Thursday, May 18, 2017

Choreography of Group work - My talk at RASA Seminar, Narada Gana Sabha, 14 May 2017

The call for papers for this seminar asked either gurus or young dancers to share their experiences of choreographing or participating in group work. In a manner of speaking, I am neither. Now in my early thirties and having performed professionally for over fifteen years, I probably do not classify as a ‘young’ dancer. I am not a ‘guru’ or tremendously experienced choreographer either, having seriously ventured into the world of teaching and choreography only half a decade ago. Instead, I present to you a perspective of a young choreographer of group work. My dance company, Vyuti, has been in existence since 2013-14, and started performing only a little over a year ago.

While contemplating the content of this essay, I came to realise that in my short but illuminating experience with choreographing group work, both challenges and strengths have been of two kinds - creative and practical.

When I was faced with the task of conceiving a group in 2013, the challenges emerged almost instantly - choreographing group work in a way that hadn’t already been explored was one such creative challenge. Although Bharatanatyam has largely been a solo dance form, the last two decades have seen a lot of group work emerging. That is a lot of years of work by many well known and experienced dancers and gurus! So my first challenge became to gain clarity on what I wanted to achieve through my group work and how it differs from the already existing body of group choreography in classical dance.

It became clear that I wanted to examine traditional pieces from the margam, through multiple interweaving bodies. Investigating the idea of interaction between multiple dancing bodies, through eye contact and physical touch, I wanted to explore how solo traditional pieces transform when conceived as an interactive group form. How an alarippu, for instance, done by three interconnected dancers instead of one, would transform the piece. And indeed, what it would do to the dancers! I knew this was a different exploration than the kind done in at least some of the other group work that had emerged in classical dance - whether traditional dance-dramas or thematic group choreographies. I conducted similar investigations into the formats of a jatiswaram and tillana, and am now working on a varnam.

Another creative challenge surfaced when I realised that while I have always recognised the modernity within Bharatanatyam, many people see ‘modern’ and ‘classical’ as mutually exclusive. In my group work, I wanted to display the modernity that I believe inherently exists in this tradition. For this, turning towards other dance or movement vocabularies to fuse them with Bharatanatyam was neither possible, nor desirable. My challenge was to demonstrate modernity within the Bharatanatyam tradition, and not outside of it. This required a deep investigation into the Bharatanatyam technique and grammar.

One of the dangers of investigating newer ways to engage with classical dance techniques is that it sometimes requires ‘manipulations’. Its important to know that changing something that is so inherently logical and sensible like an adavu runs the risk of disrupting that logic and sensibility. The ‘manipulations’ one introduces then, must compensate for this loss by introducing something new but more importantly - organic to the form. As a group choreographer, an important challenge was to create these new innovations without compromising the existing form.

Practical challenges were equally overwhelming. I did not have a strong group of adult students whom I had had the opportunity to train over several years. I’ve only been teaching for a few years, and most of my students are children. I had to seek out dancers I had not personally trained, but had the potential to adapt well to Vyuti’s vocabulary. Not being their “guru” and sometimes working with dancers my own age or even older, some of my dancers have, on occasion, faced challenges with regard to my authority as Artistic Director, but these were quickly overcome. Keeping a steady group of permanent dancers has been a struggle because I cannot pay them enough to demand their full time commitment. This lack of permanence of dancers is partially linked to another challenge - that of funding. Without financial support from governments or cultural bodies, Vyuti has been entirely self-funded and self-built. This is not an easy task for anyone who’s primary income comes from teaching dance and performing! Juggling between teaching and managing my own solo work, along with trying to do managerial work (that included negotiating with organisers of festivals, juggling all the dancers’ schedules for rehearsals, finding rehearsal spaces and funds etc...thankfully I have an efficient and positive manager now) choreographing and dancing for Vyuti has been one of my biggest practical challenges as a young group choreographer.

But I cannot deny that choreographing group work has its creative and practical strengths too. And I came to recognise this as quickly as I did the challenges. Creatively, one of the biggest strengths I drew from group choreography was consciously building a collaborative atmosphere that allowed for some creative input from my dancers. To be able to openly and without judgement, discuss and physically engage with my ideas in a safe environment led to various unexpected moments in Vyuti that even I didn’t anticipate would enter Vyuti’s repertoire. Engaging with group work also gave me an opportunity to discover that multiple bodies offer multiple possibilities, not more than but differently from the way working with a solo body does.

