Asian Music and Dance

Young Voices

No less than the Olympic athletes we might have been marvelling at in Rio last month, musicians and dancers who seek to pursue their chosen art form need support, guidance and opportunity to help nurture their gifts and further their efforts. Their gurus, we know, are most important in forming their artistic foundations. Most of the artists we talked to also spoke of their parents’ support and encouragement – and possibly pushing, at the start. Beyond these, what or who has made the most significant contribution and what is needed now to secure and build on these foundations, as UK artists are becoming more visible in the arts world?

The Musicians

A number of arts organisations have been vital to the development of some of the young musicians to whom we spoke. The initiatives of Milapfest (founded in Liverpool in 1985, with its first youth orchestra created in 2000) and SAA-uk (established in Leeds in 1997) are now bearing fruit, so that a career in classical music is now becoming a serious possibility for British-born artists. GemArts (Newcastle) and sampad (Birmingham) have also been key in providing support.

“…a career in classical music is now becoming a serious possibility…”

For Jasdeep Singh Degun, sitar player and vocalist, recipient of this year’s Yuva Sangeet Ratna award (Young Musician), the greatest influence and role model has been Dharambir Singh, but Jasdeep’s ten years with Milapfest’s youth orchestra and ensemble, Samyo and Tarang, have also been pivotal in the development of skills he is now using as a professional musician. The opportunity to collaborate with other national youth orchestras, with musicians from a range of different styles and backgrounds, including Western classical, jazz and brass band, has given him the ability to flourish now in the context of music in the UK. 

“…Samyo and Tarang, have also been pivotal…”

Khayal singer Prabhat Rao (one of the two runners-up in the Yuva Sangeet Ratna competition) organises ‘In Spotlight’, which is aimed at providing performance opportunities for young musicians and dancers. Prabhat told us that as well as the Bhavan (London), where he studied and which played a major role in his growth, Milapfest “has given me the space and opportunity to learn and grow in music.” Mithila Sarma, artistic director of zerOclassikal, says: “Having been in the Samyo and Tarang for twelve years I have gained so much knowledge and experience for which I am very grateful.” These orchestras have also been a formative influence on some of zerOclassikal’s ‘Basement Series’ musicians. Violinist Kitha Nadarajah (the other runner-up for the Yuva Sangeet Ratna award): “From living, eating, breathing and making music with other music students my age, learning from and interacting with great musicians to receiving performance opportunities in the greatest venues across the country”, being part of the youth orchestras has shaped who she is as a musician. Kaviraj Singh, vocalist and santoor and tabla player, highlighted the opportunities the orchestras provided for musicians from both Northern and Southern traditions to meet and share ideas. 

“…living, eating, breathing and making music with other… students…”

SAA-uk’s regular classes and summer schools in Leeds contributed to many musicians’ careers and lives. Kaviraj attended regularly. Jasdeep said of the summer schools, led at that time by Dharambir Singh (whose name came up a number of times as a profoundly important influence): “International artists were brought over from India to teach us, [such as] Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty and Kaushiki Chakrabarty. Learning basic practice techniques under these artists at an early age really had a positive impact on my progression in classical music.” SAA-uk’s CEO Keranjeet Kaur Virdee “is always there to give advice including when we first started Project 12 (a fusion band)”, says Mithila Sarma. 

Funding Support

The opportunity for UK-trained musicians to travel to India for further training can be invaluable. Flute player Aravindhan Baheerathan won the Asian Music Circuit Award at the Croydon Music Festival in 2007. The £1,500 provided enabled him to advance his training in South Indian music and this “was a truly inspirational experience”.

“The opportunity…to travel to India…‘was a truly inspirational experience’.”

A source of funding that is perhaps not sufficiently pursued can come from companies and businesses with a commitment to supporting the arts. The John Lewis Partnership, Prabhat Rao’s former employer, sponsored ‘In Spotlight’ and continues to do so. On a different scale, Jasdeep Singh Degun has been awarded the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, worth £30,000, to work on a debut album of contemporary and classical music over the next year.

Being A Musician – The Reality

Musicians have to find a balance between art and earning a living. Some work in professions outside music, such as medicine (Aravindhan Baheerathan) or consulting (Kitha); some in related professions (Kaviraj Singh is a sound engineer); others have a mixed portfolio of teaching and administration as well as performance. Jasdeep is deeply appreciative of the insights he has gained from Dharambir Singh, not just into music but “how a musician can lead a portfolio career in teaching, performing, composing, etc. with each strand dominating at various points in a musician’s life.”

