The 2013-14 Season

So, the season came, people thronged sabhas and now it is time to look back. Am I right? Early this month, an article by Nandini Krishnan came out in Fountain Ink titled “Many discontents of the Season”. It was a very well written article, indeed. It covered both music and dance. While it ran for pages, it was the abridged version! So, Nandini Krishnan has posted the un-edited article on her blog. (

Infographic Courtesy: Fountain Ink

Infographic Courtesy: Fountain Ink

There were some nuggets, not in any specific order, I am quoting below:

On Sabhas

There are those who have moved to India, who have learnt languages to understand their art better, and still struggle for acceptance. There are those who have stopped performing, because they couldn’t deal with the politics of the Season. There are those who have rebelled, by starting their own sabhas. There are those who are expanding their skill set, dancers who are becoming musicians too, instrumentalists who want to make a mark as vocalists.

There are several rules that must not be breached. While artists are promoted over time, no one must be demoted. Ideally, no dancer or vocalist should perform more than once in the same sabha; no accompanist should perform more than twice.

We know a lot of rasikas who are well-versed with the music and dance scene, and who will tell you who is good and who is not. We also refer to the gurus. We restrict performances to two, or at the most three, students per guru for one Season. For example, if there are ten students of Sudharani Raghupathi, or Urmila Sathyanarayanan, or Swapnasundari applying, we ask them whom they would prefer us to give chances to.

“There’s a lot of lobbying involved,” a dancer said, “You need to be seen in the right places, the right slots. You need to keep applying till people get fed up of seeing your application and give you a chance. You have to go and talk to people. There’s no scope, at least in dance, to be modest or idealistic. There are dancers who really go out of their way to market themselves.”

The dancer was performing at a sabha, which required a payment of Rs 10,000 for a lifetime membership. The night before her performance, the Secretary told her that her musicians would have to become members too. “And she’s like, ‘But, they’re my orchestra, they’re with me.’ He says they have to pay to perform here. And so she has to cough up Rs 60,000. And you have no choice. You do these things, and you’re afraid to speak about them, because you’re dependent on the sabhas. And you’ve invested so much in your career already, and you don’t want to ruin it all by kicking up a fuss. It’s f**ked up, and it should be written about, because sometimes you’re like, ‘Do I need all this bullshit? And what am I getting from it?’”

On NRIs in dance scene

But why not dance in New York and get rave reviews? What’s special about the Season? Do you have to take back cuttings from The Hindu’s review section to cement your brand? – she explained. “If I came to perform in Chennai once in ten years, it would be very difficult to develop any momentum, any sort of community of people who return to watch my shows or follow my work in any way. Building a sense of community and mutual recognition, where you recognise your audience, and they recognise you back, is very important for an artist.”

A little while later, I was to see that NRIs had to deal with yet another challenge – that of language. As the vocalist sang the Surdas bhajan, Shyam tori murali nek bajao, Professor Chandrashekhar stopped Malini. “Nek means beautiful. You’re making a movement as if to say nek is ‘me’.”…Later, Malini would tell me, “I mean, it was hard enough learning Tamil and Sanskrit, and then you find you’re lost because you don’t know Braj! Like, it’s bad enough when languages are completely different from each other, but when you find similar words in different languages that have absolutely no similarity in meaning, it’s like…uh, God!”

“You get so angry, because it goes back also to the assumption that NRIs have money,” another said, “I mean, so many of us try so hard to save up, we do crazy things, rearrange our every schedule and finances just so that we can be here. It’s work, and it’s a commitment to this place. It’s not fun. And it’s ridiculous to think we buy our way into everything.”

Male dancer

Ironically, while being a male dancer has its disadvantages, it does have a silver lining. Sabha Secretaries assume that male dancers don’t get much support, which is largely the case.

Arangetram business

One of the teachers I studied under was keen for me to do an arangetram, though I not only wasn’t interested in going pro, but knew I wasn’t good enough. Her charges for an arangetram were Rs 1.5 lakh at the time, and I procrastinated by asking for a few years to hone my craft….When my teacher went abroad during summer, she supervised three to four arangetrams. The guru dakshina went up to Rs 5 lakh for Indian students. It was likely more for the NRIs. I quit soon after she told me that people said she should be charging Rs 8-10 lakh for an arangetram.

on Heckling of artists

At a concert by Abhishek Raghuram that I attended, at the Gymkhana Club, a lady in the audience stood up and asked, “Excuse me, what raagam is this?” Abhishek was still singing, and several people around her hissed. But she persisted, with, “Hello, excuse me!” until she forced him out of his reverie and got her answer.

What’s next?

Leela Samson worries that the balance may have been tilted, because those who can afford to book slots and make “donations” are willing to, especially NRIs. That means people working as hard, or harder, but who cannot afford to slip envelopes across the table, are getting a bit of a raw deal. Meanwhile, those who are willing to pay money are fuelling a market. Sabhas need money. Though there are sponsor logos and banners all over, contributions from sponsors may be as minimal as Rs 5000. The better-known sabhas won’t sell their slots. But, “If someone is willing to buy 50 more chairs, for two performances, which small sabha would say no?”

“I think we need to introspect to know why, understand why,” [Leela Samson] said. “There are soloists now, but all of us are using too many ways of attracting your attention. We’ve moved away from the classical, I think, and we’ve got gimmicky. I can see a trend in Bharatanatyam where all of us are beginning to look very alike, and trends are very dangerous. If we all start dancing like each other, it’s a very sad day for the art. You have to learn to stay by your personality, your intelligence, your spiritual leanings, your sense of amusement, you have to carry that on to the stage. If you’re forfeiting that to be like somebody else, that’s unforgiveable.”

Chitravina Ravikiran sums it all up. “The Season is the Season. You can’t do anything about it. You can keep saying that all these sabhas should combine into five sabhas like before, but it’s evolving in its own natural way. And as long as there are organisers, and as long as there’s funding, it will keep happening. But it’s very good training ground for young artists. It’s also very healthy that so much funding is available for the classical arts. I think the positives outweigh the negatives.”

Read the full text here:


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