November 25, 2012

What I learn from my scooter

A month on the scooter has taught me so much about the notion of patience.

Initially, I praised road etiquette to my mother, telling her how other vehicles stopped to let me pass and put up with me riding at 10 kmph. But that was probably because I was out on the roads at 6 am and everyone else on the road was too sleepy to bother.

Owning a scooter also teaches me about nature and the advantages of not parking under a tree. Yes, coconuts can fall and take your wing mirror down. But there are only so many coconuts on a tree. Birds are far more relentless. My scooter is a bird-poop magnet. From the stupendous quantities of crap I shake off every morning, it really seems like the birds spend all day doing that. Has anyone looked into converting bird poop into an energy source? There's definitely a lot of it and it smells. I'm sure it can be put to some use.

Patience is a delusional virtue that appears in your 6 am hallucination. Sometimes, if a vehicle behind me keeps sounding its horn for no good reason (and they usually don't have a good reason) - like when the traffic lights are just about to turn green and there's no movement, or worse still, when the traffic lights are still very red, I force them to follow me at 10 kmph for a stretch out of sheer spite. It takes them time to escape, because a hundred vehicles rushing across the road like people rushing towards the food at a Kerala wedding can really slow everyone down.

K, who taught me how to ride and who convincingly elicited delight when I recounted my exploits (today I went at 7 am; there were two cars on the road!/ I did 25 km; I'm so cool. / I went past Juhu circle!) told me that I would be in the throes of road rage for a while. I was very calm the first few times and felt that it must be all the vipassana I did some months ago. But that calm eludes me sometimes - for instance, when vehicles cut into my lane even when I could scrape their sides nastily if I felt so inclined (and injure myself, yeah). Or when I encounter persistent horn-lovers who could just sit on their horns and be done with it. 

Since I am rarely a finger-shaking, pistol-showing type (which is hard anyway, given that you are riding at 40 kmph), I must be content with the witty rejoinders I mumble to myself, and occasionally, the joy of seeing their faces after I give them the finger. 

Oh, and nothing can surpass the joy of giving someone the finger when I'm in a dance practice sari. First they laugh at my sari because they don't know what it is - hahahaha, she forgot the bottom half of her sari. Hahaha she is wearing a salwar under her sari. Hahaha what is she wearing?! Then they try to overtake and when they fail because I am sneakier, they get behind me and toot their horn madly. Sometimes they actually time the tooting to make it sound like - ge-t-ou-t-of-the-wa-ay! And then I show them my lithe dancer's finger.

They say that dance is the mother of all arts. Truly, sabki amma. Touché.

November 08, 2012

The perils of performance when you always have a cold

Like the dancer-from-birth who says things like 'I can't quite remember when I started dancing. Must have been before I walked.' to interviewers, I could have boasted similarly about my cold. Sadly, my sharp memory for trivia doesn't let me weave subtle fiction, and as a consequence, I know exactly when I started sniffling for life.

I was in the ninth grade and was just over the traumatic experience of getting dental braces. There was a sign in my orthodontist's clinic that said 'I <3 my dentist'. I would stare at it with great malevolence, willing it to metamorphose into 'I HATE my dentist.' In general, with steel wires and vaccines and injections in the gums, it was a bad time to be my doctor.

In the days before I succumbed to the joys of tissue paper, there was a steady assembly line of handkerchiefs that had to be washed and ironed to receive their daily dose of...well, snot. As far as my relations with people went, I was heartbroken when my desk partner and very good friend stopped talking to me because I blew my nose and finally went to sit at another desk. It was hard to comprehend that a cold could come in the way of a seemingly unbreakable friendship. I remember spending much time mulling over this abandonment, but then it was heartening because there were others who didn't think they had to stop talking to me because I had a cold.

And for a few years after this, all was well and I didn't think much of my cold. Having a constant cold doesn't mean I am blowing my nose all the time; it is sporadic like the cool breeze from the Malaya mountains; not as pleasant though. I was, however, constantly apologetic about my nose and its infinite sonic possibilities. Uncertain people were assuaged and comforted by my self-deprecating humour about the 'foghorn'.

When I danced, if I had a bad cold, this meant tucking a wisp of tissue paper into my costume. I have no idea how I actually would have handled blowing my nose on stage.

Krishna: Your beautiful face resembles the crescent moon; it is time for lurve.
Radha: Yes, what a lovely time for lovers and what a sad time for those who are all alone. Let us dance and frolic until next spring. But, wait a minute, I have to blow my nose.

So as you see, prevalent narrative trends in Indian classical dance are not very favourably disposed towards common cold.

Eventually, I met people who didn't seem bothered by my decibel-busting act. A friend I was having dinner with was puzzled when I kept running out of the room or turning away to blow my nose. When I actually started looking around me while blowing my nose, I discovered lots of people who didn't flinch. It was a wonderful thing to know, really.

So, now I blow away with impunity. But, being a conscientious audience member, I cannot bring myself to interrupt performances with unwelcome sounds. Here, classical dance is slightly more accommodating. I can gauge when the music is going to be loud and time my blowing with high-decibel music so that it goes unnoticed. And my sense of timing as far as remove tissue-duck-blow goes is often better than my sense of direction. 

My sense of direction is really good.

Having recently spent a week attending a contemporary dance festival with a runny nose, I argue that the contemporary trend of performing in silence puts some people's nasal passages through great torment. Especially if they are conscientious, like I am.

I sat through an hour-long performance by Padmini Chettur, performed largely in silence, not daring to breathe too hard. Partly because it was engrossing, but partly because drawing a deep breath would have meant whiney sounds. The next day, three more dancers performed in near-silent conditions, and it was sheer torture. Even the clapping is not loud enough, because audiences are often unsure whether the performance is over. 

Of course, when you are being such a good girl, there are still people around you whose phones ring and who answer them and loudly say in stage whispers, "I am in a performance and I'll call you later. What...? No, I can't hear you. No, no. (whispers get louder) I said I'll call you later. No, I'm not coming. No, I'll call you later. Yeah. Yeah. Bye." 

Then they experimentally see how their phones look once they are silenced. 

And then the performance ends; I hurriedly clap twice, blow my nose to orgasmic satisfaction, and rejoin the clapping with a sense of great fulfilment. Once again, I have excelled at my very own, silent, meta-performance.