“…a musician can lead a portfolio career in teaching, performing, composing, etc.…”

The Gaps

There is clearly the talent, skill and potential for classical musicians in the UK to build viable careers, but it is still a struggle. There were a number of areas of need our musicians identified if musicians are to achieve sustainable and stable careers. 

“…a number of areas of need…”

First, there is a gap in funding and mentorship for professional artistic development at a national level. Musicians need opportunities for advanced training in their art form as well as guidance and advice on the business aspects of how to get a career started: administration, how to access the arts sector as a musician, how to engage with venues, how to seek out new ventures and opportunities. Further, support and commitment from promoters is needed to guide artists and give them the opportunity to perform as soloists as well as accompanists. Performance and the space it provides to communicate with audiences is often what drives the art and impels the artist to take their art to a higher level. Finally, musicians would clearly value more opportunities for collaboration with other musicians.

Hardial Rai, producer of the zerOclassikal project, comments on his approach.

When he was programming young South Asian artists in the 1990s, “what I said to artists was very simple – ‘I don’t care too much about your technique or your mastery of vocabulary but am interested in what you have to say.’

“I have been keen that the leadership and vision of next-gen British South Asian classical artists is led by themselves…the zerOclassikal project is being led by such a driver in Mithila Sarma. 

“The ‘Basement Series’ of the zerOclassikal project is a freefall experiment for new, emerging British-trained South Asian classical music talent, from where we ‘catch’ artists to progress to ‘work-in-progress’ commissions and from there to full commissions. Each stage is supported by an artist development programme, which is in the process of taking shape.”

The venue for the ‘Basement Series’ is the Karamel Club in Wood Green: “We don’t really see Karamel as a ‘club’ but an informal gathering which is no different to a traditional ‘mehfil’ setting… The full commissions are programmed in full concert settings and will be toured to ten national classical music venues next year… However, saying that, we are not less reverential to a ‘club’ setting than a full music concert venue. The 90s saw an amazing brand of classical musicians at Anokha and SitarFunk nights. And that is the project’s brand – to break stereotypes and aspire to meet new audiences for the genre.”

The Dancers

Dancers are perhaps even more reliant on the guidance of their teachers, particularly if they are outside areas with large South Asian populations. Vibha Selvaratnam of India Dance South West has trained in bharatanatyam in Cardiff with her mother and teacher, Kiran Ratna – herself a student of Chitralekha Bolar, who is based in the West Midlands. The names of other individuals apart from their own teachers have been mentioned as mentors by the young dancers we spoke to – Ruth Bates of People Dancing (the Foundation for Community Dance); scholar and kuchipudi dancer Avanthi Meduri; Kadam/Pulse director and editor Sanjeevini Dutta; and Akademi director Mira Kaushik. There are, however, some organisations that support professional development for dancers and choreographers.

“Dancers are…more reliant on the guidance of their teachers…”

South Asian Arts Organisations

All South Asian dance organisations have schemes to guide young aspiring artists seeking to make their careers in dance. Akademi, the London-based and nationally-significant agency for South Asian dance has been particularly active in this area. Through its annual artist development programmes, it provides opportunities for artists to improve their skillsets, with mentorship to help further artistic thinking. “We want to allow the artist to define their own artistic voice as a performer, choreographer, practitioner, etc.” (Nina Head, Artist Development & Production, Akademi). The artists in the first platform for emerging dancers, Navodit and Daredevas, are selected directly through auditions; Choreogata and Utkarsh are open application choreographic commissions. Limited resources mean that the cohorts are kept relatively small. 

“We want to allow the artist to define their own artistic voice…”

One of the dancers in the under-30s age group who has benefited from Akademi’s programme and its wider work is kathak dancer Parbati Chaudhury, who last year won both Akademi’s Kathak Solo Category of Yuva and Milapfest’s Yuva Nritya Ratna (Young Dancer) awards: “Akademi’s Navodit in 2014 gave me my first professional performance platform as a soloist, and their relationships with schools and centres around London have given me space to lead workshops and increase the awareness of South Asian dance.” 

Artist development has also been a priority for over twenty-five years for the Birmingham arts organisation Sampad. However, Urmala Jassal (Associate Director, Arts Programme) tells us that “with reduced funding we have been forced to reduce our investment considerably over the last five years.” Sampad’s Creative Launchpad scheme is designed to create a fund for investment by raising individual donations. Sampad does, however, have a number of current artist development schemes that are cross art form, but also include the development of dance artists. One of these is Artists Link, which provides support with ‘on-the-job’ training for artists, attaching them to projects and work-shadowing lead artists. Among those who have been supported through this scheme are Aakash Odedra, Jyoti Parwana, Kat Bailey and Subhash Viman. Another is Creative Leap, where artists are supported through a talent development process leading to showcases and R&D funding applications. 