Finally, leading a group made me realise that working together consistently instills a sense of family. At least that’s what happened with the dancers who haven’t come and gone, but have stayed with Vyuti - we are fiercely loyal to each other and the work, creating a sense of solidarity and togetherness that is, for obvious reasons, missing in solo work. The dancers have been invested in Vyuti, not just in terms of dancing, but in other ways - they’ve felt strongly about the concepts and ideas I’ve engaged with, the music I have used and even the way the costumes are tied. The dancers, protectively looking out for the future of Vyuti, continue to provide information, whenever they get wind of it, regarding platforms where Vyuti can get performance opportunities and visibility. It was two of my Vyuti dancers who brought my attention to this seminar and urged me to write this essay. Vyuti, in many ways, is now a collective vision - with multiple brains working on how to take it forward, instead of just one! That is an enormous strength, in my view. And one I am deeply thankful for.

To conclude, as a young choreographer, conceptualising and creating a group has had its fair share of challenges - both creatively and on a practical level. The challenges have tested me, and sometimes my patience and peace of mind. They have also strengthened me. In my view, if the group functions open-mindedly, the leader of the group and dancers have mutual respect for one another and everyone is deeply invested in the work collectively, the strengths of choreographing group work can eventually overcome the challenges. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

"Empowering Oneself" - A talk by Aranyani at International Women's Day celebrations, NMKRV College, Bangalore

Good morning everyone. 

First of all, I would like to thank NMKRV College for inviting me to talk as a woman achiever about empowering oneself on International Women's day. Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Aranyani and I am a bharatanatyam dancer. And obviously, as you can see, I am a woman.

I consider myself to be an empowered woman. I made a career for myself in a very difficult field, I am financially independent, and within my career, I am pushing and breaking boundaries whenever I can. I chose a path that is unconventional, and I have made a mark, however big or small, in that path. But empowerment does not end with your careers and what you make of yourself.

It is surely an important and crucial stepping stone to achieving self-empowerment, but is that enough? As I began to think about what I was going to say to all of you, this question brought many, many different answers. And not all the answers were necessarily connected to one another directly or leading up to one big conclusive answer.
Empowerment is something we often seek from society, from our loved ones, from our peers. But it is not often that we search within ourselves to become truly empowered. It is certainly true that the people around you can either help or disrupt your process of empowering yourself. Loved ones and larger society can make this process either easier or very much more difficult. But first and foremost, it lies within your own minds. It has to start there. If your friends and family support you, it will be easier, and if they don't, you will have the added task of reasoning, arguing and even fighting with them for your empowerment, but it has to start with the belief that you deserve empowerment and the resolve that you will be active enough to seek it out.

Yes empowerment is getting a job, being financially independent, and making something of oneself. Empowerment is success, in some ways. But on a much more basic level, empowerment is something as straight forward as being able to have a strong, independent voice as an individual and to have the freedom in society for that voice to be heard.

No matter how many qualifications and degrees you have, how successful you are in your careers, or how much purchasing power you have, if you don't strive or even fight to have a voice - in every aspect of your life - then you are, I'm afraid, not truly empowered.

If others govern which stream of education you will pursue, and it is not the path you ideally wanted to choose, you are not truly empowered. The youth loses artists, intellectuals, athletes, sportsmen, musicians and dancers everyday, because these career options are sometimes not considered to be 'financially viable' options. So children are thrown into law, medical, engineering or business schools, even if they have a genuine talent for the arts and no interest whatsoever in law, medicine or business. This is a theft of empowerment. And often it has grave consequences. Not long ago, a medal-winning teenage swimmer committed suicide. She was fifteen, and was afraid of failing her exams. If she had been encouraged to pursue her swimming, she would've lived in an empowered manner, and we would've gained a brilliant swimmer. Tragically, society did not empower her and she was too young to empower herself. I was an above-average student in school. I did well in subjects like political science, history and english. I even sought to do a degree in Political science at one point. But before I even left school, I knew that dance was what I wanted to do - where my mind wandered and my heart truly lay. 

And despite a degree from St.stephen's college where I stood first in the college in both my 2nd and 3rd year and a degree from Oxford university, I decided that it had to be dance that I engaged in for the rest of my life. Of course, my parents' support in this was crucial, and I understand that not everyone has parents who would support such a radical step. But I think I would've pursued this career even if I didn't have their support to begin with. One of my dancers from Vyuti left a lucrative corporate job to pursue dance against her parent's wishes. This is also an example of truly empowering oneself. Today, she teaches, works with me, and her parents have no choice but to accept the path she has chosen. Another of them has an MBBS and is choosing dance over a secure private practice in medicine. Yet another is a trained paramedic and the youngest is juggling between her college degree in psychology and dancing with me. These are empowered dancers, with agency - who've carved their own footprints into the world of dance, despite easier options.

