From Proscenium to the Public: Alternative Spaces in Performance

by Ashwini Raghupathy

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Ddebiprasad Sahoo

In April earlier this year, a video was uploaded on Youtube which created a furor that launched a barrage of discussions on social media which continue even today. The clip showed a dancer Aleksy Furdak, also known as Gaura Natraj Das, an American performing Bharatanatyam in a metro station in the USA. (http://www.southreport.com/classical-dance-in-new-york-subway/) ) This performance was not the first of its kind, as other dancers, including myself, have been exploring public spaces to present traditional Indian dances. Here you see another Bharatanatyam dancer, Jai Khalsa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUBWtuxyiUQ, and here is a video featuring me which encapsulated a little of my work in this area : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GCXHbycgd4)

While I personally have not spoken to the above-mentioned dancers, I have realised from my own experience that there will be detractors every time one challenges the status quo in any field. When I started to dance Odissi in the parks and streets of Bangalore. I received a fair share of criticism, some of which I have outlined here:

Religion and Spirituality

The main objection is the claim that Indian dances are very spiritual in nature and dancing in public spaces is not in accordance to this belief. In fact, a few mention that it is almost akin to worshipping God in the toilet. (insulting God?)
The ‘spiritual’ branding most often used for classical dance, while helping to generate a more ‘exotic’ appeal to the art , can run the risk of doing a great disservice to the dance form and the dancers. Practical discourse of the form is affected when we assign ourselves to speak of it only in spiritual and often vague lingo.

Termed ‘seekers of spirituality,’ dancers are not expected to earn money, performances or market their classes. Another damaging aspect of the ‘spiritual’ tag is the isolation of dancers from the [mainstream]community. Using the “spirituality” tag, dancers rarely step out of their comfort zones to make attempts at taking their art to a wider audience.

Tradition and History

Indian dances have a rich history and tradition; there is a certain class to it which is robbed by street dancing
Odissi’s past is intricately woven with religion and patronage. While dancers were dedicated to temples, they were vital members of the community and enjoyed the patronage of Kings and noblemen.

The tradition today of dancing in auditoriums has unfortunately become very elitist in nature, catering to a very specific dance-literate audience alone. Street dancing on the other hand is often considered ‘low class’ by members of the elite dance community.

A senior dancer who saw my work wrote to me saying that he was very uncomfortable when he saw that I was dancing Odissi on the streets and thought that it was not in accordance to tradition or the spiritual nature of the dance. However, he said, he soon realised that our tradition was indeed one which celebrated dances in the heart of the community, in its public spaces, whether it was the Devadasi dance in the temples or the ‘theru Koothu’ on street corners. Also, if Purandara Dasa himself sang on the streets, how could this reaching out not be considered spiritual?

Context/Mood

Any dancer who has performed on stage knows that it is not dancing alone but the stage decor, lighting and high quality music which all come together to create the mood of a performance.
While various elements contribute to the experience of a show, what if the artist’s interests lie elsewhere and not in stagecraft? Dancing in public spaces, whether it is in temples, parks or malls is a great way to initiate dialogue. While the artist may not be manipulating the entire mood of the show, he/she is enhancing or adding a special value to an existing space and context. The dancer creates a sense of surprise and curiosity in a random place, breaking down barriers and encouraging the audience to step closer and ask questions, or even tell their own stories.

Career Prospects

Dancing publicly can hinder one’s dance career. In doing so one will not be taken seriously and furthermore, it can damage one’s reputation as an artist.
Many dancers will agree that we are very rich in experiences, emotions, creativity and in choosing something that fulfills us as very few other things could. But a dance career is an oxymoron as of today in India. There are no mapped-out opportunities, conventional growth options or remuneration to commensurate our efforts.

Existing festival circuits provide little scope for upcoming artists: barring a select few, organizers are not willing to pay for the performance, transport, accommodation, and lastly and most importantly, the art. What is worse is that most festivals expect the artist to pay for the opportunity to perform. Grant applications are too cumbersome with rewards that do not match the efforts.

When I first started dancing I was faced with some common challenges: I had no space to rehearse and I was not flush with performing opportunities. When I started dancing in Cubbon Park, I was not driven by some ideological point of view, it was simply that I had seen my problem from another angle. I realised that this public space was free of cost, and practising there on a regular basis gave me an audience and an opportunity to network with artistes and other interesting people.

I then went on to explore this throughout the year, where I danced extensively in different spaces. During this time, I came to discover the village temple shows circuit. Village temples often have all night long ‘jatres’ or fairs which bring together local folk artistes. Performing at these venues, the village provides the artist with attentive and appreciative audiences, food, and accommodation. Often the venues themselves are scenic treats, tucked away in pockets between hills, rivers and forests.

Dancing in public spaces is to simply a gimmick to get attention.
Despite the many challenges we face, there is an immense love in everyone who has ever been touched by Odissi. However in the process of gaining depth in this art form, we often lose sight of the larger picture. We spend so much time trying to determine whether we fit into the dance form that we fail to see whether the dance form itself fits in today’s contemporary context.

Taking this dance form into a market place, street corner, or subway generates interest which goes beyond the closed dance community.

Years ago when I was reaching out to dancers to participate in the Odissi flashmob that I organised(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLcyAIIIeCs), there were many who remarked that it wasn’t art, because it seemed too popular and gimmicky. But speaking on behalf of all the dancers who participated in the flash-mob, it was a truly beautiful way of reaching out and sharing a moment with our audience. If that special connection is not art then what is?

Moreover, when discussing engagement, the videos mentioned in the first paragraph have received extensive viewership: Jai Khalsa who uploaded her video in 2009 getting over 40000 views, my Odissi Odyssey video which was uploaded in 2013 has more than 25000 views and Aleksy’s which was uploaded a couple of months back has close to 30000 hits.

Making the classical art form into an act of begging
In examining the comments following the videos, it is interesting to note that while Jai Khalsa and I received a relatively kind reception, Aleksy seems to have earned himself a barrage of detractors. I believe it is because Aleksy addressed the issue of money. Issues of class often seems to emerge from these discussions. People become uncomfortable if one spreads a mat for money for a street performance. Oscar Wilde sums it up for dancers who do not have the financial support and resources when he said ‘It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”

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On a personal note, when preparing for a performance in a public space, I am always a little nervous and apprehensive. It is a very unusual,yet brave undertaking. But to manage the performance successfully, I fill my heart with so much love that nothing else is important but the love of dance. Ultimately what matters most is the special connection that I will make in the middle of a random space.

 

 

Comments

  1. Dear Ashwini,
    Thank you for this very insightful and reflective article. I personally do not dance Odissi, but the issues that you address when it comes to performing in public space and what does it do to the dance performance itself are something that I have been think about for a long time, as a belly dancer. I begin to see how space of the stage can become a safe place, and even beautiful and challenging at times, can also limit us and our work. Not to mention other issues conserving finances and actually getting a chance to share your work on stage. Public spaces seem to be still raraly explored spaces and it is good to hear about any new experiences that happen there. I do think that changing the context and space can challenge us as dancers and ‘sharpen’ our performances.
    Glad that you opend up this important topic.:)
    Greetings,
    Sonja

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