Only reposting this here because people empathise with the issue. It originally appeared in the Asian Age on June 2.
Dancing to nowhere: Young, beautiful and broke
Some young classical dancers might be forgiven for thinking that an arangetram or debut marks the end of their dance careers. An arangetram only heralds the start of a long, and sometimes, futile struggle to be known.
People often talk of dance as spiritual, and argue that dancers must treat their art as “sacred” and not trivialise it by bringing money into the equation. If, one sunny morning, they are told that they must work without expecting returns, for the spiritual good of society, can they be expected to respond with similar equanimity?
The informal yet omnipotent nature of most Indian dance training often means that budding dancers could be left in the lurch, sometimes without dance music. Recording your own music, once the norm, is now a luxury afforded only to the rich.
Dance writer Shyamhari Chakra, who has watched dancers struggle to survive, let alone make a name for themselves, insists that classical dance performances must have a price tag. He asserts, “You might charge a pittance, but it doesn’t matter because ticket sales will only amount to a small portion of the revenue. It is high time we inculcated the habit of paying to watch dance. Why should it be free?”
An upcoming classical dancer can apply to a list of unpaid festivals, where more generous organisers might sponsor sleeper-class train fare or local hospitality. Some of these festivals, like the Sur Singar Samsad’s enduring Kal-ke-Kalakar Festival in Mumbai, award titles to selected participants. Titles matter, but they don’t get you anywhere. Some dancers might apply for senior government scholarships. Often, even a chance at these opportunities requires a recommendation from a teacher. Some unpaid festivals have the gall to demand live performances by solo artists who can barely afford their own train fare. Thus it often transpires that the dancer might keep nothing for herself while she distributes the meagre amount earned between her musicians, sometimes dipping into her own pocket to cover the deficit.
Except for a lucky few, this scenario is almost always true, gritty and fatalistic. Why then do youngsters still gravitate to dance?
Ramya Nair, a Bangalore-based Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer based in Bangalore, recently formed a dance collective with a few young dancer friends. Dance is her only source of income and she is well-versed with the scarcity of paid opportunities for young, and worse still, unknown dancers. She says, “It is difficult for young dancers to move ahead without knowing people. Even if you apply to festivals, showing them what you have done without any support, people just don’t respond to you. Take me — I am a dancer from Kerala with no background. Why does it always have to be about money? Doing an arangetram is like announcing to the world that you are ready to perform, but you need to have money to do it. I dance because I love it, but it has also increasingly become a ‘job’. At the end of the day, I have to accept performances that I wouldn’t want to take up because dance has become my livelihood.”
Nair finds that this is indeed a very vicious circle. “I need to dance to run my house. I need to pay for dance classes and costumes. So I have to dance in order to be able to dance more. It is wearying, but there’s no other option,” she shrugs.
Nowadays, the parents of some young dancers are choosing a different approach to visibility and mass acclaim. A search for teenaged Bharatanatyam dancer Harinie Jeevitha’s videos on YouTube throws up results with hits in seven figures, a number worthy of any teen pop sensation gone viral. Her teacher in Chennai, Sheela Unnikrishnan, has a host of equally popular students who are the darlings of e-connoisseurs. They fuel what seems to be an avid trade in dance DVDs which can be purchased online. Barely into their teens, most of these dancers are agile and talented.
Yet, for every Harinie Jeevitha, there are fifty unsung dancers strutting their stuff in vain to unresponsive internet audiences. Sometimes, ‘likes’ or favourable comments come their way, but internet acclaim is far from translating into performance opportunities.
Ruchika Sharma, a Kathak dancer who teaches history at Delhi University, has often toyed with the idea of making dance her career. “As a young and unestablished dancer, getting the right kind of exposure is difficult enough. For me, dance has always taken a backseat because of the institutionalisation of the art form; it is hard to experiment and get recognition as an individual performer. The whole idea of dancing for the love of dance remains a dream when you hit the reality of being a ‘nouveau’ performer and satisfy yourself by sporadic performances that come your way. Often, very practical considerations like the lack of rehearsal space, no monetary assistance, problems of acceptance and no knowledge of the right ways to go about organising a performance are magnified when you even begin to think of taking to dance full-time. When I am on stage, I wonder why I don’t do this forever; it’s when I step off stage that the reasons become clearer,” she says.
Chakra is among a group of friends who organise the Naveen Kalakar Festival for young dancers in Bhubaneswar. Meritorious dancers leave with the title “Nritya Jyoti”. He says, “As members of more established dance troupes, dancers end up becoming numbers. They are not projected as solo artists, even though solo dancing is the soul of classical dance. The same set of senior dancers visits all the important festivals. No one is recommending younger dancers; even your own students don’t matter. What surprised me was that many established young dancers were applying to our competition. I tried to dissuade them but gradually realised that they wanted to participate because we were awarding a title. Honestly, such titles hold little meaning, but they matter to dancers.”
Making the shift to paid gigs, where the dancer can aspire to put something into the bank, even if it is only a pittance, takes long. Compounding this situation is the fact that dance performance and education often go hand-in-hand. Group performances are the bulwark of many upcoming dancers’ stage time. Continuing as troupe members requires active participation in company classes and workshops, which must often be paid for. They must pay for costumes that last a few performances and expensive jewellery. To foot the bills, they teach, take on undesirable shows — sometimes doing everything short of promenading in costume along the waterways of Venice.