Moving on -  if someone else governs with whom or how you will spend your adult life, you are not truly empowered. Whether it is your agency in choosing who you will spend the rest of your life with, or how you will spend it - if this agency does not lie with you, then again, you're letting someone else decide a part of your life in which you should have a primary say. Because it is your life, and you have to live it - not just for others, but also yourself. Living for yourself is a big part of empowering oneself. This does not mean you should live selfishly, not caring about your surroundings or the people around you. But it means you have to have the knowledge that sometimes, pretty often, but not all the time - you have to put yourself first. Don't become a shadow to a brother, a husband and later on, a son. Be someone in your own right. I don't think I would have ever been able to pursue this career, travelling the world on dance tours and starting my own dance company if I had not been able to choose who I would spend my life with or how I would spend it. And if I had not, sometimes, put myself first. I didn't do it by putting my husband or family down, or by ignoring them or my home. I had to find a balance, in which I could do both. In other words, I had to organize my life in a way that I could do both. I could not have done that if I didn't empower myself to have the agency of deciding my own fate.

Third, and this is connected to the second point - there is a lot of pressure in India for a woman to adapt to changes in her life. Whether its marriage, or having children  or her responsibility to the household. Many talented and intelligent people have fallen by the wayside in their careers and passions after they have gotten married or had children. The household becomes the primary concern of the wife and mother. Many women do not even think twice before sacrificing SO MUCH of who they are and who they've been for many years.

Getting married or having children does not mean your career has to end, or that you have to become ONLY a wife or ONLY a mother. You can be many things at once. Its not easy, but its not impossible! Working class women do it all the time, under terrible duress and destitute circumstances, so why can't we - in much better circumstances? One of my friends danced through her pregnancy, and another won a place in a dance residency 3 months after her baby was delivered. Becoming a mother does not mean you have to give everything else up! Neither does becoming a wife. Husbands are grown men, quite capable of looking after themselves. Its high time they did, and let you do your job, as you let them do theirs.

I'm not saying don't contribute to the household. As a wife and mother, you do have a responsibility towards it. Quite like a husband and father has a responsibility to the house and should contribute. But a man also contributes to society by working and interacting in society. And so should you. Contribute to society - whether its as a doctor, a social worker, a dancer, a journalist, a writer, a potter, a chef, an accountant - whatever. Don't confine your life to the house. This is the 21st century. 

Don't put yourself down by believing that you cannot contribute to society, and certainly don't feel you shouldn't be someone because you'll bruise your partner's ego. Someone once told me - "I want a man who is more qualified and more successful than me". WHY, is my question? Why 'more'? This kind of thinking actively disempowers you! This is not to say that you should not look for a successful and qualified husband, but why make the comparison? Your success and his should be independent of one another! In fact, I'll amend that statement to say that your professional lives should enrich one another's, you should both be striving and pushing each other to be better at what you do. There should be a sense of equality and reciprocity there. One person's empowerment should not become another's oppression. That is not healthy.

Another very important means to empowering oneself is to develop the ability to distinguish good from bad, and right from wrong. This is a rather underestimated way to empowerment. The ability to receive information in an informed, educated and just manner is a gravely important personality trait. To be able to view the situation before you objectively, looking at the facts and sensitively basing your values, principles, opinions and beliefs on THAT - rather than being swayed by misinformation, rumour and prejudice - is a powerful empowerment tool. Whether it is your stand on social, political or moral issues, or your views on life in general, the strength and courage to hold your ground on opinions that are backed by fact and reliable information, despite the general sway of dominant opinion is something that can empower you, even in realms of your life that go beyond your personal life and professional life. In a world where media, particularly social media is increasingly becoming a weapon to spread rumour, prejudice and misinformation, the ability to rise above that because of a fair-minded openness to the truth makes this tool not just capable of empowering you, but also determining the KIND of empowered person you will be.

Yet another crucial empowerment tool is to reject male-dominated media-driven notions of the idealised female body. Stand up against the objectification of women in the media, whether it's adverts or television serials or movies or a Bollywood 'item' number. Reject these notions of only thin being beautiful or only fair being beautiful. In a country of diverse ethnicities, it is empowering to stand up against these often unrealistic and flatly narrow ideas of beauty. Reject size zero, reject fair and lovely. Fight against that relative or friend that says you won't be successful if you are heavy set (I'd say voluptuous) or dark (I'd say dusky). Define your own idea of beauty and celebrate your body, whatever size shape or skin colour. That is empowering.

And finally, if you yourself are the perpetrators of patriarchy, then you can never be empowered. Without even realizing it, we as women validate patriarchy by accepting it as custom/ritual/the way things are or by silently tolerating and even endorsing derogatory stereotypes.

A mother-in-law demanding dowry at her son's wedding will never be empowered. Not only that, she is dis-empowering the future daughter-in-law as well. Dowry is not only a crime, but a practice that deeply undermines the empowerment of a woman. To the extent that the undermining begins even before she is born. Female foeticide, female infanticide, acid attacks on women and harrassment are very often the result of this oppressive practice. And if women themselves do not put an end to it, or at least resist it actively themselves, then how do we even begin to talk about empowerment?

