Why Indian Classical Dance Is Dying

Posted by Joyeeta Talukdar in Culture-Vulture
September 26, 2017

“This embodiment of sound and rhythm, which creates poetry of spiritual expression is called dance or nritya,” excerpts from verses of Rukmini Devi Arundhale, a veteran dancer and an Indian theosophist describes the beauty of what Indian classical dance is all about. But, over past few decades although the stages and performers of Indian Classical dance forms have increased the question that arises, “Why has the quality of these classical dance forms and the number of audiences specifically in India been deteriorating drastically?”

In a rock show, there are thousands in the audience whereas in a classical dance program the number of claps is hardly in hundreds. A few front rows are found to be occupied and the rest remains empty. Performers always want to hear claps from the audience, but the tragedy is that the number of audiences is decreasing day by day in India.

Somewhere the lack of knowledge among the audience about classical dance forms is also minimising since critics who play a catalyst among the performers and the audience are also decreasing and aren’t entertained in a positive aspect in this world of classical dance.

Leela Venkatraman, a veteran dance critic of India in one of her interview’s back in 2008 with Lalitha Venkat said, “Twenty years ago, when dance was still not as widespread as it is today, critics too were more knowledgeable, and writing on dance was viewed more seriously. With space in dailies getting scarce for dance writing, journalists who are generalists not particularly well versed in dance or music are being given the task of writing, what today is more in the nature of dance chatter. Thus, dance critic who is supposed to be the interface between the dancer and the audience, and the principle contribution would be to really encourage a dialogue between the two, which would enable one to ideationally make dance richer by bringing about a greater awareness in the audience of what to look for in dance and to give the dancer also a feel of how his work has been viewed and responded to. In India today, I feel with all the changes taking place – there is a widening gap between the dancer and the people who should form part of his/her audience.”

Indian Dancers And Their Relationship With Criticism

Criticism isn’t appreciated in any field, be it science or arts. Psychology says that “It’s in the human trait that we are afraid of criticism since no one finds flaws in their hard work and neither wants anyone else to criticise it.” But until and unless ones work is being criticised the flaws and loopholes can’t be found out. Same is in the case of classical dance forms in India. Real criticism is never entertained specifically by the senior section of dancers. They don’t want their creations to be presented in media negatively despite the fact that they get least audience appreciation.

In one of his talks on August 27, 2014, at the ‘Dance Criticism – The macro and micro perspectives’ hosted by Lalit Kala Kendra, Pune, Dr Sunil Kothari said, “Criticism unfortunately in the Indian context is not understood by the dancers. I suspect and have come to believe that since the theme of dance centres around the gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, they are all the time being praised. Therefore if something is offered as ‘critical evaluation’ of dance performance in place of mere praise, the dancers are not used to taking it gracefully. They are hurt if there is the slightest criticism. This feeling of ‘hurt’ is further aggravated if the criticism is done in ‘harsher words’ which stings the dancers and it ‘rankles’ for a long time. The dancer’s and the critic’s relation gets estranged. The critic then is seen as a person whom dancers do not want to attend and review their performances.

Critics find it difficult to express their opinions in print about performances which are not up to the mark. However gently it is stated, the dancers do not like it. In India, unlike in the West, dance critics and dancers mix with each other, visit their homes, accept their hospitality, become friends, meet socially and in general develop bonhomie. The distance necessary between dancers and critics is not maintained. Even if it is maintained, by and large, the criticism is not appreciated, whereas, in the West, a critic does not develop a friendship with dancers and strictly keeps away from them. It is considered ‘a conflict of interest’.”

Until and unless criticism is being entertained with a positive attitude by the artists the flaws of the performance can’t be understood in accordance with the understanding of the audience since critics are the bridge who watch like audience but think like artists.

The Dilemma Between Tradition And Talent

One of the main drawbacks of this declining classical dance forms is the dilemma between tradition and talent. In India, all classical dance forms have been taught in ‘Guru-Sishya Parampara (Teacher-student relationship)’. Now with the increase of the number of stages somewhere the maintenance of ‘traditionalism’ of this parampara has become more of a puppet show.

