(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.