Similarly, a mother who allows her daughter to fall back in her studies by making her daughter's marriage the primary concern will never be empowered. And she robs her daughter of it too. In extreme cases, female family members don't just rob their daughters of empowerment, but even their life. Honour killings are a gruesome example of how a woman is disempowered, and by condoning it, some women actively entrench these terrible crimes against women and their empowerment.

There are many other things, that exist in less extreme but much more pervasive ways - a woman accepting the idea that she is dirty when menstruating or participating in a mysogynist festival like karva chauth without understanding the underlying harmful patriarchal ideas there - is a woman who perpetuates ideas of patriarchy and does not strive towards empowering oneself. Many women practice this ritual because the older generation of women have either practiced it or urge them to practice it. It is also attractive because it's fun to put henna on your hands, buy bangles and for the women of the house to spend the day together. I admit, a lot of women do it just for the fun of it, and don't care about the deeper, darker side of it. But beneath the surface there is s lack of understanding about the deeply entrenched patriarchy in this ritual. It asks you to fast for your husbands long life. And in some ways is linked to the idea that you must do this because you need him in a way that he doesnt need you. Because who is fasting for your long life? Why isn't anyone? The fact that this ritual is not reciprocal makes it inherently unequal. And inequality and empowerment cannot go hand in hand. Question rituals and practices before blindly making them a part of the rest of your life. Why can't you and your partner hope for eachother's long lives by cooking healthier food together? Or pushing each other to exercise? Or making sure you both go for regular health check ups?

Similarly, women who agree with negative sexist stereotypes such as 'women are bad drivers because they lack spatial intelligence which men have' (someone actually said this to me), or 'women are emotional, men are rational' or 'men are meant to be the breadwinners, women are meant to stay home' or 'dancing is not a career for respectable girls' or 'women shouldn't hang out with men who are not their relatives' (this harmful stereotype was used as a reason for the gruesome rape of Jyoti or Nirbhaya) – women who dont stand up to these sterotypes and advocate it themselves are never going to feel empowered. In fact, such women actively 'disempower' themselves.

To conclude, in my opinion, the only way to empower oneself is to have a strong inner voice, and to express that inner voice in all walks of your life - professional and personal. And understand your self-worth. Don't let anyone undermine that. In fact, you have to talk to friends and loved ones if they are doing it. Because as you can see from the examples of my life, empowerment is more easily achieved if you have the support of the people you love. But ultimately, know that only you have to begin the process of self-empowerment with yourself. You have to free yourself of over-dependence in your homes, and free yourself of patriarchal ideas, prejudice and narrow and homoegenizing notions of beauty. In other words, to begin the process of self empowerment, you have to free your minds.

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

“Pause and Replay - Dancing to the tune of Capitalism”

In India, and in several other parts of the world too, a career in dance is associated with financial insecurity. It is certainly not true of the world of dance alone. Indeed, other artists also truly fall prey to the stereotype of ‘the impoverished artist’. But young dancers in India, have a particularly hard time finding the balance between investing in dance full-time and making ends meet financially.

Why is it particularly difficult for young dancers? It could be argued that musicians and visual artists too, need to find this balance between creating art and staying financially afloat. It is not the intention of this article to belittle the struggles of other artists. It is certainly true that many musicians have to hold full-time jobs along with their musical practice. Visual artists too, need time to create works of art, which a full time job may take them away from. But why dance is still a little different from the other arts in the manner of finding this balance will hopefully be clear shortly.

Classical musicians in India usually perform solo and in that, their struggles are similar to that of dancers. But they also perform quite often as accompanists to classical dancers. In that, they do not incur any costs of performing. These are all borne by the dancer. Additionally, the dancer also pays them for their accompaniment. A dancer, however, does not perform for a fee at a musician’s concert. In that very simplistic sense alone, a classical musician’s struggle differs from that of a classical dancer.

A music group or band also differently manages finances from a dancer in India. They are often invited to perform at venues such as bars or festivals where owners of these bars or sponsors of alcohol companies get to make huge profits from selling their product at the venues, and therefore payments to bands are usually enough to sustain, at least the band as a whole, if not the band members individually. Of course, this is not always the case, but it is almost never the case with dance. Dance organizers often invite dancers on the premise that the dancers will have to bear the costs of their own travel, stay, and the payment to their musicians, due to poor or no sponsorship.

Bands also sell merchandise like t-shirts, badges, CDs that additionally support the bands financially. A dancer certainly cannot sell t-shirts bearing photographs or logos of himself or herself, nor is making a profit by selling DVDs of their work a regular practice.

Visual artists are a whole different story altogether. They create art, and then they sell it. Many painters and sculptors make a lot of money by selling their work at exhibitions. They are able to sell their art in a way that dancers and musicians perhaps cannot.

