We asked a range of dancers, including choreographers, journalists and academics, from established practitioners to those at earlier stages in their careers, for their perspectives on classical dance in India now and in the future. As one might expect, there was agreement in some areas, dissent in others. We summarise their responses here.
Is Indian classical dance evolving, or does it risk becoming a museum piece?
There is a consensus that, as Debanjali Biswas says, “artistry in classical practices is a long continuum. There are many hands and voices which give classical dance its shape.” Suhani Singh is optimistic: “The current crop of young dancers ensures that it won’t be a relic of the past that’s exclusive to only a few. Through their performances, dialogues and teachings, they want audiences to see an ancient tradition through a fresh perspective.” Aditi Mangaldas agrees: “Yes, it is most definitely evolving. Which means that eventually it may evolve into something quite different from how we know it today! That is the basic tenet of evolution and as long as we are aware and sensitive to inevitable change, dance will never become a museum piece.” However, Urmimala Sarkar Munsi comments that “in the realms of classical dance, the resistance to any evolving mechanism or individual innovation is almost as strong as the anxiety for its survival… Among established dancers there is a very strong sense of territoriality and related resistance to any change.”
Can dance be a viable career?
It is difficult for dancers to make a living from dance – “only a handful of practitioners – the most gifted, the most devoted, the most determined – can make a living out of it” (SS); although “passion coupled with preparedness and practice [can] make it an enriching career, if not entirely viable” (DB). “Unfortunately in India, dance is not a viable career option if the meaning of ‘career option’ means to earn money. One dances because one has to, there is no other option… There is a vibrant and dynamic corporate sector in India and tons and tons of dance talent… what one needs are bridges between the two. Then it will be a viable option!” (AM). There is limited patronage of dance at the moment (USM), but perhaps there is hope for the future – Arshiya Sethi argues that following the Indian Company’s Act of 2013 mandating a 2 per cent spend of profits for Corporate Social Responsibility, “never has there been such a wide open world”. We do not yet have information about how helpful this has been for dance.
Is there is a paying audience for dance?
A culture of ticketed performances is lacking in Delhi or Mumbai (AM, SS) and the willingness to pay for tickets often depends on the fame of those participating in an event. “Unless there is some legendary dancer involved, the number of people buying tickets to watch performances is a small one” (USM). Also, unfortunately “there is way too much mediocrity. Hence audience-building [becomes] very difficult” (AM). Excellent work is needed if a paying audience is to emerge (AM, AS). Suhani Singh has been a programme director of the Raindrops Festival of Indian Classical Dance (Mumbai) for the last five years. She writes that free performances engage audiences less and do not encourage respect for the art forms:
“Last year we put our foot down and said that we would no longer have free entry. I was frankly tired of being part of a movement that says ‘we want more people to attend so let’s keep it free’. It isn’t fair either to the artist or the independent cultural organisation that viewers don’t pay for the classical arts…we were asked why we suddenly decided to charge – it was mostly free for the last twenty-five years, but we knew it was time for a much-needed change. I don’t think audiences can be cultivated for dance by spoon-feeding them with free recitals. We need to encourage their participation in the arts and one is to say ‘Please respect the art form and pay the donor card/ticket fee for it.’”
Who is learning classical dance and are there enough high-quality teachers?
There is no shortage of students of classical dance. For some, dance and music are a hereditary tradition (DB). Others are keen to learn, but may or may not have high-quality teaching (AM); and there are those who learn but need the commitment to pursue the form and an awareness that “the journey to be financially independent is a fraught one” (SS). Aditi Mangaldas tells us she only has four students: “But I am very happy to say that each of them has over thirty to forty students! I feel that there are enough youngsters who want to learn classical dance.” This seems to be a common pattern (USM) and “many small schools have mushroomed in all big cities as well because many aspiring dancers start teaching small numbers of students in order to make a living” (USM); but too often “the problem is mediocrity again in the teachers. We do not have institutions that can nurture and give an overall but excellent quality education in dance. Most institutions lack visionaries, their tunnel vision again breeds mediocrity rather than excellence” (AM).
Where do you think Indian classical dance will be in fifty years’ time?
DB: It will flow naturally, both replenishing and exhausting itself, informed by new practitioners, choreographies, texts, poetry, politics and as testaments of a past well lived.
AM: If we have the courage to see that change is the only constant, that preservation lies in harmonious change… If we are open to let our dance breathe the air of today, if we let our dance age and thus grow with us… I see our dance flourishing and being right there on top of world dance, where it should be.
USM: A creative yet respectful understanding of the beauty and form these dances offer will hopefully lead dancers to engage in newer ways of exploring these forms of dances in their choreographies.
AS: It will be alive, flourishing and more engaged with the world and other arts, I hope in the pursuit of creating a more just and responsible world order.
SS: I can only hope that it sustains itself. I’m frankly more worried about the solo tradition. There is a craze for group choreography which I think is adversely affecting solo dancers… There needs to be appreciation for those who stand tall on their own.
DB – Debanjali Biswas is a graduate student in social anthropology and dance studies at King’s College London; she is a manipuri dancer.
AM – Aditi Mangaldas is a leading kathak dancer and choreographer who has used her knowledge and experience of kathak as a springboard to evolve a contemporary dance vocabulary, infused with the spirit of the classical. She has performed in major festivals across the world and heads the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – the Drishtikon Dance Foundation, based in Delhi.
AS – Arshiya Sethi is Managing Trustee of Kri Foundation, arts commentator, dance critic, columnist, author and currently post-doctoral Fulbright-Nehru scholar of dance and cultural studies from India, at the University of Minneapolis.
USM – Urmimala Sarkar Munsi is a faculty member at the School of Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a social anthropologist, dancer and choreographer trained at the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre, Kolkata.
SS – Suhani Singh is a Senior Associate Editor of India Today magazine, the leading English weekly in India. She is also the programme director of Raindrops Festival of Indian Classical Dance in Mumbai. She learns kathak from her mother, Uma Dogra.