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Dance awards and rewards

November 22, 2015

Trend: National awards are becoming notional and notional awards are becoming national.

When relevance is lost, when anyone with push and pull can get their own children or students or favourites, national awards like the SNA or other state awards, then these awards become meaningless. 30-40 years ago, we used to think that ultimate honour and sign of professional arrival, for a performing artiste, were the SNA awards. It was given in the name of the President of India. The ceremony was simply done in Delhi's only halls of note: the Sapru House or Mavalankar Hall or the Constitution Club. When not available, a shamiana (wedding-type tent) used to be constructed in the lawns on Rabindra Bhavan itself, where the 3 Akademis are housed (the elegant and airy building itself designed by famous dancer Indrani Rahman's architect husband Habib Rahman) in 1960s and 70s and the likes of great historian and culture/education ministers like Maulana Azad or Prof. Nurul Hassan or cultured talents like K.P.S. Menon or Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (who were also its Chairman) used to bestow the awards, when and if the President could not do so.

The whole selection had relative secrecy, élan and dignity. Any canvassing was discouraged, even led to disqualification! But today these awards have lost its sheen when ostensible nepotism, favouritism and blatant groupism seem to have substituted the sanctity of these awards. Anyone can push for their agendas and last few years have seen a slow but sure decline and a certain degradation of standards. It is time Sect. Culture or Minister Culture looks seriously into the workings of these Akademis, run on public monies. And raise important question like: Should one member serve two consecutive terms on the GC (Gen. Council)? While there is no rule, Sect. Culture should make one now, since India has enough artistes to choose from. 50 to 60 years ago, the volume of artistes (to select from) was fewer. When same member gets herself or himself, by hook or crook, on the GC of bodies like the SNA, that's 10 years of dominating a committee! And add awards, grants and sinecures for self and a close coterie. Look at this year's SNA's Bismillah Khan Awards given to novices barely in their 20s, with less than 10 years performing experience. One awardee is the daughter of a sitting GC member! No matter who nominated and who all supported, where are the ethics?

What's the criteria? Some awardees are not even local solo names, leave alone national. Have they done 50 solo shows in last 10 years? Dancing in home productions and groups is not worthy of an award meant for individual excellence, no? When others have 25/30 years work behind, how can 20+ year olds be given this award? Then too, when so many writers, film-makers and other assorted out-of-work thinkers return their awards, did any dancer return an award in the current milieu? No, they are dying for more and has any Delhi or national critic even taken up this issue? No. The last credible and active critic Leela Venkataraman's column in the Hindu was dropped, last winter.

Others have low credibility, or no mass platforms to write even. That's why I am taking up this issue here, so history does not say no voice spoke up. Many dancers in each city openly say "but where are the REAL critics?!" Some aver that “Critics are mostly PR agents; some take money to write reviews or give them a ticket to fly and they will write nice things!” In this scenario, what examples are we setting for young people pursuing dance? Who are the role models today? Gurus are greedy, critics are needy and awards are becoming akin to cricket matches -fixed!

Periya Sarada

The Culture Ministry needs to look into the workings of all Akademis and monitor its core activities that are in the public domain. After all, these are run on tax payer's monies. Where is the accountability? Accountability is returning to Kalakshetra. When a former Culture Sect., Home Sect and CEC himself is the Chairman, it is but natural some discipline will be evident. Trending today is Kalakshetra, which is buzzing with activity. The long forgotten Periya Sarada, who suffered penury and politics at hands of previous decades of Kalakshetra dispensation, was celebrated and spoken of at a special focus on her birth centenary, in September first week. There are now many lectures, shows and special-focus festivals. The comatose place has been revitalized for new winds to blow in. Why, the brand Kalakshetra is even going out of campus to perform locally in halls like Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore or host young talents there. Two years into the job of being director, fine dancer Priyadarsini Govind (we profiled her in Top 10 of This Generation in attendance 10th anniversary issue 7 years ago, when generally all were finding fault with her dance, dysfunctional costumes and overall ability), is working quietly and efficiently.

Sometimes, small is significant. It can be a Sujoy Shanbagh, the 20-year old wonder BN boy of Mysore, getting an award in far away Bhilai or even a Padma Bhushan Saroja Vaidyanathan receiving the Deba Prasad Award in Bhubaneswar. In its 9th year now (though 25 years old, no prize monies were given earlier) the Gajendra Panda instituted Guru Deba Prasad Awards are most sincere signs of guru bhakti. Here is a bit disorganized maverick Odissi teacher and choreographer, who with his own monies awards fellow artistes. How nice. And he does it against all odds. No real state support, no high class event, no fancy hotels to stay in for guests - just a genuine people's festival of 3 days followed by a spiffy award ceremony. This year the awards in each major form went to Pt. Rajendra Gangani in Kathak, Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant in Kuchipudi, senior Kumkum Mohanty in Odissi and Saroja Vaidyanathan for BN. The former Culture Minister (and current Education Minister) of Odisha, Debi Prasad Mishra did the honours with former Culture Sect. Tripathy gracing the function. Two important criteria abound. One, an awardee ought to have received a national honour like the SNA or a Padma and must be able to perform. So Saroja Vaidyanathan, all of 78, danced a deep ode to Shabari that suited her age and ability and Ananda did Tarangam with Rajendra Gangani engaging audiences in keeping rhythm to his raindrops falling, in absence of a live orchestra. In the past, these awards have been bestowed on such worthies as Minati Mishra, Aloka Paniker, Shovana Narayan, Geeta Chandran, Anita Ratnam, Manju Bhargavi...