So, while their struggles are all legitimate and valid, the struggles of artists are often distinct and unique. Whatever their struggles are, each artist dreams of a world where they can focus fully on their art, without worrying about how to pay the rent, and support their families, their interests and most importantly, their art financially.

Teaching a Kalaripayattu move at a school in Delhi
It is this dream of being able to fully focus on their art that leads artists to other avenues for a stable income. Financial stability is needed to support art. But the time and effort art requires does not always leave room for a second job. This creates some turbulence in the career of artists, and dancers. Many dancers have been through this turbulence in their dance careers, including myself.

A year or two ago, I turned to a job for a stable income, and have returned to full-time dancing very recently. For as long as dancers can, they work and perform in a freelance manner, managing themselves as their own agents, and negotiating with organizers for payment. They also simultaneously build relationships with dancers, dance scholars, critics and musicians; and teach dance for some income. But like I was, all are used to the fact that being a dancers meant that there would be times when there is no money and there will be times when there’s enough.

At first, I too freelanced. I took up projects that interested me, I performed, and I taught dance. I, too, didn’t worry about financial stability or saving money for the future. Dancers can’t afford to think about the future, because there is too much happening in the present. You could lose an opportunity in the blink of an eye! But not worrying about finances, after a certain point, becomes an impossibility. Dancers, like everyone else, live in the real world in which money matters. One cannot dance one’s way out of paying rent, or electricity bills or buying food.

No one truly gets used to the uneasiness of financial uncertainty. So when the opportunity to teach dance at a well-reputed school presented itself to me, I seized it. After all, there are many stories out there of dancers who are engineers at IT companies by day, and dancers by night. And many stories of musicians who are digital media consultants by day, and musicians by night. The struggle between financial security and artistic creativity is legendary and historic.

But now that I look back at the last year or two of teaching, I realize that I had unwittingly paused my dance career by taking up a ‘job’. Adjustments that I thought were little, and plans that I thought could be postponed, turned out to be big adjustments and lost opportunities.

When commited to a job, a dancer may have to make a number of compromises. The number of times a performance opportunity has to be declined because it is during a working week, or how many times a dance workshop or a dance residency is missed because it clashes with work hours inevitably starts to weigh heavily on a dancer.

Dance is also a very physical practice. Arguably more physically exertive than some of the other arts. It requires a certain time of warm up before a rehearsal can even start. And it requires hours of practice. A ‘cool down’ is also necessary in order to avoid injury or strain to the joints, muscles and tissues. All this is, besides being physically exhausting, also incredibly time consuming. With a full-time job that leaves you physically and/or mentally exhausted, to then go into a physically demanding multiple hour rehearsal seems like an impossible task. To dance, one needs time and space. Not just physical space, but mental head space as well.

Too much time on the job, and too much time away from dance, is devastating for a dancer. It can quite easily lead to an identity crisis. I am a dancer, but I am not dancing! What does that make me? What emerges is a very real worry that after all those years of dedicated training, performing and building relationships, he or she would slowly fade away from the memories of rasikas and dancers. This worry began to plague me too. I decided to leave my job as a ‘dance teacher’ and get back to being the ‘dancer’ that I had always been. But this decision is not an easy one for anyone to make.

Performing in Anusha Lall's 'Tilt'
Dancers’ financial troubles magnify when they choose to dedicate themselves fully to dance. So before we ask ourselves why dancers take up other vocations in order to support themselves, it is important to remember that. Without a stable income, she or he cannot even support or sustain the dancing, leave alone survive materially in this world. Like everyone else, they yearn for financial independence and stability through what they professionally chose to do, which a career in dance doesn’t always provide. A doctor, for instance, trains tirelessly for many years, and struggles, I’m sure, to pay for that medical education. But once a medical student becomes a doctor, and starts his or her practice, he or she can financially sustain himself or herself through what he or she trained for so long to become. And a doctor can do this without taking an evening job as a tutor or something completely unrelated to his practice, like a gym coach.

A dancer, more often than not, has to either teach or do some other job unrelated to dance to be financially secure. In today’s relentless capitalist world, the arts do suffer. Dance does suffer. It doesn’t make financial ends meet, and it does require full-time attention. It then also suffers in another way - because parents don’t want their children to get embroiled in this kind of work. I have even heard dancers discouraging their sons and daughters from following in their footsteps, saying ‘its too hard’. With parents not wanting their children to take up dancing professionally, they often don’t send them for training regularly either, and this in turn, also adversely affects a dancer’s income who may be trying to support himself or herself through teaching dance. It’s a vicious circle deeply embedded in today’s income-driven world.

