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Bharatanatyam for sale
- Concerned Artists from India and North America

July 31, 2011

There is a disturbing and growing trend of exploiting Bharatanatyam artists from India when they come to teach in North America. We have heard of several incidents when the artist from India discusses the terms of the teaching work involved and the amount to be paid over the phone with teachers of Bharatanatyam located in the US and in Canada. Sadly enough, the verbally agreed upon terms are often violated in terms of the artists from India being made to work inordinately long hours, and often held in limbo without any payment at all until the end of their time with a specific teacher. Worse still, at times, the US or Canada-based teachers back out of the payment altogether citing that the artist's work was not satisfactory; this is often articulated only after the India based artist has provided much time, energy and labor with two to three weeks of teaching.

Apart from these dishonest and egregious practices, there are other problems that are on the rise - financial and artistic - in this exchange of artistic knowledge. The teachers in North America often "buy" new items from the Indian visiting artist, including the music for a certain sum of money. This item then is taught to many diaspora students into the future by the North America based teachers who ultimately make a lot more money on this one item than she had paid to the Indian artist. The students pay the North America based teacher a certain amount to learn a new "item" from a visiting teacher from India. This amount collected from several students is not fairly distributed to the visiting artist who is paid a fixed amount while the North America based teacher makes a lot more money.

Artistically, in Bharatanatyam training, students are ready to learn different items such as a sabdam, or a varnam, or a padam at different stages of their learning process. It is highly problematic to teach a padam (that requires advanced training) to near-beginners.

Additionally, the visiting artist is "sold" to diaspora students and parents as the "authentic" bearer of dance knowledge and culture since s/he is coming from India. This notion simply fetishisizes the notion of authenticity and is a limiting way of judging artistic caliber.

These scenarios make the Indian artist highly vulnerable in being exploited both in terms of her labor as well as economically. Many artists from India travel abroad in order to supplement their incomes and are willing to put in long hours of work in training diaspora students but they are not being fairly compensated.

Apart from the disturbing practices described above, we have also heard of a horror situation of near house arrest when a visiting artist from India was staying at the home of a teacher in the Toronto area. The teacher wanted the artist's passport as if she could not leave Canada when she desired. The artist was treated very disrespectfully throughout her three-week stay when she put in many hours of teaching. She often did not have enough to eat. She was kept in the dark about phone calls from friends in the US. Ultimately, she was not paid a penny for all her work since the woman who hired her claimed that she was "not satisfied" with her work even though via email this artist was promised at least $750, and "promises" of supplemental income - none of this ever materialized. Worst of all, fearing that she would be kept as a prisoner in that house, the artist from India had to make an escape with her luggage fleeing to the home of a sympathetic student who gave her refuge. Although this artist had all the required work visa permissions to get paid and could have called the police, it is highly intimidating for someone from India, not used to a foreign culture and legal procedures to take this step. However, this issue needs to be dealt with and challenged by concerned members of the Indian diaspora community including artists, dance students, and art supporters to ensure that such injustice does not continue.

To that effect, in consultation with legal counsel, we suggest a set of "best practices" that both artists and teachers who hire them would be well advised to follow:

Artists from India should get the following items in writing from their prospective hirers:
i) An agreed upon number of hours of work per day, not exceeding 8 hours-whether it is 3 days, a week or more. Fee to be worked out prior to start of work.

ii) Half of the agreed upon amount should be given to the artist from India upon arrival (after all s/he has been hired since her/his work is known to be reputable), and the other half at the conclusion of the time-period.

iii) The level of students to be taught should be discussed and different amount of fees must be charged for beginners versus advanced students.

iv) A set fee for nattuvanar work for arangetram

v) A set fee for arangetram preparation

vi) The cost of "new items" - choreography and music. Different amounts to be set for a 20, 30, or 45-minute items.

vii) In addition, when "new items" are "sold" to diaspora students, that revenue should be shared between the artist from India and the North America based teacher.

viii) Local transportation within the US and/or Canada should be covered by the hiring party.

ix) Set fee for a 30-minute performance; or a 1-hour performance

x) Visa costs to be divided among the North American teachers who are hiring the India-based artist.

xi) Traveler's Insurance cost to be divided among the North American teachers who are hiring the India-based artist.

xii) Reasonable accommodation arrangements to be made for visiting artist from India including meals by the hirer with no additional charge to the artist from India.

We trust that these "best practices" will assist India-based artists to protect themselves from exploitative practices and that the sharing of knowledge across national boundaries will be a rewarding experience for all involved in these exchanges.

In addition, we include a "Sample Agreement" to be amended as appropriate for individual artists and organizers hiring them.


So who is going to stand up for the foreign students who are being exploited by the Chennai teachers? After quitting their job, leasing thir home, disrupting all relationships and responsibilities at home to come overseas for extended periods, paying what amounts to at least 1 moth salary just for airfare, having to find and pay for a new place here (all this is proveded to teachers who come west), then being charged 800 or1000Rs per hour, which is the going rate in Manhattan (NYC) and rarely charged even in US? If you are not in US? why charge a US rate? Don't we all wish we could pretend to be on Park Ave. so we could charge $100 USD per hour? Alas, we are not. Foreign students in Chennai should be charged as all other students in India are.
- Anonymous (Aug 17, 2011)

The horror story seems like an extreme case. For the sake of any artist who may wish to visit you, should post details and allow public disclosure. If such details are not provided then there is no way to substantiate that it actually occurred. Finally, there are always two sides to the story... Perhaps the artist was threatening the teacher or mistreated a student? There are cases where the artists from India take advantage of generous hosts. They commit to everything before they come but later they never follow their commitments. Artists from India often come to make money in the west. Tthey are not interested in spreading the culture or promoting the art form. They are only interested in money. If their demands are not fulfilled, then they threaten the host or abuse the students.
- Anonymous (Aug 25, 2011)

Go to Chennai or any other place in India and say that you are from US or Canada and want to learn dance, the fees that the experts ask immediately shoots up 2 or 3 times the actual fee.

Everyone evaluates their circumstances and then decides what is best for their own situation. An artist getting an opportunity to travel, perform and teach in US or Canada not only gets financial benefits buts also gets many non tangible benefits like increase in visibility, future calls to other foreign countries etc. So they have to consider all the factors, costs involved etc before they come up with any terms. They can decide whether or not to sell an item at fixed cost; the buyer has the right to decide whether he/she will agree to such a transaction. For example, the seller/tailor of a dance dress can ask that he/she be paid a portion of the amount that the artist gets whenever they wear his/her costumes.

Best practices are good reference points, but remember that the sponsors of visa also endure lot of risks and costs. Also most righteous artists in US and Canada respect their visiting counterparts and go out of the way to make them comfortable. The situation described in this blog may be far and few.

- Anonymous (Feb 17, 2012)

I completely agree. The artists/gurus visiting from India, take advantage of US or Canada teachers, they charge double or triple the amount. They travel to other countries not to spread the Art but to make money. This should stop...
- Anonymous (Apr 17, 2014)

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