Guru Deba Prasad Festival awardees

Guru Deba Prasad Award Festival

One award that is given to those who have NOT received any national honour are our own attendance annual awards, given in past to such talents like Praveen Kumar, Rahul Acharya, Madhu Nataraj, Satyanarayana Raju, Navtej Johar, Ramli Ibrahim, Nirupama - Rajendra, Aniruddha Bala Knight, Murali Mohan Kalva, Anita Ratnam, Gurus Bhanumati, Radhakrishnan, Maya Rao and Vimala Rangachar. Within one year of getting this small, insignificant award, many younger ones were noticed and received bigger national awards. So, QED? Small initiatives can make a big difference. The awards are unique that no prize monies are given. Instead, to upgrade their professional skills, the under 50 ones go abroad and collaborate with other dancers/choreographers or companies and already not once (as per reward) but thrice, Praveen Kumar has been to Italy: Madhu Nataraj twice to Italy and Murali Mohan group, once to Sweden. Aniruddha Knight and Satyanarayana Raju got to perform in places they might normally not do - Baroda and Bhubaneswar. Seniors don't need to travel or upgrade at 70 and above age so they get a more lasting reward: a documentation is made on them for posterity. Thus, small awards can be significant and make a difference. The awards are now in its 5th year, so 25 genuine talents in dance have got celebrated when no one even thought of them and to get the award they didn't have to do anything (plead, apply, bribe, cajole, canvass) but just dance!

What's also trending are portals. And new dance sites. Many new ones are coming up and very specialized ones addressing to say, one form, or one region. Watch this space because I can't give away info before these are formally launched. Wait for Pongal or Jan 26th! Or Feb 29th! Also, intensive dance camps and residencies. One from Belgium P.A.R.T.S takes place mid Feb to mid March at Adishakti in Pondicherry and another in Lavasa, near Mumbai in March end. April end is World Dance Day time and that means India's largest single-day gathering at Bangalore. Both camps (Pondi and Lavasa) will select only handful of Indian students to match the international contingent.

A happy trend is many more young people are doing PhD's in dance, worldwide. In India, our universities remain pathetically woeful but internationally a lot is happening. Many write to me seeking info for photos or guidance. My main limitation is space. And digitization. Despite many attempts and empty talks, no one has done anything for MKDC, India's largest dance resource. At a recent lecture on a CENTURY ON INDIAN DANCE at the Habitat Centre, Delhi, two elderly ladies past their 80s walked all the way to the venue (due to traffic snarls, made particularly worse by over 40 visiting African Heads of States, hosted in town) to see Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal in films I was showing. One 95 year old choreographer - Valmiki Banerjee - made the effort to climb steep steps to the basement hall to savour this century, when he himself was almost one. In comparison youngsters are either born brahmagyanis or have no real interest in learning. Either they have Google search on their fingertips or busy posting their faces on FB! They don't read any books and most budding dancers are only interested in the next opportunity to perform. Please, please don't be only performance driven.

Pt. Arjun Mishra and Anuj Mishra

We need a total overhaul of existing patronage structures and attitude to dance art. Paintings sell, music is circulated and get royalties but dance? No wonder, dance is lowest on totem pole of even measly corporate sponsorships. Then too, they will pay lakhs for some starlet from Bombay but not one lakh for a good local, classical or contemporary group. Why? Because when we don't value our own field, when we have such scant regard for ethics and rules, why should others?

Watching Anuj Mishra practice in Bangalore for Rukmini Vijayakumar's festival, just 2 weeks after his father's death made me realize how focused and professional he is. He kept his emotions aside like a first- rate international talent he is and danced on. What sharp footwork, what beautiful and strong chakras. Anuj is born to the manner, as it were. Groomed by his father late Pt. Arjun Mishra, who was sent by his guru the great Birju Maharaj to shape the Lucknow Kathak scene, he is the torch bearer now. After Birju Maharaj, as male soloist there was Durga Lal, then Rajendra Gangani and next generation star is Anuj Mishra, all male - like a lion king!

Far change from some namby pamby lad of Benaras lineage, trying to be propped up on the national stage. He is just a notional talent. We need male soloists, in every form, who look and dance like males. Anuj is one. Any role he undertakes, he looks it. Shiva, as robust Shiva. Krishna, with the Krishna crown and attire (so popularized by doyen Shambhu Maharaj in the Natwari form of Kathak) as Krishna - Anuj looks every bit one.

Another good new talent in Kathak one chanced to see was at Prashant Sastry's festival, Nidhag Karunad. The boy has good foundation at hands of Mysore Nagaraj but bends his knees every time he takes a chakra and he blames it on his Yakshagana background. The festival showcased another fine talent Parvathy Gopalakrishnan. Anil Iyer shows vast improvement over his form, in every which way. Neatness marked his performance. Madhulita Mohapatra's Nrityantar Orissi group was first-rate. Well honed, well knit, they seem to have modelled themselves on Nrityagram polish, with fine lines and choreography. One girl even looked like Surupa Sen, full smiley teeth and all. Why do dancers think they need to smile all through the show no matter what the item? Who taught them that? Her posture was bad though. Two other dancers, one with a bad recording (and worse dancing stamina) were not fit for the professional stage. Why don't organizers think of quality?

Quality ought to be trending. “What's that?” many in India would ask! Quality is what lasts. Quality is about enduring. Quality is about excellence. Try.

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian, biographer, critic and author of many published articles and over 40 books on Indian arts and culture. He served govt. bodies in many capacities and also teaches Indian dance history and aesthetics for university faculties. He is the curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection and chairs the Dance History Society which hosts an annual convention and dance discourses that afford many talents a platform. He has mentored many and instituted five awards through attendance, the dance yearbook he edits and publishes.

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