Looking back at the era of the devadasis, it is peculiar that some look at that era as purely an era of shame, something that shouldn’t or needn’t be addressed or talked about when discussing the history of dance. Yes, the devadasi system underwent a period of decline, thanks to colonialism and a post-colonial need for an ultimately misguided sense of nationalist pride. And admittedly, despite its positives, it was still a patriarchal system controlled by a male guru, patron and priest. But the system itself was fiercely supportive of dance and its female dancers. Devadasis were educated, very well-respected and received extensive patronage. They were given so much support from their patrons – in terms of land grants, support for their offspring, shelter and so on. They were encouraged and were able to train in their art form for several hours in a day. It was their job to train, improve, invest and engage with their dance as much as they possibly could in a day, every day till they were physically able to do so. And they did.

It could be appropriately argued that the patrons were so generous because of the benefits to them. It is true that devadasis often had sexual alliances with these men, but more often they became life partners out of wedlock, rather than a one-time affair. And reading into the way things worked at that time, it appears that the patrons were not as concerned with sexual gratification by the Devadasis than they were with the promotion and support of their art.

Of course, things are different today. And in many ways, thank god for that. Dancers are not systemically obliged to perform sexual favours for patronage and support. Nor are they under the control of a potentially exploitative system, which the devadasi system could be. Without a doubt, the nature of support has changed. Patronage has also taken a different meaning in contemporary society. But in some ways, the support for dance has diminished from that time to now. Where temples and kings used to provide complete support, now government institutions and patrons do not. Dancers can rely on their families and friends for some support, but there are only a handful of dancers who have the financial support of their families, and many of them understandably take that support.

However, there are also scores of dancers who cannot afford to do that. They have bills to pay, and have to support families themselves. There are also dancers who have the option of taking that support, but don’t want to. Many dancers have embraced contemporary society’s need to be financially independent, self-reliant and proactive. And why shouldn’t they?

It is this need to be financially independent and self-reliant that leads dancers to intermittently put a pause to their dreams of dancing full-time. And I believe it is the love for dance, its magnetic pull and its utter 'irresistibility' that makes dancers also repeatedly release that pause button, for their own sake and for dance.

(This article is to appear in 'Attendance' journal shortly)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pause and Replay: Why I paused my 'dance career' and came running back

I moved to Bangalore in the winter of 2011. In terms of my career, the move was simultaneously easy and difficult. Easy because as a solo Bharatanatyam dancer, I was not tied down to any particular city to help my career flourish. But it was also difficult because in this new city, I was not known at all. I had laboriously built a small reputation for myself in the Delhi dance circuit. Delhi audiences had at least seen me dance every now and then for a decade since my Arangetram in 2001. I had also built relationships – with other dancers, with dance scholars, dance critics and crucially with the brilliant musicians who would perform with me. Moving to a new city meant rebuilding all of that here.

At first, I freelanced. I took up projects that interested me, that I’d heard about through word of mouth, I performed with them, I performed my Bharatanatyam at all the festivals I could possibly find in Bangalore regardless of how much (or how little) they paid, and I continued to travel to Delhi and abroad to perform. I also taught Bharatanatyam at home, and taught yoga at other people’s homes as a personal instructor. That whole first year, I didn’t worry about financial stability or saving money for the future…I was used to the fact that being a dancer meant that sometimes you would have financial security and other times you wouldn’t.

But really, no one truly gets used to the uneasiness of financial uncertainty. So when the opportunity to teach dance at a well-reputed school presented itself to me, I seized it. The way I looked at it, I would go to work during the day, and rehearse in the evenings and on the weekends. I would also be able to accumulate some savings for a secure full-time dancing career in the future.

At first, it seemed to have worked out perfectly. A few days after I joined, I was gone on a dance project to Trivandrum to work with Daksha Sheth. When the summer holidays at school arrived, I did my performances and I had time to arrange a few performances in Delhi. And over the course of the year, I didn’t have to worry at all about finances.

But now that I look back at the last year or two, I realize that I had unwittingly paused my performing career. Adjustments that I thought were little, and plans that I thought could be postponed, turned out to be big adjustments and lost opportunities. The number of times I said no to a performance opportunity because it was during a working week, or how many times I missed Bragha akka’s Bharatanatyam workshops in Bangalore because it clashed with my work hours started to weigh heavily on me. I was suddenly aware of how tired I was during rehearsals for my own project – that the dancers who wanted to work with me on the project were more aware, awake and alive – than I was, after I came home from work. I found myself missing out on dance events because after a long day at work, the prospect of driving for an hour across the city to watch a performance or attend a workshop seemed like an impossible task. As for my performing, I went from performing several times in 2012, to performing twice (only once in India) in 2014.

