etc. Stage projectors can be of great help and multimedia can be used in the background to create different effects.
Talking about the post-performance technology, the recordings of a performance can be viewed later and recording helps to hold ticketed shows online. Social media remains abuzz with the videos and clips for some time and the artiste and the performance remains in the minds of people. One does not have to wait for the Friday reviews and reports to know of the response. You have the clips on social media, which helps make precise moves, to look better each time. Digital technology and advancement have helped the arts grow and have created interest and ambition in the younger generation to embrace the art forms and pursue them professionally. Of course, it requires a lot of responsibility and caution, which comes from the guru who supervises the production process.
Kathak dancer Sangita Chatterjee chose to talk about technology in the context of her art. "Prathibha Prahlad has talked about how, in India, we are lagging in terms of technology in the arts. I would like to segregate performances into two categories: one where technology is used to create spectacles or grandeur, and the other, where technology is used subtly to gently complement the performance. We as classical artistes have the edge over other art forms because we use technology only to enhance our performance and not to create a visual treat. As traditional or classical artistes, we have the responsibility of giving rasaswad and rasa anubhuti to our audiences, not a spectacle that gives only visual pleasure. I am not comfortable working on anything that appeals to the vision only. I concentrate on anything that has content and not simply technology. I would not want to highlight the cherry rather than the cake. I have chosen short clips of my work to substantiate my view. It was during the lockdown that we were relying on technology most heavily. This is a short dance film that I created during the lockdown. I shot the film in Delhi, the music was composed in Kolkata and the editing was done somewhere else. This is how the technology was used to aid a performance. Sometimes, less is more. For my production 'Manthan', I asked my light designer to use minimal lights and only amber and blue lights." Sangeeta emphasized her point through clips of her productions 'Manthan' and 'Yagnaseni'. Her concluding comment was that as a young artiste, she does not have any inhibitions about the use of technology; she is open to using it only to enhance her content and not to camouflage mediocrity. The first priority is to hone your own skills.
Taking off from what Abhinaya (or Sangita) said, Bharatanatyam exponent Jayalakshmi Eshwar stressed on the rasa anubhuti and not rasa bhang due to the unaesthetic use of technology. She showed clips from one of her productions, 'Naad upasana', where minimum technology was used. The only advanced technology she used was for music, since her music composer was in another city. And then it was clips from another production titled 'Antariksh'. Here, she used light and shadow to create the image of a helicopter. The dancers recreated the spinning blades of a helicopter using shadows, and an eagle was also shown through animation. She showed a production in which the famous scientist Ramanujan is going to the planet Mars. The spacecraft comes to pick him up, he sees other planets on the way, and then the spacecraft lands back on earth. All this was created using CGI, lights and multimedia. Here, she ended on the note that both technology and classism work best together, wrapped into one.
Manjari Sinha again emphasized the fact that the discussion was made possible because of technology: Jai Ho Google guru and the web! For me, it was an enlightening discussion. We know that science and technology have greatly enhanced the quality of life for humans, but technology is good as a servant when it serves our aims and makes things easier for us. In the same way, technology in the classical arts can serve the purpose of enhancing our performances. The moment it edges out the value system in our classical arts and overshadows our arts, it becomes a menace. Anyone would enjoy a concert or a performance with a good sound system, good lighting, good aesthetic effects, but only when the artiste is sound in their own art.
Social media - a performing artiste's friend or a foe
Photo: Anoop Arora
The next discussion had a few moments of humour too. The panellists were Sanskrit scholar, Carnatic musician and Bharatanatyam exponent Dr. S. Vasudevan, Kathak exponent Dheerendra Tiwari, Odissi exponent Lipsa Satpathy and Bharatanatyam dancer Dr. Varun Khanna. Bharatanatyam dancer Aparajita Sarma was the moderator for the evening.
Aparajita opened the discussion by saying that social media are the tools or apps on which the artistes can share clips of their work or images of themselves and send them across to the masses. The popular ones in use today are Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat etc. Some artistes are not tech-savvy enough to delve into these apps, some do not want to and there are some who ride the wave of the social media. Even huge PCs and laptops are being shunned and smartphones are the preferred instruments of today.
L to R: Dheerendra Tiwari, Dr.S Vasudevan, Aparajita Sarma, Lipsa Satpathy, Dr.Varun Khanna
Dr. S. Vasudevan: I am still a student when it comes to all these tools and this digital revolution. There is no proper awareness and education about the social media. In India, the internet is cheap and even before we realize it, we have already shared our information with the world. I do not think - and I am proud of the fact - that to progress in my art, I need digital platforms. The process of my learning is very organic, human, full of conscience and spontaneous. Everything is available to us; we do not belong to it and vice versa. We simply use it as long as we don't enslave ourselves to it or start to come under its spell. I still believe in the sanctity of my art form and my thought process. The word for it in English is creativity and in the language of dance, we call it the manodharma. I use Instagram not out of choice but as an obligatory official commitment, because if you do not post anything or you do not 'like' anybody, people come to ask you whether you are still practicing! So if you do not 'like', you are not 'live'. I feel very sorry for the digitally blinded masses - please become aware of your humanness. We are human bodies and not digital bodies. Imagine a world that is free from online networks, a world that is more human than digital. Let it be a world for art, by art and from art, through art. Artistes are organically human bodies and minds and want to be human.
Aparajita: So if you don't post anything, it means that you are not working. On this note, I would request Dheerendra to give us his views. He is a dancer who does not post much on social media but when he does, the likes shoot up.
Dheerendra: I am on every single social media platform - you name it and I am there, whether it is Snapchat or Instagram. But I do not share too many posts. I keep a close eye on all but I do not post anything till it is necessary. And Prathibha Prahlad ma'am mentioned recordings - if we do not allow phones or any other device in the auditorium, it will be difficult to make a recording of any performance. We cannot do without social platforms either. What we are saying is not for the general people, it is for the people sitting here, people who practice dance, who know the human aspect of it. We are forced to update ourselves.
