Thursday, 19 September 2013

A meeting with some dancers of the diaspora

In San Jose, California

By Nandini Ramani

I spent a nice evening with some of the renowned dancers of the San Jose, CA area sometime last year, where we discussed interesting issues pertaining to the dance scene there. I met Mythili Kumar and her daughter Rasika, Indumathy Ganesh and her daughter Akshaya, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, Vidya Subramaniam, Jayanthi Sridharan, and Radhika Shankar who shared their observations and experiences over crunchy, hot pizzas.

Mythili (director of Abhinaya Dance Company), Indumathy (Nrithyollasa Dance Academy), Vidya, and Nirupama (Sankalpa Dance Foundation) narrated how they spend as much time on logistics of a production as they do on choreographing and directing it. This came as a surprise to me as it was quite contrary to the notions we have of dancers in the diaspora. Wherever I travelled in the United States, I found dancers stating in public that it was not so easy to produce and mount a dance production – be it solo or group. Government grants are usually given for specific projects, and the dancers, by and large, have to raise their own resources. As a result, dancers have to combine the roles of artist and art administrator and learn to manage behind-the-scenes logistics including renting of performance venues, conducting publicity and PR for specific productions, and dedicating time for fundraising. Pretty similar to what we find in India! Most often, revenues from ticket sales are insufficient to cover all performance costs.

When I asked them about the reception in the US to a traditional Bharatanatyam margam, the dancers said it was a challenge to adhere to margam-based solo performances as the audience did not respond favourably to watching the same local dancer perform repeatedly. Moreover, grants are given more frequently for group productions which also draw a considerable audience.

Mythili, Indumathy, Vidya and Nirupama have all choreographed and presented many group productions over the three decades of their residency in the US, roping in many of their own students to perform in these works. Vidya Subramaniam, who has been performing in India and the US, said that of late her focus has been more on her own solo performances and works.

Before the meeting, I watched a rehearsal session of Mythili’s production titled Gandhi, a video presentation of Rasika and Akshaya’s duet, and a classroom session of Indumathy. All these gave me an insight into the dedication and commitment which these dancers have brought to their work and chosen paths.

Do dancers in the US feel that Bharatanatyam is an important means to keep in touch with their roots and to propagate Indian culture in the US? Yes, they all chime in one voice. Many Indian parents in the US want their children to learn Bharatanatyam and perform. Mythili Kumar and Indumathy have conducted more than 100 arangetrams each and have also trained and shaped their own daughters to blossom into fine dancers. But how many in the next generation will take up dance as a full-time career remains to be seen.

The other issues which the dancers raised pertained to the Indian scene, such as the impact of NRI presence, paid programmes, awards and recognitions, and the challenges faced in getting performance opportunities in major arts festivals in India.

At the end of the day, however, I was left with a happy feeling after watching the creative energies of these dancers, their positive approach to their artistic lives, and their attempts to find unity in diversity, which is indeed the underlying current of our various artistic pursuits.

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