Before I knew it, I was in the midst of an identity crisis. I am a dancer, but I was not dancing! What did that make me? I worried that after all those years of dedicated training, performing and building relationships, I would slowly fade away from the memories of rasikas and dancers. That I would slowly become invisible in the world of dance. After all, to be remembered in the dance world requires visibility. And dance, like any other skilled activity, requires a lot of practice. It also requires thinking space through which innovative ideas develop during practice. I was slowly losing all – visibility, regular practice and creative head space.

I decided to leave my job as a ‘dance teacher’ and get back to being the ‘dancer’ that I had always been. Last Friday was my last working day. The goodbyes were sad. I will definitely miss the school I taught at, and all the people in it. I am yet to figure out how I’m going to manage the financial part of reliving the life of a full-time dancer, and I’m sure I’ll miss the financial security. But then I tell myself, at least I won’t miss dance.

When it was suggested to me that I write about this experience, I realized that this would be a very personal and biographical article. But while writing, it has become clear that the article is not just about me. This must be the story of many dancers in India.

Why do dancers sometimes have to give up dancing ‘full-time’? Because they yearn for financial independence and stability, which a career in dance doesn’t always provide. A dancer, more often than not, has to either teach or do some other job to be financially secure. There are only a handful of dancers who have the financial support of their families, and many of them understandably take that support. But there are also scores of dancers who cannot afford to do that. They have bills to pay, and families to support. There are also dancers who have the option of taking that support, but don’t want to. Like me. And so, dancers have to sometimes put a pause to their dreams of dancing full-time. And hopefully, at some point, also release that pause button, for their own sake and for dance.

(A modified less personal version of this article is to appear in 'Attendance' shortly)

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Drawing the Line

There was a time when ‘Indian dance’ was synonymous with ‘solo’ performances. With classical dance branching out into group choreography, and with the advent of ‘Indian contemporary dance’, this is no longer the case. In both the classical and contemporary dance scenarios in India, dance troupes and companies are coming into being and expanding; and far less frequently, but silently coming into existence – are egalitarian and democratic artistic collaborations.

Every young dancer who steps into the professional realm of collaborative dance – whether it is joining a dance company where there is quite a gap, hierarchically, between the artistic director and dancer; or if it is doing a project with other artists as ‘equals’ –is faced with the question of where to draw the line.

Before I explain what I mean to say by ‘drawing the line’, I must confess that I do not have the answers to the questions I invoke in this essay. I do not claim to know where to draw the line. But given how several young dancers give up on their aesthetic beliefs and values without blinking, naively believing that agreeing to do anything and everything asked of them makes them ‘open minded’, I thought the question of where to draw the line is worthy of being thrown out in the open.

Let me try and explain what I mean when I talk about ‘drawing the line’. Ideally, a great dancer, after years of rigorous training, develops his or her personal aesthetic and style. Whether he or she remains profusely loyal to a technique, or decides to rebel against it – a dancer becomes known for his or her individualism within the generic ‘style’ or ‘form’ of dance. Therein, at least I believe so, lies the excitement and uniqueness. But therein also lies the complication during collaborations with regard to the question of ‘drawing the line’.

When two or more artists with their individual artistic convictions and aesthetic perceptions enter a common space, there is often a clash of individual identities in the form of aesthetic and artistic disagreements. In an egalitarian collaboration, whose individual vision will prevail and who compromises depends on how the artists negotiate their creative terms. The artists, together in a democratic space, may be able to work out to what extent they are willing to compromise on their aesthetic values before they draw the line.

But what happens in a situation where a young dancer is working under a well-known choreographer, or a young student joins his or her teacher’s dance troupe/company? In other words, what happens when the situation is not equal? When hierarchically, the artists in question are not on the same ‘level’? Does the willingness of a dancer to work under unequal conditions imply a willingness to compromise on artistic values?

It is a well-argued and justified defense that a dancer has the choice to work with one choreographer and not another. On researching the two choreographers, a dancer can make an informed guess at which choreographer is less likely to clash with his or her aesthetic choices. But hypothetically, if a dancer finds himself or herself in a situation where he or she is being forced to dance in a manner that clashes with their artistic and aesthetic values, where can a dancer draw the line? Has a dancer been able to draw the line? Or has the answer so far lied in the extremes – silently compromise whatever needs to be compromised or be forced to abandon the collaboration?

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Elite Art

Recently, there has been some talk amongst the Indian rock and metal crowd about musicians having to ‘pay to play’. This means that instead of artists getting remuneration for performing, they pay a fee to enter the festival as performers. Some musicians have been voicing concerns about it, calling it a dangerous trend. Others nonchalantly stated that this has been the case in a lot of music festivals the world over for many years. None the less, it reminded me of the similar situation that exists in the dance world in India.

Certain festivals or platforms for dance in India have been following this system for several years. It is said that many artists pay large sums to be able to perform in these prestigious festivals. Other festivals may not have this policy of paying to perform, but they offer such inadequate remuneration that an artist does end up ‘paying to play’ in some form or another.