November 04, 2012

Peer sharing session

Dance Dialogues in Bombay proposes to hold a peer sharing session during its anniversary celebrations, scheduled for the end of November. The session is meant to be a supportive space where dancers are first 'sharing', then 'performing', for there is some comfort in being able to unravel a work in progress among peers. Many of us at Dance Dialogues are young classical and contemporary dancers, and we are familiar w
ith the uncertain experience of making 'taught' choreography our own, and creating new dance pieces. Often, there is nothing more we would like than to be able to discuss our processes with peers, receive objective opinions and find points of value in the way others work.

Dancers and choreographers making their own work or trying to find meaning in traditional choreography that they have learnt are welcome to apply to present a short work.

Write to me at with your bio and a concept note.

October 29, 2012

Of travel, books and possibilities of disrobement

Packing light was never one of my skills. I have reformed considerably from the days when I took 30 shirts to Bangalore for a month-long trip. That was in 2006.

Wherever I go, I am always equipped for intergalactic travel. I carry sweaters to Orissa in summer (and use them) and sleeveless kurtas to Delhi in January (brrr, and never use them). I have a book, or two or three. I have socks for the day and socks for the night. And in recent times, I have my yoga mat.

For the past two years or so, I have limited my luggage to a single bag or rucksack. I think this was partly because of the trauma of moving house several times in Delhi, and worse still, moving back to Bombay. Moving house makes one see the wisdom in living without appendages. On that memorable occasion, I had 13 bags. The taxi driver was aghast and it took some serious ganging up on him before he agreed to drive me to the station. That was also the only time I had to socialise in a train, because my 13 bags alarmed my co-passengers significantly, even though none of them actually had to sleep with my bucket by their head or anything.

On my last visit to Delhi, when S heard I had travelled with a single bag, her jaw hit the floor. Clearly her last memory of me is coming to my hostel room in JNU and seeing the aforementioned thirteen bags and watching me panic as I searched for a missing sock in a rolled-up chatai.

And this was after I couriered 40 kilos of books home. Sadly, where books are concerned, I see no recourse. I may, at some point, feel guilty about buying sarees, but I have no such qualms or scruples when it comes to books.

The closest I ever came to complete reform was in Kerala, where my bag was actually not full, and I wore everything I carried. I even carried a saree, but forgot a petticoat. So when I went to the Padmanabhaswamy temple, I wore my saree on slacks with a dangerously pliant elastic band and spent my time in the temple wondering what would ensue if my saree decided to come apart. Since I managed to make it out of the temple without Draupadi-type scenes, I awarded myself a certificate of distinction in saree-wearing. And then I was secure in the delusion that my saree was immune to accidental slippages till (horror of horrors) it fell apart for the first time in nine years of mummy-independent saree wearing in a masterclass with the Nrityagram dancers. Really, horror of horrors.

Delhi is almost like a second home now, and if I am short of sweaters or shawls, or even socks, I know I can procure them. But friends have not been very helpful in this regard, what with them sending me e-mails about how cold it is in Delhi and how I should come well-equipped. I wish I were a witch; then I would take my room and stuff it in a beaded bag like Hermione.

Fantasy apart, I shall prepare for intergalactic travel now.

October 25, 2012

An interview with Kumkum Mohanty

This was an interview I did with Kumkum Mohanty during the International Odissi Festival in Bhubaneswar last December. To read the transcripts alongside the video, go to . The interview was transcribed by Divya Sarma.

Kumkum Mohanty ran away from home as a toddler to follow a brass band in a wedding procession. Though she was found soon after, in the care of a vigilantpaan shop owner, she fondly cherishes her memory of that incident as a sign of her inextricable links with dance and music. Along with Sanjukta Panigrahi and Priyambada Hejmadi Mohanty, she was one of the earliest students of Kelucharan Mohapatra in the fifties, when he worked with others to establish Odissi as a classical dance form. Besides making her name as a dancer, Mohanty pursued a career in the civil services, ending her career in a post and place close to her heart, as the chief executive of the Odissi Research Centre in Bhubaneswar, set up in the mid 1980s.

Here, she talks about her early years in Odissi and speaks out against bureaucratic apathy towards cultural institutions in Orissa and what she perceives as flippant trends in choreography and compositions.

October 24, 2012

Another extremely discursive reflection on dance

So as a struggling dancer, I should probably keep my acid tongue well-hidden, but I'm still trying to stop feeling goggle-eyed about some recent events. They are discursive; discursive is clearly my new favourite word, after soporific, those epitomising the two things I do well.

  • Please snigger, but I don't get this variety show business. I was recently in conversation with someone who wanted to rope me in to dance Odissi at a university programme. We haggled companionably over the length of the dance. She was a nice, well-meaning person who told me how she learned dance in her youth but found it hard to balance dancing and the rest of her education. What stumps me is how readily she made the assumption that I would travel to another city and bring my costume along to dance in a show without any talk of payment or any compensation just out of overwhelming good feeling. I agreed because I was actually meant to be in that city at the same time for something else, but I was left aghast. Now, as I write this, I realise that it is not uncommon for many of us to travel to other cities to do fifteen minute performances so that we are seen. And this lets us wheedle our way into more fifteen minute performances. Why then, did my conversation with this woman leave me so irked? 
  • Maybe if I stop thinking of performance as an income-generating activity, I'll feel better about the whole business and come to terms with it. What I find hilarious is that I have been covertly offered a bribe to review a dance festival but never to dance in one! I have said this earlier - clearly, they pay the light and sound people, the stage attendants, the hired VIPs, the compere and even the dance critic, but not the dancer.
  • The Orissa government recently brought out a festival schedule where half the dancers who're on the list don't know they're on the list. And those who're not, are grumpy. I can't stop laughing.
Now I'll be a good dancer so that I can awake early enough to salute the sun. That, though, reminds me of the mother of a very famous classical dancer telling me how her daughter could not cope with the stress because she wouldn't take to the bottle (when she didn't awake on time to be interviewed). I don't know why I recall it now, but it was an ah! moment.

When I was 12, I would brush my teeth every night because I wanted to be Miss India. Now, twelve years down, I gnash the aforementioned teeth delightedly and want to be a gossip columnist. Clearly, I am growing sedentary and old.

October 01, 2012

A history of perception

This was published in the Asian Age on September 27, 2012

Those were the days, one always hears. The ancientness of India’s classical dance tradition has always been central to its continued existence. While we can only imagine what dance in the 2nd century must have been like, as we come closer to the 21st century, it becomes easier to make connections and harness an imagination of the past.