Lipsa: I started appearing on social media with a profile which was created by someone else, not by me. Gradually, I learnt to upload pictures and videos. As artistes, we do want our work to be appreciated and all the appreciation we get helps us. It was a gradual process and then I thought that it was not a bad idea to be visible. It was a meandering stream that I embraced and wanted to go with the flow of it.
Varun: I started with Facebook when I joined dental college in Chandigarh. Chandigarh then was not so rich in its populace of classical artistes, and I used Facebook to keep in touch with the artiste fraternity. At present, the Chandigarh media - let's say the newspapers - have gradually deteriorated, and there is no reporting even of the schedule of events, when and where they are happening. As an artiste, it was very disappointing. I would not know when and where artistes were performing. Through social media, I learnt of performances in other cities also and I would inform my friends and relatives in other cities to watch the performance. And then you can post small clips or reels. It is beneficial to artistes and to the people going to watch as well. Snapchat is a waste of time, with all its silly filters. The most useful are Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp. I am active on these four.
Aparajita: Another point of discussion is posting when you have the content and creating content for posting because you have to be visible constantly. One of my friends here told me that developing content and then posting it is a separate job in itself. Events do take place, but not at regular intervals. But for periodic posting, you need to create posts.
Dr.S. Vasudevan: Yes, definitely. If you have to post regularly, then you have to create content. This is what I should be wearing, this is how I should be photographed, this is what my makeup should be, these are the colours I should be wearing, these are the filters I should be using - this a separate art altogether. And as Dheerendra put it, it is a responsibility, since you are a living, active artiste. And stress on the 'living', because if you are an active artiste, you have to 'live' on social media. Being active on social media is a separate engagement. So put only the required amount of time, mind and energy into it as is required, otherwise it is a demon that will consume you. Remember that little is more. Be brief and short in your exposure on social media. Just share the required amount of content.
Aparajita: Very true. And we see that Dheerendra posts very few times on social media but when he does, it really gets a lot of hits. How do you prepare your content?
Dheerendra: I do not develop the content; I make a video. I do not even know how to edit a video; I have to ask one of my students to do it. I have to add here that this is a game of pixels. At any time, we might see Madhubala acting in a new movie. The pixels can be made to create images. After a few years, this technology will have been developed. Every artiste should be cautious in whatever he or she is creating, because after a few years, our pixels will be dancing. I have an example to give. A little while back, I had gone to Ludhiana, one of the richest cities in India. One filthy rich lady comes to Sangita didi in a Bentley in full style. She told didi that she has told her friends she is learning Kathak, she wants a 30-second reel to post on social media and she is ready to give that much money for it. In three days, didi taught her to do ek do teen chaar footwork and the sound of the ghunghroos and footwork didi was giving from behind. In 30 seconds, the lady lived her Kathak dream by making a reel.
We should be responsible and choose our audience, whether we want millions of followers or a few thousands. I don't create fancy videos or try to sing or do something different. People are very smart, they create a content bank. Those who do this are more visible and earn through it. If I post some content for 3 days, the fourth day the app starts asking me, hey Dheerendra, do you have something on your mind? It is a beautiful medium but it has to be used wisely.
Aparajita: Varun, how do you create content for your reels and other platforms?
Varun: Creating content for social media is like creating for the live audience. It involves a creative thought process, mind work and hard work. A few years back, I lost my father. I was without work, sitting at home without knowing what to do. I started making short videos anywhere in the house, even in my garden, and started sharing them on social media.
Aparajita: He did 100 days of dance and posted a reel every day. That was a marathon.
Varun: It is not easy to do. It requires shooting, editing, giving captions to the sahitya and making it interactive.
Aparajita: All of us artistes here face the issue of copyright. We put out our pictures, our videos and our work out there on social media platforms and it can be plagiarized. As Dr. Anita Ratnam said, if you want to share your work, you must share it right from scratch, otherwise it will be picked up by somebody else. So how do you go about it? Has your work been copied and how can you protect it?
Lipsa: If you ask about my personal experience, no, it has not happened to me. But we should not be so careless about sharing our work. Sometimes our music is picked and used to make a video on YouTube, which may not be a classical performance at all. So, one has to be extra cautious. We have to be very careful about the copyright issues and protect our work from being copied by unscrupulous people and put to wrong use.
Aparajita: As the discussion comes to an end, we can summarize that social media is neither our friend nor our foe. But it is there and we cannot deny its existence. We have to update ourselves, like we have from live orchestra to records, cassettes, CD, pen drives, laptops, mobiles and many more technological advancements in the future. So be mindful, don't be so pushed, just gradually meander through it and embrace it finally, like the younger generation of dancers.
The two discussions were very thought-provoking. I felt that all the speakers had presented their views well, with many images and information to back their opinions. The two moderators were also very eloquent. The classical arts have been around from the time mankind evolved. They are still the bearers of the cultural evolution and will always be there in the future as well. If any technological development helps in enhancing them, it should be included immediately. The technology is for the dance, but we don't need to either dance for technology or let technology rule our arts. Social media is just like the physical form - social gatherings. If it works for you, fine, go with it, and if doesn't, just excuse yourself from the party.
Shveta Arora is a dance-mad writer who chronicles classical dance events in Delhi (and also those online). In 2009, she started the blog Kala Upasana at delhiculturecomment.blogspot.com, where she began posting her own writing along with photographs clicked by Anoop Arora, her husband. She's been dancing all her life as a devotee, but resumed her formal training in Kathak in her 50s and has passed her fifth year Kathak exams.