What contributions are made by other organisations? For eleven years Milapfest’s Dance India (previously the Kadam International Summer School) provided a week of intensive teaching with dancers from India as well as the UK. Seetal Gahir told us how her Dance India experience “helped me to realise how much I love dance.” Sampad’s unique Dance Intense (2005‒2008) exposed emerging professionals from the UK, USA, Canada, India and Singapore to internationally-renowned choreographers. The programme facilitated cross-border collaborations for this generation of artists and took them to markets beyond their home countries. 

“…Dance India… ‘helped me to realise how much I love dance.’”

Milapfest has currently paused the week-long intensive and will instead be running a weekend of master-classes. Seetal also tells us that Nupur Arts and Centre for Indian Classical Dance in Leicester “have really helped me to…open up my potential as an arts manager, marketer and producer.” 

GemArts, based in Newcastle, has been making an impact in the region over a number of years. Kuchipudi dancer Payal Ramchandani, who has made the move to the UK from India, writes: “GemArts… [does] tremendous work in the north-east to promote Indian classical arts throughout the region with high-profile artists from the UK and outside the UK.” Payal has worked with GemArts on various projects to establish kuchipudi as a dance form in the region through workshops, performances and classes. She also works closely with Dance City in Newcastle to introduce kuchipudi to students intending to take up dance professionally.

“GemArts… [does] tremendous work in the north-east to promote Indian classical arts throughout the region…”

In Birmingham, Jaina Modasia, a finalist in the South Asian category of BBC Young Dancer last year, told us that, alongside the training and mentoring provided by her teacher Sujata Banerjee, she has found the DanceXchange Centre for Advanced Dance Training for South Asian and Contemporary Dance (Yuva Gati) very helpful, as their programme is tailored to each individual and progress and fitness are monitored. Sampad is the producer of this programme, for the ‘gifted and talented’ scheme for dance students. Vidya Patel is also an alumna of this scheme.

Learning Hands-On – Touring

Young dancers find the learning experience offered by touring as part of a company to be very valuable. Seetal Gahir: “Touring Yerma with Amina Khayyam Dance Company 2013‒2015 confirmed that I could perform dance and would keep doing it as well and as much as I can.” Parbati Chaudhury: “Over the past nine months, Kadam/Pulse has produced and toured My Soul is Alight, featuring solo and duet work from myself and odissi dancer Katie Ryan as we collaborated with musicians… The learning curve has been very high within this project.”

Being A Dancer – The Reality

Young dancers find that they are working in a number of areas. Seetal pointed out that there is a crossover in skills: “If you are a performer, teaching is a way of imparting your skills and you need to manage a schedule, finances and performance ideas too.” Parbati’s time is divided between performing, teaching and administration projects, such as recently for the Navadisha 2016 conference, and the creation of educational resources for dance organisations. She says: “Any industry needs a wide range of individuals possessing an even wider set of skills in order to be sustainable and successful…if someone is considering a career in dance, they should really think about the different ways in which they could contribute.” Payal is currently teaching and performing, but would like to find ways of promoting and raising the visibility of the dance form.

Funding Support

The profile and standing of South Asian dance in the UK has never been higher and much of the credit for this goes to Akademi and Sampad. Nina Head: “We are proud to have nurtured so many artists over the last four decades and seen careers blossom… and we want to ensure that a professional career in dance is a viable, sustainable option” by embedding structured support platforms in Akademi’s work and increasingly connecting with the wider dance and cultural infrastructure of the UK. Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Arts Council England have enabled Akademi’s current programme of artist development activity. Artist development also remains a priority for Sampad: “We are looking to raise funds for this priority area as well as creating development opportunities within wider project plans.” (Urmala Jassal.)

The Gaps 

The common theme between the musicians and the dancers is the lack of support for continuing professional development (CPD). Financial support to cover travel, training and studio hire “would allow me to focus more on improving my ability rather than working to pay for it” (Seetal). 

“Financial support… ‘would allow me to focus more on improving my ability rather than working to pay for it.’”

There is also a great need for practical guidance: how to find funding for work; about programming processes for venues and festivals; and “how to get a theatre to take on one of your shows or how best to find an appropriate venue and explain to them what is needed” (Vibha). Career labs or surgeries – not necessarily exclusive to South Asian dance – have been suggested, with speakers, workshops and opportunities for one-to-one advice. Dancers would also benefit from opportunities to collaborate, with choreographers and dancers brought together. Funders and programmers, whatever the regions in which they work, should also remember that in order for any art form to bloom and flourish, artists need opportunities to perform and audiences need to be exposed to a variety of styles.



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