Most compellingly, this imagination is sustained through oral history and the personal memoirs of artists and those who were surrounded by art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These accounts abound in the history of performance; the musician who could summon the rains, or the dancer whose abhinaya left the audience in tears. We only have a fragmented notion of what dance may have looked like in the early 20th century, but slowly, and sometimes, insidiously, these fragments begin to stand in for the whole picture in the popular imagination.

This imagination is also an interesting marker of what has changed. Musicians and dancers always worked together; dancers were often very talented musicians themselves. Performance could thus be very spontaneous. The dancer could decide how many times she wanted to elaborate one line of a song, and any changes were easily accommodated. Now, as the dancer performs to recorded music, or with musicians hired for the night, being spontaneous is often a luxury she can ill afford.

Feminist writer and researcher CS Lakshmi remarks that we often do not make much of what we live through, finding more value and meaning in those times when we look back at them. Of dance, she says, “In the process of reassessing the past, we tend to exaggerate and romanticise it. I lived in Bangalore when Shanta Rao was still performing. Even in those days, I admired her a lot; looking back, she almost seems like a superhuman figure because she did something that nobody dared to do at that time. Another instance is the devadasi community. An old devadasi I interviewed told me that when they performed in court, they also had to do things they had learnt from circus artists, like placing a vegetable on their bodies and cutting it, because they were court entertainers. Not all of them were the classical artists we dream of them as. We should look at them in their historical context and not exaggerate them.”

One tends to look back at the virtuosity of dancers in the first half of the century using present-day parameters, and this leaves one with the feeling that the past has not lived up to the hype about it. Our notions of beauty and virtuosity change with time. In costume and in movement, there is a shift towards sharper and clearer lines. Costumes are more fitted, and sleeves have inched away from the elbow over time. The draped sari costume is not as popular as the stitched costume, for the latter facilitates quicker costume changes.
One very prominent marker is the increased emphasis on the perfection of nritta or pure dance movement in present-day dancing. This also stems from the way dance is taught now. The student first learns the basic steps, and the introduction to other aspects of dance is slow, or even delayed. Earlier, dancers benefited from an immersive dance atmosphere where they were in close contact with the extended artistic community and even artists in the family.

There are many dance connoisseurs who find it hard to come to terms with the way classical dance is shaping up. Bangalore-based Ajay Cadambi is one such person. “I am appropriating the past because I cannot stomach what is performed today. Yet, how do I know what was performed in the past? For one, in the abhinaya, there was so much more maturity in the way srngara was depicted, compared to the infantilisation of srngara by many dancers today. There are infinite possibilities in abhinaya, but that requires an understanding of its cultural and social milieu. In biology, evolution means moving on to something better. That has not happened with abhinaya. Dance used to be a means of communication but that quality is now lost. There is an absolute lack of sensitivity for old dance compositions, in the way they are now being performed,” he asserts.

What happens when we revisit the past? It is important to remember that the formation of a classical dance was never a static narrative of change. Post-independence, the existence of the classical dance was deeply connected to the need to propagate a national culture. Its classicisation was a contentious process, highly influenced by questions of morality, respectability, cultural production and even statehood.

September 22, 2012

Bollywood dancing

Sister teaching me some Bollywood moves at special request.

Sister (N): Move your hips!
(Odissi teacher: Don't move your hips!)
R: But I am moving my hips!
(R flails about, hands follow the eyes, yatho hastas tatho drishtir and all)
N (disapproval writ large on her face): You're too classical. You can't do this.
R (stumped, mid chikni chameli move).

From the Gita Govinda

Yami he! kam iha saranam
Yami he...

To whom should I turn for shelter now?
All my friends have gone back on their promises
Oh! Where do I go? Where do I go?

September 15, 2012

Dance Dialogues in Bombay

My new love is Dance Dialogues in Bombay.

For the past ten months, with two dancer friends, I have facilitated a series of informal dance-related sessions that seek to engage with dance in ways that go beyond performance. We did think of various other names, but it felt as hard as naming a baby (though I don't know what THAT feels like), so we've somehow ended up with Dance Dialogues in Bombay, which came up somewhere, and stayed.

I could wax eloquent on how enriching and frustrating it is. But I'll stick with what I just wrote as an update for the Facebook page.

Every time when we're waiting for people to turn up, five minutes before a Dance Dialogues session, we're plagued by existential questions. Why are we doing this? Whom are we doing this for? There are many moments when it all feels so pointless. Today, DD in B completed twelve sessions, and we are still full of questions. And doubt. Perhaps it is a good state to be in.

Yet, after every session, the warmth that suffuses the room swallows all our angst. We meet new dancers; every session tells me a little more about this 'fraught' dance scene in Bombay. Many denizens of the classical and contemporary still show scant interest in getting to know each other (oh yeah!). but there is something about being able to have these discussions that gives us hope and the strength to go on.

We'd love to grow, to have more and more dancers participate at our dialogues, but we can only do this with your support. Support us through feedback, suggestions, in kind, and with your presence at our sessions. We hope to see more and more of you at coming sessions, and we'll endeavour to let DD in B remain an informal and personal space. All of you are part of the DD in B community as people we know, love and care about, and because we all care about dance. Thanks for being with us, and we'll see you soon.
We'd love to grow, to have more and more dancers participate at our dialogues, but we can only do this with your support. Support us through feedback, suggestions, in kind, and with your presence at our sessions. We hope to see more and more of you at coming sessions, and we'll endeavour to let DD in B remain an informal and personal space. All of you are part of the DD in B community as people we know, love and care about, and because we all care about dance. Thanks for being with us, and we'll see you soon.We'd love to grow, to have more and more dancers participate at our dialogues, but we can only do this with your support. Support us through feedback, suggestions, in kind, and with your presence at our sessions. We hope to see more and more of you at coming sessions, and we'll endeavour to let DD in B remain an informal and personal space. All of you are part of the DD in B community as people we know, love and care about, and because we all care about dance. Thanks for being with us, and we'll see you soon.

September 13, 2012

The Akram Khan Dance Company in Bombay

Something I wrote; this was first published in the Asian Age on September 13, 2012.

Eager crowds inciting near-stampede situations are an unlikely sight at dance performances. But once in a while, there comes a dancer who can drive audiences to a point just beyond reason. Akram Khan is one such artist.  In Mumbai on Tuesday, their fourth stop in a six-city Indian tour as part of The Park’s New Festival, the Akram Khan Dance Company finished their performance leaving audiences in a state of suspended anticipation.

