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)