Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Complexities of Audiences

On the 17th of November, 2010 - I performed at Preet Bhavan, an NGO in a village called Preet Nagar 20 kilometres from Amritsar. The performance was an intriguing experience for me. I was scheduled to perform a shloka, an alarippu, a devotional narrative from the Ramayana, a coquettish Javali, and my new Tillana. I had expected the crowd to be different, but I did not expect what was in store for me. The first few rows were children from the village, then a bunch of rows were farmers and their wives, and the backbenchers were rowdy boys and men, a few of them under the influence of alcohol. Moreover, the sound system had collapsed and the already impatient audience was not willing to wait very long for it to be set right. The announcements explaining the pieces also did not seem to grab their attention. As I stepped onto the stage in the beautiful open air theatre, the hooting and whistling already started. Barring a handful of people who were genuinely intrigued and curious about what they were seeing, a majority of people were disinterested. What followed was constant banter, laughter, whistling and hooting, and more. The organisers looked sheepish at first, but as the performance progressed, they were more and more embarrassed, and towards the latter half, were so infuriated by the audience that they stopped my performance before I went on for the Tillana.

After they decided to cut short my performance, I sat in the the dusty room which was the 'green room' letting past conversations with dancers come floating into my thoughts. Conversations about how audiences don't appreciate dance, and how certain places are just inappropriate for a 'holy' dance like Bharatanatyam.

At first, as I stepped into the green room between the first and second piece, I identified what I was feeling as a sense of frustration. How could the sound system collapse suddenly when just a few hours earlier, the music for my dance pieces were blasting through the speakers? Why were the announcements being repeated more than once? Who were these people that had gathered?

As I went on to perform the piece from the Ramayana, I found myself gauging the reactions of the audience with apprehension in between verses. Understandably, I was momentarily shaken out of the joy and complete abandon I usually feel when I'm on stage. Though the hooting still continued in spurts, I saw the looks on some of the childrens' faces. They were laughing in bits, but at other times, they were quite transfixed. In the next pause I had, I saw the men and women sitting in the middle rows - they, too, seemed to have settled down, and were straining to watch the performance through the crowds that were getting up to leave even as the piece was still going on. By the end, when the organiser told me - 'We're stopping it. You're being disrespected and we can't tolerate that', I found myself telling him - 'I don't feel disrespected at all. Whatever is happening is only understandable'.

And really, wasn't it? I was dancing a 'high art', a predominantly upper-class dance form that mostly metropolitan cities of India were familiar with, that mostly the elites are exposed to - for an audience that had only ever seen Katrina Kaif and Malaika Arora dance on television, and whose ears were accustomed to hearing Punjabi beats and songs sung typically in Delhi at wedding sangeets. Was it really their fault that they were reacting the way they were? They had never seen Bharatanatyam being performed before. They didn't know how to react, how to sit through a classical dance performance, when to clap, whether to cheer or not, and what to say.

The experience took me back to a conversation that took place on a public forum in Delhi regarding audiences. There, dancers clashed with a university student over the question of whether or not dancers should adapt to their audiences, what it meant to pandering to an audience and where it is and isn't appropriate to perform. I suspect that some dancers would've felt humiliated and disrespected in the position I was in, at Preet Bhavan. I felt different though. I did not pander to the audience at all, but if I was asked to perform there again, I would not dream of refusing. And I'll tell you why. After the performance, a tiny bunch of very apologetic villagers and townspeople approached me to tell me how wonderful they thought my performance was. They also said - 'we/those villagers don't know how to behave. Please don't take it badly'. One comment moved me specially. A couple came up to me and said in punjabi - The people have never seen anything like this before. It was wonderful that Bharatanatyam was brought to these people. They haven't understood it, and some showed little patience for it, but some of them really enjoyed it. And the next time they turn on the tv and they see something that resembles Bharatanatyam, they probably won't change the channel immediately. It's a start. Specially for the impressionable children.'

I was quite moved by those words, and stood by my decision to do this again even more strongly. Of course they didn't understand what was going on, and it was completely understandable that many of them left. But I don't believe that the audience was to blame. I later reflected on my role in making my performance accessible to them, and found that I could've made the announcements shorter, I should have come out and explained the pieces myself - demonstrating the mudras as I spoke so that it was easier for them to follow the story. It would be arrogant and presumptious of me to expect that they should understand, and too bad if they didn't. It was my responsibility to my audience. This doesn't mean that I am pandering to the audience. It just means that I am communicating differently. So yes, in that sense, I would adapt to the audience. What is wrong with that?

Admittedly, as an audience, they had a responsibility as well. But only someone who is aware of their responsibility can act upon it. These people were experiencing a completely new phenomenon, and it is our fault as dancers and patrons of dance, and the fault of the government whose cultural bodies are only promoting film-based dances in India and abroad, that they don't know how to react at a classical dance recital.

If I am asked by the organisers to dance there again, I will definitely do it. And I will adapt my performance to suit the audience. I will simplify the explanations and demonstrate the pieces differently. How else am I to reach out to a new audience? I cannot afford to conduct the performance as I would conduct it in New Delhi. I have to conduct it like I'm performing in Preet Nagar. Does this mean I lower my art form? I don't think so.

At the end of the day, its a matter of perception as well. I could've focussed on the fact that many of them left, or I could've remembered that many of them stayed, despite not understanding. I chose to take back with me, the memory of the latter interpretation. And I will go back there to perform again, and I will have to adapt to the my audience. I will do it, knowing that they will understand better the alien form before them, and that therefore they will be the better for it. And so will I.