A British-Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan trained in Kathak with Pratap Pawar from an early age. Later, he studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, beginning to present solo performances of his work in the 1990s before co-founding the Akram Khan Dance Company with producer Farooq Chaudhry in 2000. What is interesting about the company is that it was, from its inception, a conscious collaboration between an artist and a manager who sought to form innovative business models in dance. In a not so well-publicised series of discussions travelling with the festival, the British Council features Chaudhry and Khan with local panelists in a discussion on contemporary dance and the business of arts in India.

On Tuesday, the company performed Gnosis, an evening of classical Kathak and contemporary dance. Gnosis begins with Polaroid Feet, choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi. It incorporates an Ardhanariswara verse composed by Lacchu Maharaj.

A rectangular path of light that cut the stage in half, running upstage to downstage, was the space Khan began in, a grounding motif he would return to often in the course of his performance., Khan intersperses the austere heaviness of Shiva with the grace and languor of Parvati. Bursting with explosive energy, his body sometimes finds itself in unlikely forms, the vigour of Shiva lingering on in the lasya of Parvati.

The first few instances of tatkar (Kathak footwork) are met with resounding applause and cheers.  Kathak tends to exacerbate itchy palms in clap-happy audiences. The dynamic between dancer and musicians is fascinating and used to Khan’s advantage. The musicians get their spot in the sun; the vocalist Faheem Mazhar sings a fairly elaborate bandish as Khan disappears for a quick costume change. Later, Khan invites his two percussionists, Bernhard Schimpelsberger on drums and percussions and Sanju Sahai on tabla, to have a friendly dialogue, as he takes a quick breather between two rounds of tatkar.

What Khan and D’Lo, the queer political theatre artist/ comedian who performed on Monday share, is the ability to seamlessly weave the personal into performance, and in turn, an almost-courageous willingness to use art to reflect on life. Khan is at his charming best when he breaks off in the middle of his second piece, Tarana, to talk to the audience. He speaks of his strong rooting in tradition, and why he shall never break away. He tells stories that have shaped, for him, an experience of spirituality, over time. He says, “I feel the need to continue with tradition simply because I feel it is eroding away. When I work with the contemporary, I see it as research; that is my laboratory space. But tradition grounds me. I see classical work as imbued with the spiritual and I can never move away from it.”

And then, without much ado, as if that is what must logically follow, he recites the bols of teentala and proceeds to engage in percussive argument, throwing challenges at Schimpelsberger and Sahai. Every Kathak recital accompanied by musicians makes the most out of percussion-dancer jugalbandis. Yet Khan seems especially playful, almost belligerently tossing his head to mock the two percussionists after he executes a particularly complex phrase with his feet. There is mischief in movement, and that in costume – Khan’s dangerously low-waisted churidars peek out from under his achkan in particularly exuberant moments.

At the end of the first half, Khan begins a sequence of footwork; this seems to travel upwards, through his body, until his entire body unabashedly vibrates with the energy of the tatkar. Eventually, the last pool of light onstage bears down on him, and then the darkness swallows him whole.

The second, eponymous half of Gnosis begins with guest artist Fang-Yi Sheu, a former principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company. This piece is inspired by the story of Gandhari from the Mahabharata, a queen who chooses to blindfold herself so that she can share her blind husband’s journey. It again begins in a square pool of harsh light, a pool that grows as Fang-Yi Sheu scopes the space around her and feels its boundaries. While trying to find her Gandhari, in one section, she keeps her eyes shut; this is followed by a section of intense partnering with Khan, a long white staff the span of distance between them. After the performance, she reveals – though she must open her eyes in order to work with Khan in the duets, she cannot make eye contact and thus her knowledge of his presence is greatly hinged on the sound of his movement. She demonstrates quickly - what she uses most often in Gnosis tethers her gaze to her body angles, whereas isolating her head and moving it sideways produces an entirely different quality of focus.

Beyond skill and virtuosity, creating engaging performance is the art of balancing infinitesimal quantities. As the company takes its final bow, spectators longingly wonder if there is more to come. It is clear that Gnosis assimilates fully the potential of ephemeral desires.

Ranjana Dave

September 10, 2012

Dear spammer,

I have begun to encounter spam with bad spelling.

Until now, the spam that managed to land in my inbox had decent spelling. They offered me sums of money dancers don't usually earn. And they were sometimes very specific, offering me performances in lands unknown. I was moved by the thought of someone who had done such solid research that they knew I danced; so moved that I almost replied to them saying - thank you for your interest in my performance career but I think Nigeria is too far away, especially if you are not paying for my air ticket.

But if you send me spam that reads 'have s xe with otu coe mieet metns', even if there were any chance of us getting together, it would be stubbed out faster than you could type 'have s xe with otu', for I abhor atrocious spelling. It is a huge turn-off.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the copy editor. Even if you spam.

September 06, 2012

Half-full or half-empty?

This was first published in the Asian Age on September 6, 2012. 

“You cannot be a dancer for half a day,” asserts Ketaki Desai, Odissi dancer and digital media professional. She continues, “Choosing between other day jobs and dance is making the choice between earning a living and living; it is a tough but necessary choice. Every profession, including a part-time one, requires commitment, and with other jobs and social obligations to take care of, one is being unfair to dance.”

This is a debate where all the answers are personal and extremely complex. Is it possible to strike a balance between a serious career in dance and a day job in an unrelated profession? In the urban context, the young dancer constantly sees classmates in school and college surge ahead on the path to conspicuous consumption with conventional jobs. To earn a livelihood, the dancer often falls back on another ‘career’, funnelling some of what is earned back into dance.

Often, free will and professional decisions are not the best of friends; one is left with no choice but to cut down on dancing and do some ‘real’ work. Yet it is interesting how we set up, through language, the distinction between ‘dancing’ and a ‘career’. No matter how serious the pursuit of dance is, one is inclined to associate ‘career’ with a profession that guarantees returns and ensures survival. While work brings enough money, it leaves one with less time to dance. This can be a vicious circle, for many dancers take to other work to subsidise their dancing; gradually, they notice that they are financially secure but have almost given up on dancing.

Odissi dancer Supriya Nayak worked in another profession for about five years before deciding that she would focus on dance. She says, “Dance was extremely personal; it was my identity, the first thing I would relate to. But I possibly wasn’t ready to step either way and decide. There is the uncertainty of making dance work for you and of earning a living.”

Meanwhile, history and lore make much of the single-minded pursuit of a goal in any sphere of life. They speak of Arjuna, the archer who focused on the eye of the fish. There are hardly any paeans to multi-tasking, unless one counts divinities with eight or ten arms, or ten heads. Members of the Odissi ensemble Nrityagram, in residence at the NCPA recently, continually emphasised the need to be completely dedicated to dance. In an interview many years ago, Nrityagram’s artistic director, Surupa Sen, famously likened dance to a jealous husband who would not permit other commitments.

