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Ageism and Dance
(Excerpted from the narthaki Discussion Forum)

May 21, 2008

Even the best of dancers, when they grow old should limit themselves to teaching. Recently I was watching this dvd by an old guru - I could not sit thru even one item. I liked the one by Sudharani Raghupathy, it was bearable, but the other one.... it's nothing to do with their knowledge, but at seventy you can't expect them to hop like a16 year old.... if one passes his 12th grade with top marks, doesn't mean he is a topper everywhere and all the time he lives.
- Ajaz (May 7, 2008)

Most of the changes associated with aging may be normal but are not natural. I would LOVE to see a 70-year-old hop like a 16 year old. It is beautiful to see older dancers still being physically active. I would say if you have taken the effort to keep up your physical appearance and fitness along with your artistic abilities, why should you stop dancing? I know at least a few 70 years olds that run 5 + miles daily and at least one 102 year old that bikes on a regular basis. So why should any Bharatanatyam dancer give up what they love to do - perform, just because of age. Seeing older artists perform gives me a glimpse of what potential lies in a human being and how we can certainly break the barriers imposed by generations of wrong lifestyle choices (rather than age) if we try.
- Vaidyaga (May 7, 2008)

Please tell me who are those 70+ dancers, who hop and dance like a 5yr old? The aging is normal and natural too and so is the loss of grace to a larger extent. But if one is exceptionally talented, then the choice of dances does play a very important role. While in Bharatanatyam, sadly, the oldies get a pass and popularity for making faces while they can't do a single trikaala jati. Or just a single jati.. What do they want to show/prove? Their knowledge, and prowess will be much valued when they share it very generously with the younger talented generation.
- Ajaz (May 7, 2008)

I hope you feel that way when you are 70. There are older dancers who can dance quite well...such as CV Chandrasekhar. I am a physician by profession and also pursue Bharatanatyam. I see a lot of variability as far as aging is concerned and I can definitely say age is what you make of it. If dancing and performing is someone's passion, they should pursue it and age should definitely not be a barrier. I have seen several 70 year olds who are fitter than 20 year olds, and as Ramaa Bharadvaj wisely said in her article, Ageism in Dance, "You don't have to turn 45 (or 70) to let your body go to the dogs. You can do that at any age, in which case you should not be dancing anywhere ... not on stage, not locally, not abroad, not even in your shower, especially not there that could be dangerous!"
- Vaidyaga (May 7, 2008)

This 83-year-old one hops better like any 16 year old dancer found in lazy India:

Was Maya 83 years in the pic given? I don't think so and I definitely don't think that she could hop like that (shown in pic) at 83. Good dancing is nowhere related to popular dancing/dancers. I think Sudharani Raghupati is wonderful, but she could/did not do a single jati and one can't expect perfect or a normal araimandi from her at this age.
Whatever anyone says, it's an eternal truth that body wears out over time. Here I am not talking about knowledge or popularity, I am talking of that araimandi or doing a jati in 3rd speed or the complex trikaala jati that's done in the beginning of a varnam. Yes, one can wear out at 20, but can bounce back too, but at 80 one definitely wears out. Again, its not just about good health and fitness, but the fact that your knees were not like before, your skin has so many wrinkles and your waist has not got that appeal anymore, given the fact that one has a couple of children meanwhile....
- Ajaz (May 8, 2008)

Ajaz, we are not talking about classical vs popular dancing.

I think you are too stupid to presume that everybody is in the same shape and fitness at a certain age. You assume too much without even bothering to check out first. If a dancer stopped taking care of herself decades ago, it does not mean that everybody else is like that too.
- Dancer (May 8, 2008)

Thanks for the quote about stupidity. I don't take offence. On the contrary, I pity your understanding. When I quoted Sudharani, I am not assuming everyone is of same fitness and shape. All I was saying is, it's only natural for dancers or any human being, life form to wear out over time. Whether or not you take utmost care, your body does get old and obsolete. The only point is how long can you postpone this aging depends on how well you take care of the body. Especially for women, who have had children, it's a little more difficult.
- Ajaz (May 9, 2008)

Again, it may be normal for organs to wear out with age (normal is what happens with the majority), but it is not natural. A lot of the changes associated with aging can be prolonged / reversed and this has been scientifically studied. Athletes, who stay active and incorporate resistance training in their routine, can prevent the muscle atrophy associated with aging. Same thing goes for cardiovascular fitness. If the right lifestyle choices can help us stay younger, then are any of these so called "wearing out of organs" due to age, or is it more due to unhealthy lifestyle choices? Also please note that association does not imply causation. So, in the face of such empowering research findings, why are people still being so conservative / close-minded and making such regressive statement about age. If anything, we should be inspired seeing older dancers and encourage them. If at 70, you choose to not dance and resign yourself to sitting at home and complain about your bodily aches and pains and your limitations, you can most certainly do so. But please allow others the liberty to do what they what. And by the way, there is no reason why a woman who has had children should be less physically fit or age faster in the long run. If anything, bearing children has some protective effects against certain types of cancer. Where are you getting these ideas from? Please educate yourself about science before you make sure statements.
- Vaidyaga (May 9, 2008)

