What are the challenges for Indian classical dance forms sustaining their place in today’s world? The many complex factors involved in this question include the potential dilution of tradition by innovation and fusion, effects of institutional learning vs. the guru-shishya parampara training, the waning interest and attention spans of audiences raised on television and computer-based information technology, and problems of earning a living as a professional dancer in a market-driven economy.
The survival of classical dance in India has probably not been so endangered since the Victorian British passed their Anti-Nautch Laws, yet, to use a well-known quotation, “News of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”
While the challenges facing traditional performing arts are considerable, they still fulfil aesthetic and metaphysical needs on multiple levels that will continue to exist for human beings, irrespective of how fast-paced life becomes. At the same time, art is not an isolated creative activity. It reflects the society in which we live and serves the aesthetic, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of society.
Dance traditions are organic: living, growing and changing to remain healthy. This change must sensitively reflect essential shifts in society rather than pandering to superficial and transient fashions. The changing values and stress of materialism, globalisation, and disparity of social injustice have resulted in an increasing restlessness since the mid 20th century. We are all affected by this increasing restlessness. Urban audiences have shorter attention spans and increasingly would prefer a 45 minute “fast food” sampler of a dance program, rather than patiently digest an elegantly presented full course presentation of two to three hours.
This impatience to savour the traditional development of a performance is a growing phenomenon.
Dancers find members of the audience arriving late, staying for only a few and then leaving for social engagements, particularly in Delhi where programs are by invitation rather than tickets. Creative new work is always welcome, but less so when the artist’s motivation is more novelty rather than for artistically meaningful reasons.
The arts help us respond to, understand and integrate our external and internal realities. The classical dance traditions of India are ideally suited to continue offering an art that speaks to the inner world that we all share. It is precisely the restlessness of today’s world, audiences, and even artists, that needs the meditative core of the art preserved as these genres continue to evolve. This essential need is eternal, neither superficial nor outdated. Dance can delight, entertain, educate, and explore new vistas of choreography and text, yet if we abandon the transcendent capacity of the traditions we will lose the core of the art that has been able to survive the transition from temple to the concert stage.
No matter how long back we trace each dance form, they can all be considered neo-classical owing to the revival and reconstruction of most of them in the early 20th century. These arts continue to live and grow dynamically while remaining rooted in long traditions. Performing Odissi outside of Orissa, I have felt it appropriate to offer an invocation to the deity of the place of performance, whether that is Ganga or Padmanabhan or Surya and to perform in the local language. This may be seen as innovation, but hardly tradition-breaking. Many dancers today choreograph to non-traditional texts or using a fusion of forms and non-traditional musical instruments. While these explorations are not always successful, they may eventually strengthen the traditions and, thereby they need not be understood to jeopardize the forms as they have developed over time.
Preparing for a career in dance is becoming a serious challenge today. For one thing, dance training of artists through the ideal of the guru-shishya parampara is virtually a thing of the past. This one-to-one teaching over a lengthy period of time, in an atmosphere free of distractions, ideally allowed the master teacher to totally mentor the student’s development. Today, with differing aspects competing for attention and focus of a child, imbibing the teacher’s knowledge and attitude towards life, philosophy, and the performing arts is often reduced to simple technical dance practice. This is insufficient to foster the deeper knowledge necessary to experience and share the transcendental possibilities of Indian dance.
In the ideal institutional learning situation, students develop their art in a situation where the techniques, theory, performance practice and related areas of music, philosophy, language and history fundamentals of the art are structured into a curriculum. Classes are at fixed times. This should create an atmosphere where the best training is imparted to enough students to maintain the traditions and students would have the exposure to foster a personal sense of aesthetics compatible with tradition and creativity. This is possible if students are taught by master teachers who are motivated to give their best and help each student develop their individual potential as a soloist.
Without the benefits of learning under a parent-like mentoring master teacher or a committed pedagogy of an institution, the prospect of thoroughly trained performing artists that can captivate the audience in solo recitals for a full evening performance becomes less likely.
It can be a good idea to introduce young artists to perform as part of lecture-demonstrations and temple programs where they can focus on sharing the art rather than on self-projection. Appearing on the semi-professional stage too early with more public relations than skill can backfire with audiences thinking the art itself is deficient rather than the artist. This is where group dance choreography and new themes become viable solutions for creating interesting performance opportunities for dancers trained in less than ideal situations.
Despite these concerns, I have seen some outstanding young talents emerging into the public eye in recent years. However, a number of these well-rounded, well-grounded dancers tend to have been nurtured primarily by their own parent/gurus. It is a real challenge for the student of dance to find the right learning situation and maintain the commitment and passion for the many years of training needed to become an excellent dancer. Yet, even if the dancer has much to offer, there are further challenges to erode their commitment. These include the professional issues of financial support for artists and their performances and the viability of making the full-time dedication to a career as a performing artist.
Feudal forms of support are fading and dance is floundering in a market-driven economy. Everywhere in the world, the value of artistic work is difficult to equate with other professionals whose work is part of the generation of funds. A manager whose expertise results in more sales can be remunerated in proportion. Arts are not on the economic scale and this has unfortunately put us in a situation where even survival can be a terrible struggle for a dedicated professional dancer. What parent today would not like their child to train for a remunerative career and keep dance as a hobby or part-time passion? And how difficult is it to grow as an artist with the pressures of either maintaining another full-time job or compromising in unprofessional ways for patronage?
The practice of having all classical dance performances by invitation rather than tickets has removed the “market force” from audience support. Government sponsorship has an important place in supporting the arts, but it can only be a small adjunct to a career artist.
If we cannot find ways to validate the arts by validating the genuine merit of artists, the arts will definitely suffer. Artists have a responsibility to offer an experience that will both reach audiences at their current state of mind and understanding and take them a notch higher.
Traditions change organically with time and the contributions of new generations of artists. When artists shorten the duration of performances for today’s audiences, they must still maintain the power and intensity of the experiences. New directions based on tradition should be applauded if they evolve from thoughtfulness, rather than efforts to please only with novelty. The previous generation saw some folk and classical dance on Doordarshan as part of regular programming; today it is necessary to make time to share these great arts with the younger generation, as audiences as well as students of dance. Parents should take their children to see live performances of classical and other performing arts so that they can have this as part of their lives rather than something alien.
A young dance student once asked the legendary choreographer Agnes DeMille if she thought she should pursue a career in dance. Ms. DeMille answered, “If you have to ask the question, then the answer is no”. A career in dance is for those with great passion and dedication who find their joy in the dance. Making dance a deeply enriching part of one’s life is available to all by simply participating by being part of the audience.
After basic needs, it is the arts that bring joy to our lives and are lasting in every great civilization. It is important to know as much about the inner world that we all share and are transformed by, through the arts. They offer the magical renewal that audiences and artists both need to experience when these wonderful performing arts traditions of classical Indian dance provide a metaphysical journey into the heart and mind.
Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at