Complete dedication is a tough decision to make; it is also a luxury that is afforded to one only in certain situations. While one could be a good dancer and hold down another job, can one reach excellence and work wonders in the boardroom? Conversely, given that it is near impossible to make a living out of dance performance, does a fulltime dancer find it hard to focus on her own practice while trying to eke out a living in dance? Often, dance teaching is seen as an easy back-up plan for dancers who don’t make it on stage or as choreographers. Many young dancers who have consciously come to dance teaching are wary of that complacence. They have also grown to realise that all other activity, including that which is dance-related, can impinge on their practice.

Bharatanatyam dancer Charles Ma, who worked in advertising and concentrated on building a career as a soloist for many years, believes that one has to fight for survival in any profession. Reminiscing about this experience, he says, “In some ways, it worked for me. I rehearsed in the mornings and then went to work. But later, I’d be working in office and thinking of dance. The stress and worklife habits – eating junk food, for one, were making me abuse my instrument – the body. Now, though I only work in dance, it is still as hectic. I teach at my studio each morning, then at a school, from where I return and practice by myself into the night, followed by dinner which I cook, before going to bed for a few hours.”

With the pressure of having to creatively impart knowledge, dancer-teachers are a tired bunch with sore throats; however, the thrill of discovering how their work in dance feeds into their personal practice keeps them going. Nayak, who now teaches dance and works on developing a dance-in-education module while continuing to perform, finds that her present job is perhaps more tiring, yet very exciting. “As a dance teacher, just passing on what I have learnt doesn’t require time and effort. But you need to give it thought if you aspire to do it in a creative and exciting manner. If I was doing my earlier job and taking classes, I would not be working past 10 pm. This takes up more time but it is immensely satisfying because it influences how I approach my own work,” she remarks. 

Though Walter Benjamin may damningly say, “He who cannot take sides should keep silent,” it is clear that ankle bells have a mind of their own.

Ranjana Dave

August 31, 2012

Sound of Silence

This piece first appeared in the Asian Age on August 30, 2012. Download the PDF here.

The single curtain call after Nrityagram’s performance at the NCPA last Saturday left Mumbai audiences thirsting for more. People clapped lustily with aching palms, almost as if the dancers were apparitions who would disappear when the claps ceased. Disappear they did, returning this Monday to teach a group of serious dancers at a three-day masterclass as part of their weeklong residency at the NCPA. Led by Bijayini Satpathy, who is the director of Nrityagram’s Odissi Gurukul, the class draws on some basic concepts and principles in Odissi, holistically articulated by Nrityagram after extensive research. In class, Satpathy is supported by Nrityagram ensemble dancer Pavithra Reddy, Kandyan dancer Thaji Dias and the mardala player Shivshankar Satpathy.

Not everyone understands movement as silence or quietness, but at this class, they are inherent associations, as Satpathy constantly exhorts the participants to ‘be quiet’ in movement. Working with starkly minimal blocks of movement, all phrases she has explored in the course of teaching basic Odissi concepts, Satpathy lashes together a short choreography. It is illuminating to be privy to this process, to see how the elementary movements we often dismiss as amateurish are transformed into stunning showcases of the form when treated with care.

And examples of this are scattered across Nrityagram’s own work. In class, dancers in groups of four unfurl across the room in ardha bhramaris (half-spins), slightly dizzy from the spinning but full of explosive energy in having discovered great power in a single movement phrase. These are the very ardha bhramaris that Surupa Sen’s choreography uses to infuse new bursts of energy or to effect a change of mood, in her recent work Vibhakta – where two dancers spiral out to stage left and stage right, executing ardha bhramaris with great vigour. Indeed, for those familiar with Nrityagram’s work, the phrases at the workshop and the bols used to elaborate the rhythm are almost a form of delightful pastiche.

Satpathy draws one’s attention to the ‘in-between’ moments and the ‘dead’ moments, where there is a transition between one movement and the next, or when the movement seems temporarily finished. She talks of ‘delay’, where a sharply slapped foot keeps the beat while the torso stretches time with sinuous undulations, demonstrating how an awareness of such moments reinforces the presence of the performer.

While Nrityagram has been teaching workshops abroad since the nineties, they have rarely done the same in India, their work at Nrityagram apart. Satpathy reveals why, “Many of our showcases abroad are funded by universities. To avail of university funding, we need to have an educational component in our tours. So we often stay in one place for five days, performing and conducting masterclasses and discussions. Here, the sabhas call you for a single performance; you get there in the morning and perform in the evening. Where is the opportunity to take a class or spend more time in the same place?”

The participants at the NCPA master class are Odissi dancers and those deeply invested in other forms. Kathak dancer-choreographer Sanjukta Wagh finds it enriching to learn from someone who gives so willingly of herself as an artist. She elaborates, “I admire Bijayini’s openness to questions and interventions from dancers not experienced in Odissi, and am inspired by her rigour. The masterclass is like a burst of energy each morning; I come away with insights about my own dance and engagement with form. Though I might never dance the phrases of movement I learn here, I have benefited from the rigour, attention to detail, the groundedness of the body and the deep understanding of the Natyasastra in practice. It will stay with me and make me want to go to Nrityagram for more.”

Meanwhile, at Nrityagram, the daily grind demands complete devotion to dance. Classes and rehearsals begin early and end well past sunset. Their three year basic course in Odissi has a fascinating structure. For six months, aspiring dancers are only exposed to several kinds of body conditioning. After this, they spend a year learning the basic vocabulary of Odissi. This has been expanded beyond what is conventionally taught elsewhere, keeping in mind elements that enter the vocabulary when the dancer learns set pieces. In the second half of the course, the dancer learns Odissi items, putting together a skeletal repertoire and spending time on each nuance. The training also includes comprehensive theory classes and training in allied skills, like conducting lecture demonstrations or workshops. “In three years, we only teach them five basic pieces – from mangalacharan to moksha, to complete the Odissi repertoire. However, they learn new pieces quickly because they have been trained so thoroughly,” explains Satpathy.

Satpathy does not believe in the repertoire-expanding workshop model. About Nrityagram’s workshop structure, she says, “We never teach dance items in our workshops; instead, we attempt to convey the concepts we apply in performance. The principles mentioned in this class could be relevant to dancers from any form; advanced dancers may know exactly what we mean and dancers at an elementary level can also think through what we say and make it their own. Teaching an ‘item’ doesn’t work for us because we feel to need to share a philosophy with the dancers we collaborate with.”