Thanks for the insight, Vaidyaga. Now, you mistook me. I am talking of those people who have not taken any above said interests and it's just a pain to watch them and be conned while they get the advert of being such a rich source of knowledge on dance. While bearing children, most of the older women do not interest themselves in getting their waistlines in shape. I am not against any scientific results/research- my father in law has a few patents to his name, neither do I say these people sit at home and complain about their body pains etc. All I request is, when you know your body is no more taken care of, please don't con us by releasing a dvd with those adverts. Now you might say, one should do a little research before buying, but normally one doesn't do that because one trusts. Like the example I had first quoted...!!
- Ajaz (May 9, 2008)

This is an article written by me when a judgement took place in a court between Komala Varadan and Indian Council for Cultural Relations:

Some sections of the print media reported that the petition filed by the 60-year old Bharatanatyam dancer, Komala Varadan asserting that her name should be under the performing artists' category and not under lecture-demonstration category of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations was rejected by Justice AK Sikri. The ruling pointed out that the rule of the organization being challenged does not allow a dancer above 45 years of age to give performances.

This ruling might have the made the officials of the ICCR, a Government sponsored organization under the Ministry for External affairs, happy since this organization is responsible for sending musicians and dancers to various countries to strengthen cultural relations. (Has the ICCR been strictly adhering to this rule?) However this judgement will indeed spark-off a strong opposition among the classical dancers in India.

There are two sides to this rule. It is different when old dancers perform in India because the audience knows the mythological stories they enact and appreciate the nuances and bhakti rasa which a dancer is able to portray after years of experience and maturity. However these aspects are not relevant at all when they dance abroad. How can they know Tamil padams or Surdas bhajans? It is perfect body and movements that matter for audiences abroad.

Exponent of Bharatanatyam, Geeta Chandran points out: "It is body that matters for dancers and audiences abroad, and not the mind. I have seen Leela Samson and Alarmel Valli at their best after 45." Instead of not sending old dancers abroad we should make foreign audiences understand the Indian context. This issue needs to be debated.

Shanta Sarbjeet Singh, senior dance critic and committee member of the Sangeet Natak Akademi remarks: "Dancers who are near being senior citizens should diversify into full time gurus using their great experience and knowledge towards the young and the new generation. They can do research work in many hidden areas of the classical arts. I applaud the judgement of Justice Sikri in the context of it being focussed on presenting classical dance abroad."

Senior most dance critic Subbudu says, "Natya Shastra prescribes very rigid standards for a dancer's personality. They are more strict than international basic standard. Age certainly has an adverse effect on dancers, both female and male. As the ICCR and the court have correctly said, those dancers above the age of 45 can give lecture-demonstrations instead of solo dance performances. Otherwise dancers with disappropriate bodies would invite demonstrations outside the auditorium."

There is another angle to this issue that needs to be looked into. Supposing the dancer retires after the age of 45, will the Government take care of their expenses? While India boasts of its cultural heritage, it is a fact that the country does not have a clear-cut cultural policy. Such issues will crop up till the Ministry of Culture formulates the much-needed cultural policy.

If the Sangeet Natak Akademi has the authority to decide whether an art form is classical or not (recently SNA announced that Sattriya of Assam will henceforth be a classical dance form), why should not this so-called apex body draft a cultural policy for the nation? Perhaps they are busy organizing festivals to celebrate the golden jubilee.

Can the Zonal Cultural Centres do something? No. Because IAS officers head them who might not even know the difference between Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi.

There is no hope even if the Government makes a committee to look into this matter. After spending so much money on the high-powered Haksar Committee, which looked into the functioning of Government sponsored cultural bodies, no one bothered to implement the recommendations made by the Haksar Committee.

It is time that the dancers who refuse to retire even after 60 realize the harm they are doing to the art form and to themselves. They should instead promote themselves to gurus, experts and researchers and contribute to the development of classical arts. They can start dance companies and present choreographic works, conduct lecture-demonstrations, guide the young and be happy.

However only time will tell whether rules or rulings will be implemented or not by Government cultural bodies. As long as the term 'exceptional' exists in the Government of India, even a 70-year-old dancer might find a place in international dance festivals representing India. Since some of the leading dancers have politician boyfriends, officials will be happy to process the file saying: 'may be considered as an exceptional case.' Like they say: Rules are for fools.
- GS Rajan (May 12, 2008)

I completely agree with you. At this point, I am looking for a concrete action plan or an idea that I can and we all can contribute to make such cultural policies to come into play.
Often such serious issues are just discussed and left off. This is not what I am looking for. Could you please guide how and whom to approach for such tasks. I want to take it forward.
- Ajaz (May 14, 2008)

I have read with interest the debate on the appropriateness of aged dancers performing on the stage instead of limiting themselves to lecture-demonstrations. There is so much, perhaps sarcastic, reference to an old dancer hopping on the stage. But Bharatanatyam is much more than hopping or jumping (utplavana). Abhinaya is an important, perhaps the most important, element of the dance form and it has nothing to do with hopping or ageing. One can do it while sitting. Old timers remember the stellar performances of Balasaraswati, who could mesmerize audiences even when she was middle-aged. I specifically remember her visit to Honolulu (Hawaii, USA) in the 1960s, where she gave a dance recital at the East-West Center. The audience consisting of students, scholars and the general public from USA and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region living there were just surprised by the expression of myriad emotions portrayed by the artiste. It was a rasanubhava of adhbuta. It had nothing to do with her age.

When great dancers perform, their art raises them above their physical personalities and the rasika sees only the artistry and not the artistes. Otherwise they will simply be out of circulation.
- Natya Sastri (May 25, 2008)

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