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Response to
Past Forward by Anita Ratnam

Dear Anita,

I don't understand why you decided to club a few unrelated issues together.

When a dancer's arranged marriage breaks up, even though it is typically a result of clash of big egos, it is very beneficial. The dancer can at last focus on the dancing (well, learning tango or salsa has a zero spiritual value, unlike the classical solo!). And more of the young, unmarried dancers will understand that Leela Samson is perhaps luckier, happier and less lonely. Even the other well-known "single" dancers who have had a lot of boyfriends and break-ups are happier and have had a richer life. As far as I know, the rate of divorce now is the same in Chennai as in London. It should spell the end of arranged marriages and should render the army of half-baked astrologists jobless. Of course, women are poorer off when a marriage breaks up. So it is a wise solution to see your husband once a month only. :) We pay for our own illusions: this is the law of karma.

I don't understand why new modes of physical training should result in losing the audiences if these modes are better than the old. All "experimenting" and "innovating" can move in two opposite directions. Either you become a Disneyland artiste and entertain the VIP and business elite with jumping around in burkas or performing cheap circus gimmicks in torn jeans with a punk hairstyle, or (which happens much more seldom) you seek to discover something that would spiritually enlighten you and the audience.

The "classical dance kinetics" is classical because it has survived through millennia. It has deeper, spiritual roots that feed it throughout the spells of cultural draughts. Nobody will remember tango in 200 years' time. Pop/folk culture fads are short-lived. Classical dance kinetics in itself, a mixture of desi and margi, is a vague notion and embraces a variety of styles from Odissi to Bharatanatyam. If Michael Jackson would copy the animal kinetics, the authentic Indian classical dance kinetics does not originate in the animal kingdom or some rationalistic concepts that can fool a grant maker or a gullible corporate sponsor but are devoid of all life.

There is indeed something vague that we may call "the classical aesthetics," but no seasoned Vazhuvoor style dancer or Odissi exponent would consider a clumsy Kalakshetra dancer as aesthetically pleasing. They would rather watch a beautiful and graceful flamenco dancer. After all, isn't the Kalakshetra kinetics so obviously borrowed from the Italian ballet? Should we adopt the Disneyland aesthetics and replace the Nataraja statues with Mickey Mouses in our temples? Let's throw out all Shilpa shastras and watch American cartoons, right?

When you say that you have only hopes for the developing contemporary dance scene, you probably mean to say that most of the "classical" dance innovations and experiments of the 19th century will die out along with the pseudo-classical inventions of the last century. The current desi elements will undergo transformations too, but the margi will always stay. I personally find the Tanjore Quartet heritage very boring. Unlike the"classical" abhinaya gurus who manage to perform all 8 nayikas to the same repetitive tune, many Hollywood film directors are not so dumb and can employ good music composers who understand the mental states much better.

It is remarkable that the solo dancing is on the wane in ICCR's cultural export. It is a proof that the government's empanelment procedures have failed. Now they understand that nobody wants to watch a middle-age "performing" hippo producing some funny expressions on the stage. The "serious professional artistes" finally realized that they are neither serious nor professional, and that many hobbyists and part time dancers are actually much better.

If theatre in India is thriving with tickets being the norm, it is because they understand the Vachika and Satvika abhinaya much better than the "classical" dancers, and try to adapt the presentation format to the audience. Typically, when a classical dancer performs today, hardly 5% of the audience understands the words of the song.

As for the intellectual centre of Indian dance shifting outside India, it may be true. But the aesthetic and spiritual centre will always remain in South India, as will the best dancers. To say that the technical standard of Bharatanatyam in Madras has fallen far below those in Bangalore, US and UK is to demonstrate one's ignorance. I suggest you conduct a Bharatanatyam contest (make sure you attract the talented dancers, including the "professionals", somehow) here and see for yourself.

Ashwini Shankar
(Aug 2, 2010)

I am going to address the second debate and ignore the first one. Let me take examples of two judges on reality shows, one in India and one in the US.
    1. Sharon Osborne on 'America's Got Talent': For the benefit of people who don't watch the show, Sharon was judging one of the Bollywood dance troupes in the current season. In the first round, they did some Bhangra, Bollywood mix and got through to the Quarter Final. In the Quarter Finals, they mixed contemporary with Bhangra and Bollywood and were kicked out of the competition. More interestingly, Sharon said before they got kicked out,"If you get voted on to the next round, I want to see less contemporary. I love seeing the original flavor in all its uniqueness and I care less for the mixing of styles."

    Take home message: There is always a market for Original even if Sharon Osborne as a westerner had a perception that Bollywood was 'not a mix of styles.'