Ranjana Dave

August 16, 2012

August 01, 2012

Voice of Virar

Love for your neighbours on the train has finally come to the Virar local.

In a warped way.

At Andheri, I got on a Churchgate-bound train that originated at Virar. A bubbly kid who had one of the fourth seats didn't want to sit. She asked someone else first, and I was the next person she saw standing, she asked me if I wanted the seat. I did, yes, so I sat down and the kid happily pranced all over.

Shortly after, when we were close to Dadar and there was practically no one without a seat, I heard a woman complaining about the way 'Andherila-chadli' (someone who got on at Andheri) was so comfortably seated when the seat could have gone to a long-suffering Virar person. I tried to ignore her at first, because I couldn't see a single long-suffering Virar person who was still standing, but when her references to me became too obvious and frequent, I couldn't resist a conversation with her. Please find below a transcript of one of the most inane conversations I have had for a while.

R: Do YOU want this seat?
Champion of Virar rights: No, I don't want to sit. This is not about you, so why don't you shut up? That kid doesn't know anything, how could she give you a seat when X is still standing.
X: She asked me; I don't want the seat.
Champion of Virar rights (momentarily stumped): But Virar people don't get seats. That kid was stupid and silly. (At this juncture, a lady who got on at Bandra occupies an empty fourth seat. Said champion glares at her).
R: Is there anyone here who got on before Andheri and doesn't have a seat yet? I'd be glad to let them sit.
Champion of Virar rights: No, there isn't, but why are you talking so much? I am telling you that Virar people don't get seats; you don't know how hard it is...(at which point I return to Foucault, who is suddenly eminently pleasing to the eye).

Moral of the story: Anyone who has the gall to live before Mira Road should stick to adoring empty seats, and forget about sitting on them.

May 25, 2012

Pushing Freedom

A piece I wrote for the dance page of the Asian Age newspaper, May 25, 2012
See link here

An oft-narrated story about the dancer Chandralekha talks of the alienating experience she had during her arangetram in the 50s. Its proceeds went to the Rayalaseema drought relief fund. One of the pieces she performed was Mathura Nagarilo, describing the abundance of water and its free-flowing nature, as young women frolicked in the river Yamuna. Describing what went through her mind as she danced this ironic contrast, Chandralekha wrote, “Suddenly, I froze, with the realisation that I was portraying all this profusion of water in the context of a drought. I remembered photographs in the newspapers of cracked earth, of long winding queues of people waiting for water with little tins in hand.” In later years, as a narrative of the triggers that propelled her towards finding her own movement formed, this incident would take on great significance.

Recently in Mumbai, at a private screening of a film on the Gati residency for emerging choreographers, the guests found themselves mulling over the space of the classical and the contemporary in dance. Some dancers in the film spoke of moving away from the classical forms they had trained in for long years to find their own expression. Did this then mean, the viewers wondered, that in contemporary dance they found a freedom that classical dance had denied to them? In not holding them back within structures and rules, contemporary dance must liberate them, they reasoned.

Launching into an imagination of contemporary dance, one is compelled to pose the trick question —how does one define contemporary dance in India? In her paper, Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircar’s work, Alessandra Lopez Y. Royo tries to unpack the word “contemporary” in the Indian context. She explains that “contemporary”, when used in western contexts with reference to Indian dance, is taken for “non-traditional” or “anti-traditional”, giving rise to an oppositional relationship where “traditional” — stable and archaic, is set up against “contemporary”, which comes with a suggestion of temporariness. She adds, “...there is a conflation with ‘contemporary’ in the sense of ‘western contemporary techniques of dance’ and this further complicates the issue, equating as it does Indian ‘contemporary’ with ‘hybrid’.”

Dance artist and teacher Mehneer Sudan feels that classical structures, by way of being older, may seem more rigid — perhaps because they have a certain historicity. “As an artist, you often begin your journey within a structure. It takes some time to understand that freedom doesn’t come from the form; it has to do with your nature, what juncture you are at in life. There can be things that bind or free you in any form. Within its ethos, contemporary dance carries a sense of experimentation – that is why you see so many ‘techniques’ emerging in contemporary dance. The spirit of change is inherent to it,” she remarks.

That several drastically different styles are bundled under the contemporary umbrella only exacerbates the situation. Contemporary dance, in the west, may be said to represent a historic progression beginning with a break from classical ballet. In India, “contemporary” is an agglomeration of several western vocabularies and the works of artistes who are grounded in classical dance but seek to push its limits. And this is not always out of frustration – it is not oppression by classical dance that drives them towards the contemporary.

Vital to the imagination of the ‘contemporary’ as a freeing space is the absent idea of rigour. Some may visualise a dance vocabulary unimpeded by structure, and often, technique. Those who allege that contemporary is flippant and half-baked point to its purported absence of rigour. By ignoring rigour, an essential element of any serious dance practice, both groups fail to recognise the process through which a contemporary dance vocabulary is catalysed and distilled.

All dance can be flippant – be it an under-rehearsed classical piece or a mindless flailing of arms and legs that masquerades as contemporary. A classical dancer cannot learn everything by imitation; she must work towards understanding how movements look on her body and internalising emotion. The famous classical dancers we admire today are not just shouldering a legacy, but have also spent a great amount of time in making the dance suit their personality, and vice versa. They must work within the boundaries of a form, but there is no lack of freedom; rather, there is too much to explore. The contemporary dancer works with reference points that shape her movement vocabulary over time.

Perhaps in contemporary dance, there is an honesty of the body, whereas classical dance prides itself on transformation. Bald men become damsels, and wrinkled ladies play warriors. That is why irascible dancers who wildly gesture to their musicians on stage are often ridiculed; yet their refusal, implicit or not, to treat the stage as an artificial space, is endearing. They visibly adhere to the notion of performance as lived experience.

Balasaraswati, who personified the improvisational freedoms of classical dance in her abhinaya, delivered a famous speech in the seventies, where she emphasised the need to find rapture through discipline. She said, “...if she humbly submits to the greatness of this art, soon enough she will find joy in that discipline; and she will realise that discipline makes her free in the joyful realm of the art.”

In the end, dance is as subjective as freedom is fraught.

May 04, 2012

Living with varicose veins

I hope that title doesn't sound pedantic and long-suffering. Even I'm not as mulish as my veins are.

