In spite of the profusion of dance events, classical dance languishes in comparison to music as it just does not get enough sponsorship or funding.
It is that time of the year in Chennai again, when culture is in the air. Margazhi, or December, is a magical month in the city. In a matter of few weeks, around 1,500 music performances take place. There are dance performances every day as well. It is one of the largest celebrations of arts in the world. The festival is completely privately-funded. The state government plays no role in this. Chennai has now got international recognition for nurturing the arts, particularly music. The city has been included in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network for its rich musical tradition. A total of 64 cities from 44 countries have been selected to be part of this network.
In spite of the profusion of dance events, classical dance languishes in comparison to music as it just does not get enough sponsorship or funding. Anita Ratnam, the recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (Akademi Award) for Contemporary Dance for 2016, who is known to speak her mind, tells me over lunch about the problems faced by dancers in the country. She also tells me about the lack of facilities for the performing arts. She is trained in classical Bharatanatyam and many other classical dance forms, and has been a performer for almost four decades. Anita has been constantly experimenting and has created a new contemporary dance idiom for which she received the award.
We meet at Mezze, the Mediterranean café at the Wandering Artist, an arts and culture space, which offers adults and young people a variety of arts experiences. Generally, this café is a small and cosy place to have an uninterrupted conversation, although it is buzzing with activity, especially now. “The costs of conducting festivals are going up. Music is flourishing. Concerts are being live-streamed and people subscribe to listen to them. But this is not happening to dance,” she says, as we examine the menu. She asks for fried olives with cheese in harissa sauce; I want to try avocado hummus and falafel. Both turn out to be good choices. “Dance performances are more expensive to put together, compared to music. The dancer has to pay for her musicians who get more and more expensive each year. Then we have to worry about costumes, make up, lighting and many other things. The premier institution in the city, the Music Academy, pays between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000 per performance. This hardly covers costs. Historically, dance is the most expensive of all the arts to create, sustain and perform. A dancer has a short lifespan. A lot of dancers have to spend out of pocket to be able to dance during the prestigious Margazhi season. They don’t even get picked up and dropped from the venues they are asked to perform,” Anita says. She adds that the government has sufficient funds to promote the performing arts. “However, I cannot say that a lot of imagination or thinking goes into how to spend it effectively.” Politics plays a role in arts management. “The flavour of the moment is the Northeast. The focus is all on developing the arts in this part of the country. A certain amount of money is kept aside. That money has to be spent. As a result, all the board meetings of government-funded institutions take place in the Northeast. Award functions are conducted there. Other states do not get this kind of attention.”
Politics also plays a role in the selection of the heads of institutions. “Kalakshetra in Chennai is one of the four world-famous dance schools funded by the government. It has been headless for six months, as are many other arts institutions. These institutions get Rs 12 to Rs 14 crore per year. But the state does not seem to be interested in how they are run or who heads them. The excuse given is, let us wait for the Gujarat elections to be over,” she says. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) also comes in for some criticism from Anita. The ICCR-sponsored tours used to be a prized part of a dancer’s itinerary. “Now, dancers are fleeing from these tours. The programmes are badly organised, accommodation provided is terrible and payments come months later.” We have asked for a date and rosewater cold drink and are persuaded to also try lemon grass iced tea. We decide to share a plate of roasted mushrooms. Anita laments the fact that infrastructure for performing arts is so woefully inadequate. “There are very few proper auditoriums for dance performances in even our major cities. You can count them on your fingers—the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai; Kamani Auditorium in Delhi; the Music Academy in Chennai; Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bengaluru are notable exceptions. For Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birthday, the government funded Tagore Halls all over the country. Only two have halogen lights which are so necessary. Acoustics are terrible in most performing spaces. People are investing in Bose speakers. But they are installed without consulting experts. Even the Music Academy does not have the FOH (Front Overhead Hang). Lighting is done from the balcony.” She also talks about the lack of toilet facilities. “Women artists suffer in most places. So do the audience. The Music Academy alone has addressed this problem. Barring this institution, green rooms everywhere else in Chennai are in a decrepit condition. Access to the handicapped is not even thought off,” Anita says.
The noise level is increasing in Mezze. We decide to taste the baklava, which turns out to be average, before we wind up. The restaurant serves excellent Turkish coffee. I ask Anita how she thinks dance will sustain itself? “People are not willing to pay to see dance performances. They would rather go to the canteen and spend money there. The electronic media doesn’t bother with even brilliant artists. Very few newspapers in the country give enough space for arts. Chennai can boast of 20 city magazines. They do not cover dance. Classical arts are not particularly sought after. We are constantly asked to create fusion pieces.” One way of keeping dance alive can come from public-private partnership. “The government has to give grants to emerging artists. We can try to follow the UK and Europe models, where artists are hand held by the government. They teach you to become professional and help you when you retire. In India, I suggest the government gets into partnership with local sponsors as a beginning.” As we leave, we notice a whole lot of young people rushing into the Wandering Artist to listen to film music played on Western instruments!