    So, dear Anita, as long as the supply is brilliant and unique, there will always be a demand. Now, the rise of contemporary has less to do with the classical dance itself and more to do with the ease of interpreting and using new age music and literature. Majority of people brought up in India at any point in time have had no interest in spiritual issues or the artistic brilliance of our literature and music. That has always been the case. The absolute number of people who understand without explanation, an age old kauthuvam or a varnam, have always been handful. What is this sudden insecurity about not being able to reach out to masses? Even if a small crowd, the pleasure of performing without explaining 'story' and 'hands' to a discerning audience is invaluable. That's why people throng to Chennai. If I am dancing in praise of Shiva Linga and someone comes up to me and asks,"Why do Indians worship God in the form of genetalia?" I lose him in the level zero of artistic perception. The average rasika in Chennai is so much more learned than any abstract art critic who sees 'the throngs of pain experienced by the protagonist in someone who has used dark blues and greys to compliment the mood and the sound of whistling of leaves to symbolize the turbulence in his life.' NO wonder the sound and light technicians love working with contemporary artists. There is so much to do. If I had the sound of whistling leaves in the middle of a virahotkantita nayika, Ashwini Shankar and Lalgudi Jayaraman would tear me to pieces for ruining their Saveri with some technology crap. Aamir Khan (I can't believe I am quoting him!) in 3 Idiots said, "Work towards excellence and not towards success." Foreigners flock our soil for its uniqueness. No matter how well you dance Salsa, there will always be someone tons better than you in Cuba. It is their original form of expression.

    Standards in Madras seem fallen to you because people present their art for free. Thus everyone has a shot at it. Artists in India have always been groomed towards learning and less towards performing. Do you think Ashwini Bhide Deshpande is not as 'promising' as Alka Yagnik because she doesn't go on world tours with Bollywood music and only a handful know her name? For centuries, we couldn't have cared less about what fraction of India's population is knowledgeable enough to understand Sanskrit and Tamil and Telugu but one Sabash from the learned rasika and one nod of content from the Guru is what we strived for. Do you want to stoop to the level of ordinary people to elevate them to your level of sophistication and culture? Since when is survival of traditional arts seen from a perspective of its contribution to the GDP and ICCR? How many dancers are excellent but don't get to or choose to be 'professionals'? Does Leela Samson care that nobody marketed enough to hog every Internet site, Wikipedia description and definition of Bharatanatyam with Kalakshetra students? Even if you think all this is an excuse to hide behind the falling popularity of Indian dance, we don't care about popularity. Every mother and father in the US and UK want their children to learn adavus and perform however badly in Bharatanatyam costume and not go and grind in a lame bar in the name of Salsa. It's always been about values and traditions and there will always be people passionate to keep them up.

    2. Terence Lewis on 'Dance India Dance': For those who follow the show, know of this contemporary choreographer who is a favourite among many (read females) dancers and non dancers. It has everything to do with the way he judges. Every other judge judged with vague comments like,"it was nice but not great""it was emotional but there wasn't much dance""you are technically good but you were lacking expressions." Terence changed the whole judging scene from season 1 until now. He would go back to his notes and say, bad points,"1. The back flip you did at this point was clumsy, 2. The hand position in your Chaîné turns was sloppy", but good points being"That split you did right after the 3 cartwheels was a wow moment for me." Soon all judges started pointing out technicalities.

    Take Home message: A dance needs to be 1. Technically brilliant (footwork, body positions) 2. Aesthetically brilliant (your face, eyes) and
    3. Should have wow moments in it (emotionally uplifiting in places)

    Anita, I can give you names of dedicated professional 10-12 youngsters who have given up their careers to pursue classical Indian dance as a career. Navia Natarajan, Jyotsna Jagannathan, Kiran Rajagopalan, and these are just in Bharatanatyam. You want professional choreographers who can create wow moments in Bharatanatyam and not compromise on its grace and technique part? Watch Shankar Kandasamy's choreographies on Youtube. Granted he is in Malaysia (let's face it, people who pay for Indian classical dance are not in India. Eventually people who pay are the ones who are going to get the best and brightest in this 'democracy'), hey but in this age of Youtube being the Sabha where I can replay his Namaste astu Bhagavan 100 times, who is complaining? Youtube is a free service, mind you. People however are slowly trying to make money because that is how you can focus all your energy and make a career out of it. This is not what Indian dancing is about but it soon will be. It has taken 75 years to have the idea that dancing can be a career. It's not yet clear that it can be a viable one. Keep calm and have faith.
Dear Ashwini,
No one cares about your baani bashing. If a Vazhuvoor dancer/Pandanallur dancer/ Melattur dancer has no freaking technique, no left and right symmetry, no consistency in aramandi and thinks that their pretty face, batting eyelashes and perfect smiles on stage can carry on for them to become great stars, they are wrong because people can only admire beauty without technical brilliance for so long.

Ditto for Kalakshetra dancers. If they are technically brilliant in angika but don't work on their aesthetics and wow moments in dance, the only people who will admire you are Kalakshetrians. You are like one of those science nerds. All technique and no charm isn't going to get you a mate or an audience!

Ditto for any dance style. If you think you can sustain dance without finishing your adavus/teermanams and the left side and right side hand positions or footwork don't match, then it hurts my eye and brain and I am rightfully distracted as explained by Bharatamuni. If you are freaking dead in your eyes and face, I am rightfully not engaged. Why would I watch you in either cases???

(Aug 7, 2010)

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