Over the past 18 months, I've dealt with varicose veins. They started small, with a vein or two visible behind the knee, which didn't bother me. Then, last September, the biggest of them suddenly announced its presence. Since then, one vein steadily floods and engorges others around it, so if I stand for a few minutes, you see a tapestry of swollen veins behind my knee. Sometimes they cause discomfort, in varying degrees, and on a few occasions, twinges of pain.

They're not yet as gross as the pictures one finds on searching for 'varicose veins' on the internet, but I am told, and can see, that they will worsen if I do nothing about them. I should shut up, actually. They're not life-threatening in the least. (Varicose veins are dysfunctional veins that don't do a great job of returning the blood to the heart and cause an abnormal reversal of flow; in my case - letting it pool in the veins instead, engorging them and putting pressure on other veins.) Nevertheless, dealing with them can be spirit-sapping.

Doctors are good at siphoning out spirit. I just came back from a visit to a general surgeon who was pessimistically honest, promising no all-encompassing solutions and saying things like - but this is life, my child. In his own sincere way, he was depressing. But I appreciate that he didn't try to foist a single agenda on me. My first few visits were to a vascular surgeon who specialised in dealing with varicose veins, at a fancy hospital a stone's throw away from home. I don't know whom to blame; he was moderately precise, but everything he did or prescribed reeked of how much more money he could make off me. When you're already confused, a doctor who's sizing you up like a blank cheque really sets off alarm bells. He came with happy optimism and 97% success rates, which I'm not completely disinclined to believe, but I could see that his approach was superficial.

He also recommended that I wear support stockings.

Stockings. Life's little ironies. I clung to socks long after most people my age abandoned them. I still love socks, though I'm less anal about when to wear them now! For the past few months, I've gone around wearing a long support stocking on my left leg. This was not how I envisioned my love affair with socks - this is fate's sadistic comeback - you love socks, you wear really long ones! The veins feel better, but wearing that thing in summer is torture. I feel like a member of some cult that practices corporal mortification.

Depending on what mood I am in, I find the stocking sexy or terribly awful. They're also awfully expensive - I suddenly realise, in a moment of painful clarity, that I don't own a sari that costs that much. Warped vanity indeed - my most expensive clothing a pair of support stockings?

The cost apart, these stockings are also a pain to put on. The few times I've tried to wear this particular pair (it fits me right, of course, I've been measured for them), it took two people and fifteen minutes of trying to slide the stocking up my leg before I managed.

I'm strongly considering going in for the laser procedure that destroys the veins - when the vascular surgeon clinically described it, I couldn't help thinking it sounded like Poothanamoksham. Around the time I began wearing support stockings, I spent some days obsessively looking for information on varicose veins. I've read tons about the procedure now and about veins in general, but that doesn't leave me less confused - also because most of this is US or UK-specific. Most India-related links on the web are either maintained by vein clinics who obviously endorse their work or random stocking suppliers. At one point I really wanted to talk to others who'd been through the procedure or who've dealt with varicose veins. Call me alarmist/ maniacal for wanting a varicose veins support group, but sometimes those things help.

My favourite stance these days is a very Krishna-type thing, with my weight resting on my right leg. The veins in my left leg love it. Meanwhile, I'll keep raising my throbbing leg into the air in the middle of a meeting. But now you know that's not a pose from erotic sculpture. In sculpture, they cup their breasts, not the back of their knees. 

April 05, 2012

Dance - Asian Age: Dance moves from reel to Internet

April 5, 2012

Ranjana Dave

(Read it in the E-paper on April 5)

The story begins about two weeks ago, when dance lovers were given a compelling reason to rejoice. A kind soul uploaded the entire film Bala (1976), by Satyajit Ray, to YouTube. Produced by the government of Tamil Nadu and the NCPA, Mumbai, the film has, until now, mostly been evoked as faraway memory or legend, screened a few times and perhaps lives securely locked up in government or private archives. The excitement over the availability of a poor-quality copy of the film is indicative of the limited and restricted access to archives; simultaneously it is a testimony to the immortality of Balasaraswati’s artistry.

For those who have never heard Ray speak, the film is a revelation, because the story of Bharatanatyam is narrated in his voice. Balasaraswati is shown demonstrating different hand gestures, and their viniyogas or uses. Then there is her signature piece, Krishna nee begane baro, danced on the beach. Mother Yashoda calls Krishna, cajoling him in different ways. Her sari aflutter due to the wind, Bala’s discomfiture is evident as her attention is divided between abhinaya and attire. Yet, her hesitation and unease also foreground the spontaneity with which she dances, responding to multiple ideas suggested by a line of poetry in that moment as opposed to executing a predetermined set of gestures.

The film ends with a clip of Bala performing the Bhairavi varnam Mohamana. Speaking of the challenges of recording the varnam, which is traditionally the long, central piece in a recital, Ray says that he was anxious that the entire piece should go into one reel. Bala condensed it to twelve minutes for the shoot. Yet, Ray thought of pointing out to her that classical musicians had adapted to the 78 rpm gramophone format, whittling down their long elaboration of a raga to three minutes. In the end, he realised that she had already broken up the varnam into twelve short fragments. “This was not out of consideration for the camera,” he writes, “but to ensure perfection in her performance.”

Since its inception, Indian cinema has flirted with dance, sometimes in big ways. Famous examples include the elusive Kalpana (1948), made by Uday Shankar, whose mastery of stagecraft in those early decades of cinema in India is astounding. He populates the frame with discrete elements that add up to create striking effects – for instance, a pakhawaj and a bevy of dancers, arms stretched out with gently undulating palms.
Interestingly, the handbook of copyright law brought out by the Ministry of Human Resource Development allows that copyright lasts for 60 years. It states, “In the case of cinematograph films, sound recordings, photographs, posthumous publications, anonymous and pseudonymous publications, works of government and works of international organisations, the 60-year period is counted from the date of publication.” One could take this to mean that all Indian films coming before 1952, including Kalpana, are now, technically, out of copyright.

The question of copyright often has the most repercussions for the small fry. What resounding loss of profits or piracy threat can a low-quality video on the Internet represent for material that has not been in circulation, for profit or otherwise, for decades? The fragments of video that make it through these chinks actually serve to reinforce our memory of the dancers in them and of thoughtful filmmakers who have found inspiration in dance.

The scenario is not bleak, however. A little government interest and a number of dedicated foragers are ensuring that archival material and films on dance stay in circulation. The Films Division website features several films they have commissioned. There are alternative sites that host full-length films on culture with the permission of the makers. And then, there are niche bloggers.