As was the case with the music crowd, dancers are also divided in their opinions about having to pay to perform. Some are vociferously fighting the trend, while others have resigned to adopting the same nonchalance expressed by some in the music world.

As a dancer and a writer, I am entitled to my opinion about this system of paying to perform, but more illuminating than my opinion was an analysis of what happens to art when this system is applied to it. This is not to trivialize what it does to artists – such as the fact that the pockets of artists are hemorrhaging money every time they want to showcase their work, and that artists cannot give their full attention to their art because they must have a steady job to pay the bills - but I have written about this in an earlier article on performance ethics.

The ‘pay to play’ syndrome does contribute to the above mentioned issues for artists, but it also highlights a very specific reality.  In this scenario, there is no room for artists who are gifted and talented, but cannot afford to pay. It forces art into the hands of the relatively more affluent, and snatches it away from the less affluent and the poor.

And yet, rather paradoxically, throughout history and in literature, art has belonged in the realm of the common man, not the elite. Sure, the people that patronized the arts have been royalty and the affluent but the artists and practitioners have not. The devadasis in India were wealthy by patronage, but they certainly did not come from affluent backgrounds. The famous painter and sculptor, Michaelangelo also lived the life of a common man. The birth of jazz and the blues, was amidst poverty. And our very own M.F.Husain walked all over Bombay barefoot, paintbrush in hand, painting billboards.

My intention is not to romanticize the poverty of artists, or to say that artists have always been and will always be poor. That certainly should not be the case. Every artist hopes that he or she will be able to survive and thrive through their art. However, art is not something that can or should be taken away from the common man or the poor.

This syndrome almost declares art to be something like a luxury that only the affluent elite can afford to practice. If an artist cannot pay out of his or her own pocket, they don’t get to show their work. The ‘pay to perform’ scenario is as bluntly simple as that. If you don’t have substantial amounts of money that you can spare every time you want to show your work, then you simply don’t show your work. Then, is the message that is being sent out by the syndrome this – pick up a paintbrush, a musical instrument or a set of ghungroos only if you are wealthy? That, in turn, begs for introspection about a crucial question – is the practice and performance of art only for the affluent, or is it for everyone?

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Peer Pressure

In the dance classroom, particularly in classical dance classrooms, classmates share a long term relationship. Many of them join their teacher when they’re very young and stay with them for several years. This not only makes the bond between the teacher and student a crucial one, but it also binds the students together. “My senior”, “my junior” and “my classmate” identify and label students of dance for the years they study together and even after they have launched their individual careers.

One would imagine that these seniors, juniors and classmates are great friends largely due to the fact that they are thrown into the same room week after week, year after year. They share the same teacher, the same learning material and the same triumphs and anxieties. While it is true that some become and remain friends, it is not always the case.

In the competitive world of dance, classmates do not always look out for each other. They exploit each other, tell on each other to the teacher, and are subtly nasty to one another - fighting for the spot of the favourite student. In reality, this relationship can be very cruel indeed. Of course, not all classroom dynamics in dance are like this, but the grim side of it does exist and it is worth examining.

Some students do fall victim to this cruel relationship. In these situations, at best, some students privately celebrate the failure of their peers, and give bad advice disguised as guidance that will unfavour the student with the teacher. At worst, they lie about each other to the teachers or publicly discredit each other’s talent. The insecurity that drives the competitive atmosphere in the classroom is further fuelled by favouritism on the part of the teacher. Having a favourite student is not wrong, maybe its even natural to be drawn to talent. But blatantly displaying the favouritism can lead to such unpleasant relationships between the students.

Some might argue that competition is healthy and that every classroom – be it an academic one, or an artistic class – has some amount of competitiveness that drives the students to excel. Moreover, some may contend that the will to one day be the ‘star student’ inspires each student to do their very best at all times. But underneath this all, what happens in some situations is a slow sedimentation of an attitude that becomes so deep-set in the minds of the students that it does not leave them even as they leave the classrooms.

As some of these students mature, and step into the professional world – becoming dancers, performers, teachers and/or critics, this attitude wears on. Peers do not have any nice things to say about one another, they do not wish to work together. Not always scrutinized by the gaze of the guru anymore, they put each other down in order to rise high enough above the rest to catch the eye of the public now. Just as they had done previously in the classrooms with their gurus or teachers. One hears and sees that dancers are reluctant to praise their contemporaries, subtly and sweetly criticizing one another. Two dancers cannot work with each other because one dancer is threatened by another’s youth or slim figure. These are signs of disturbing trends, the roots of which may lie in their earlier years of training.

The point I’m driving at is this – it all begins in the classrooms. The professional world of dance will not elevate itself from the petty, backstabbing state that it partially (not entirely) exists in, unless teachers and students nip the problem in the bud.