At a point, the Guru and the sishyas have become the main competitors amongst themselves. In the name of the ‘traditionalism’, it is seen more of ‘fencing the talents within the boundaries of this parampara and resisting changes.’ The scenario where there should be the total environment of flourishing and enrichment through symbiotic knowledge sharing has however now become more of a platform of envy and competition.

The scenario where there should be the utmost environment of flourishing and enrichment through symbiotic knowledge sharing has however now become more of a platform of envy and competition. The scenario seems to be well explained in the book, “Louise Lightfoot in Search of India: An Australian Dancer’s Experience” which talks about the dilemma of how the scenario of Indian traditional dance form schools are at stake. The gurus are afraid of leaving the platforms for their shishyas for their identities might be lost.

In Shreeparna Ghosal’s write-ups, “Dance Dialogues: Conversations Across Cultures, Artforms And Practices Under Re-Thinking The Way We Teach Dance” back in 2008 she explains that “The guru–sishya parampara can’t be questioned and has even been maintained till date. But, this parampara has its own pros and cons. Some gurus are afraid of losing their identities and thus, the creative aspect of the sishyas having the capability of exploring the new pathways in this field are being blocked by preparing them only in the way the guru wants so that their identity remains established for long.” 

Further, Shreeparnaji quotes in her write-up, “Our gurus were extremely creative but because they were too conscious of consolidating their individual styles they tended to fall into a creative rut that induced certain sameness. Though this identified and differentiated one school from another, it also worked to isolate the form, not share it. It was left to the disciples training under the gurus to carry on their work. Curiously, independence is not looked upon kindly in the Indian culture, be it within the social structure of the family or a unit of the artistic community. The ensuing friction between a guru and the disciple who wants to strike out on his/her own creative journey is a common occurrence.”

Madurai R Muralidharan said, “I fear that it’s not going to be possible for the future generation to get recognition without the recommendation and pleasing of ministers and other ‘unqualified personalities.’ There is a group of seniors holding the post of advisory boards, always supporting each others’ students, and their favourite people to get scholarships, grants, awards from central government schemes. I experienced this when I applied to the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Even after my 45 years of experience in dance, these people sabotage actual talents by not recommending and stop artists from getting ahead in the initial stage itself. I don’t have any fear to say this; this is a fact. I fear that the next generation of ‘seniors’ will have the same ways and follow in their footsteps. So somewhere ‘talent’ is being left off, and in the name of “Parampara” and the dark clouds of deterioration are surrounding the rich classical dance culture of India.”

In summary, the insecurity of losing one’s throne is holding back the gurus to let off the platform for their students or keep the threads of controlling sishyas in their hands to keep their reign going.

An Increasing Lack Of Knowledge and Perseverance Is Contributing To This Decline

Last but not the least is lack of knowledge and perseverance the about the classical dance forms even among the artists. Shreeparnaji says, “It’s true that long years of rigorous training on one particular form of classical dance insulates the mentality of the artists, but one should never remain totally illiterate to the other classical dance forms.”

The forms might be different, but the vocabulary of the forms remains the same. As such to keep pace with the changing and bring along all forms on one platform, there is the utmost necessity of educating oneself too.  Lack of knowledge is somewhere today’s world is associated with the increasing commercialisation.

In order to keep pace themselves with the of marketing oneself – ‘glamour’ takes over the purity of maintaining the rawness of the classical form’ thus failing to continue educating oneself through stringent training schedule which is of utmost importance in this field.

Fame is something that people think is easily acquirable through social media sites and has become one of the major causes of lack of perseverance among the learners of these classical forms. It is important for them to understand that rather than exposing oneself to frequent stage performances it’s necessary to concentrate on mastering the principles underlying the particular classical form.

Shreeyaji speaks up in her write-up for this section that, “There is the utmost necessity for the learners to understand  the principles underlying a classical dance form are both scientific and artistic, encompassing a total education and not just relegated to a physical level.”

Thus, the time for reawakening has come to save the saintliness of the Indian classical dance forms which are the epitome of Indian philosophy. It’s essential for the artists to redefine the parameters between gurus and sishyas, where instead of living in a plastic world of love they join hands together as a team to re-establish a link between the arts and daily life.

This is because educating the general audience is not the sheer responsibility of the critics itself but the artists too, where they need to simplify the language of their complex hard work to be easily understandable by the audience. It’s only then that the hard work of the team of artists shall never go unappreciated.

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