One such blogger curates Minai’s Cinema Nritya Gharana, a video-focused blog that concentrates on classical dance in Indian films. Her real name is Cassidy; she lives in Utah in the United States. Each post is a well-researched foray into a certain genre or the work of specific dancers. Talking about the processes she employs to find the rare films and dances she blogs about, she says, “I have a nose for research and greatly enjoy making connections between bits of data. The information and connections lying hidden out there for me to find seems endless, especially with my interest in all the regional films and dances of India and not just Hindi films. What I've learned through unearthing this information has been invaluable to bettering my understanding of Indian dance and films. I use text-searchable tools to access primary and secondary sources, videos, and database results.  It does take some finesse to know what terms to search with - that are most likely to bring the desired result.”

In some cases, Cassidy has tried to get in touch with the filmmakers, but it is hard, because the films she is interested in are often over fifty years old and their makers are not always alive. She points out that the reverse has happened, where people associated with those films have contacted her. “The son of the male Kuchipudi dancer in the Telugu film Ananda Bhairavi commented on a video I had uploaded from the film; he clearly had such pride in his father and wanted to document his film work and state his father's current contact information. Given that the film was released almost 30 years ago, this is a prime example of how the internet allows us to find one another,” she remarks.

Later this week, Odissi dancers across the world will mount tributes to mark the 8th death anniversary of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Not many know that Mohapatra starred in Bhavantarana (Immanence), a 1991 documentary by Kumar Shahani, which lives on in the digital era as a short clip on the internet.  Bhavantarana begins uniquely by focusing on Orissa’s red earth, and not its splendid sculpture. There are scenes that bring to the viewer details of Mohapatra’s early life – growing up in Raghurajpur and working in betel plantations as a child. In an eloquent nod to Ray’s Bala dancing on the beach, Shahani also has Mohapatra perform a pure dance sequence, Arabhi Pallavi, on the beach. Between Balasaraswati and Mohapatra, the latter is slightly more adventurous; he dances surrounded by water, the hem of his dhoti peaceably lapping the waves.

January 20, 2012

Free! Free! Free!

(This piece first appeared in the Asian Age on January 19, 2012)

Ever wondered why classical dancers never write to financial columns in newspapers and magazines, asking how to invest their assets? That’s because sweat-stained silks and paper flowers are not sound investment options. If a dancer is lucky enough to come out of a performance with a cheque, it takes a few minutes of discreet backstage envelope-passing for the money to spread itself thin and wear out. The half-rotten flowers that are handed out indiscriminately at dance programmes last longer.
Gone are the glorious days of gurukul education, where a lifetime of experience in kneading corpulent hands and feet was directly proportional to artistic knowledge. Learning dance and aspiring to dance professionally calls for a significant investment of time, energy, faith and money; thus dancers are not being unfair when they look at dance performance as a means of survival.

Instead, the pattern that seems to replicate itself ceaselessly is — performing becomes a hobby, an indulgence; most young classical dancers seem to make more money teaching. What they earn as dance teachers goes into paying for costumes, jewellery, music and performance opportunities.

Performance opportunities are not scarce; nowadays, every reasonably flat surface becomes a stage and voila! You have a dance festival. Glitzy ads invite dancers to apply to such dance festivals by sending fat packages with DVDs and press reviews to pokey addresses. Cursorily scan these ads and you will find the “nots” right at the bottom — we do “not” pay for transport, we do “not” pay performers, and so on.

Kuchipudi dancer Amrita Lahiri feels that as a young dancer, one might invest in performing for the sake of visibility. “But,” she remarks, “it is a very unhealthy system; it leads to corruption. Only the ones who can afford to perform end up dancing. Organisers seem to think they’re doing dancers a favour by giving them the space to perform. After a certain point, you begin to feel you deserve better. I believe in what I have been taught and in the strength of the art form itself. There must be some dignity to professional performance.”

It is a strange situation because no one else in the dance world is working for free. Try telling the light technicians that you will not pay them for their efforts and you might just end up organising a candlelight dance festival. How, and when, did paying dancers end up last on the list of priorities?

When the performing arts were sustained mostly by temple and court patronage, the payment was often in kind. In some cases, temple dancers were awarded land by the temple. A village that engaged a drama troupe would defray all its expenses and send it on its way with generous gifts. There is also the somewhat misplaced but oft-expressed notion that dance is a spiritual pursuit. Dance is divine and is tainted by the mention of money. Even dancers pay taxes though, and at `5,000 a month, the government scholarship offered to young artistes barely covers ‘rigorous training’, let alone ‘living expenses on travelling, books, art material or other equipment and tuition or training charges, if any’.
Odissi dancer Jhelum Paranjape feels that unpaid performance opportunities are also on the rise because more and more dancers are willing to dance for free. She explains, “There is very limited patronage in the arts. In the olden times, the engagements were often long-term. Money might have not changed hands but the artistes were taken care of in every way. Now, like with any other choice of profession, when you spend your money on dance because you want to make it a career; it must pay you back!”

Dancer-guru VP Dhananjayan is all for strict action against those who organise festivals without having the means to support them well. He confirms that even certain senior performers may agree to perform for free if the venue or occasion is prestigious enough. He says, “I have been instrumental in getting sabhas to offer some remuneration to senior dancers — though not a big amount. Senior artistes should be honest enough not to accept performances without proper remuneration. The government could perhaps step in and take action against fly-by-night organisations and make them accountable for every performance they organise.”

It is all too easy to caricature festival organisers as unthinking villains; however, what makes organisers want to mount ambitious annual festivals even when funds are scarce? For instance, Anwesa Mahanta, a young Sattriya dancer and researcher, started the Pragjyoti Dance Festival in Guwahati because the city never had a regular festival of classical dance. “We have a rich performance tradition in the region, but Guwahati only had the occasional festival organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Private sponsors generously contribute to pop culture causes, but they are reluctant to sponsor classical dance programmes, also because they are waiting to see if it serves their purposes and generates publicity for them. We pay dancers’ their train fare and look after their stay and food in Guwahati. If I invited a big name from Indian music, it might have been easier to find sponsors, but a Zakir Hussain can perform here despite me — my festival aims to bring younger, less-established, nevertheless, very talented dancers to Guwahati. It is a new concept, so people are still sceptical. But I feel vindicated when audiences still reminisce about young artistes who danced at Pragjyoti in previous years. It proves that people appreciate their talent and skill,” she says.