Nationality vs. Quality: The Foreigner Fixation in Odissi Dance

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Photo Courtesy: Maya Kabir

 

by Fatima Montero

India is the land where philosophy proclaimed in earlier times so ‘ham asmi andatman brahman and developed the most beautiful texts about the identification with the divine and oneness. We should remember this idea of unity and apply it to our arts. For decades now, artistes from around the world have learnt Odissi dance both in India and abroad. We owe our gratitude to brave women like Sharon Lowen and Ileana Citaristi, who came to Odisha under far more difficult circumstances to study this art form. We also owe our gratitude to Gurus of that generation who were open-minded-enough and who trusted and cared for their students, opening the gateway for so many of us in the process. Unfortunately, despite the decades that have passed since their arrival, the existence of non-Indian Odissi dancers in Odisha remains a novelty. It is absolutely normal that societies will experience a ‘culture shock’ when citizens from distant parts of the world come to their land. When this happens, there are different ways to manage it: confrontation, normal acceptance (integration) and a third way, which is the one that I think continued to exist in many regions of the world, and also in Odissi: surprise and exoticism

The world we live in today is extremely connected; news and information are readily available in ways we never could have imagined. Access to information regarding other countries and cultures should enhance our exposure to and understanding of one another’s cultures. It should also be more common to host artists without having to consider their nationalities.

In my country, Spain, in the National Dance Company, which is our publicly funded (touring) dance company that represents the nation around the world; almost half of the dancers are not Spanish (including Asian artistes such as the great dancer and choreographer Nandita Shankardass, who is British of Indian descent). Good dancers are good dancers, regardless of the colour of their skin or the language of the passport. There are a number of music and dance styles that have expanded throughout the world in the last century: European ballet, Spanish flamenco, Polinesian dances, Latin-American salsa and tango or modern styles from USA, to name a few. This global development has had a positive impact on ballet, modern and contemporary dance, because while traditions are kept alive, new schools and styles grow, technique is refined, and the competition allows for more diverse productions whilst pushing for quality.  The same thing can happen for Indian dance while maintaining their intrinsic essence: allow the global diffusion of Indian performing arts push the quality higher, not lower.

There are many festival organizers in India that specifically request “foreign dancers.” We should never encourage this type of thinking/programming. Rather we should insist the selection criteria focus on quality. Why does this continue to happen? On one hand, there is a perception of some kind of added “glamour” in a festival that includes foreign dancers. Foreign-born dancers will obviously have a very different ‘look,’ many are fairer skinned and taller than the average Indian/Odia-born-dancers, which the (local) general public will find different from what they are used to seeing, something “special.” The problem is that dance is an art, anything “special” reflected in the presentation should be whatever dance-related skill the artiste can demonstrate, rather than something as superficial as physical appearance. Most dance festivals that include foreign dancers in India claim to be ‘international’ because of it. The purpose of an international festival should be to present the best artists, even if they stay abroad, rather than including whichever foreign-born dancers that happen to be in town at that particular time. Festival organizers should always be artists or individuals with enough knowledge to decipher quality in order to select the best performances that they can according to their budgets and circumstances. One should also not assume that the public would be interested in the nationality of the artiste. Just as nationality should be irrelevant when applying for a job, the same mentality should be used when curating a performance. Watching a foreign dancer can be surprising or catching for a brief moment, but Odissi is much bigger and more beautiful than someone’s physical appearance. The dance is not the dancer, the dancer is a vehicle. The art itself will attain excellence only if we push for better and better quality. If we continue to support a selection criteria based on friendships, exchange of favors or the color of the skin, we are doing more harm to the art than good.

There are also non-Indian dancers who insist on performing in India to validate their abilities so that they can teach and perform in their respective countries. There are good, average and bad non-Indian dancers, of course, but back in one’s respective countries organizers will assume that performing in India must equivilate quality. There is a deep and sad lack of knowledge about Indian music, theatre and dance outside of India, so the filter for quality should be conducted in India. Teachers, Gurus, organizers and critics should push dance students to work hard, study enough and gain some experience before promoting them, and doing it in a fair and equitable way. That said, now that so much information is available worldwide, we should also learn more about arts from other countries on our own before judging them. We as non-Indians should educate ourselves and help organizers and public in our countries understand first about what classical Indian dance and music are (and what they are not), and also about standards of quality. Instead of focusing on our own reputation, we should collectively nurture and care for the reputation of Odissi as an art, as a legacy and as a community. This doesn’t mean only the few best in the world can work; one’s abilities are improved by continued learning and experience. There should be a universally established standard, by which we should all be judged, irrespective of nationality. By raising the standard, we can expand the reach of Odissi even further overseas.

Indian-born classical dancers undergo a very long process from their initial training days, to performing in a group as students, then continuing as troupe member, and then if they wish, to becoming soloists. Being a troupe dancer gives one experience, confidence and skills that are essential for a soloist. It is very rare to find foreign-born dancers in Odissi troupes. Non-Indian dancers usually jump directly to becoming solo dancers by default. Despite their level of experience, many festival organizers want to feature them. This does not help the dancer, who has not learned the proper way to perform, and it is of course a detriment to the quality dancers locally who are denied opportunities because they are considered ‘not special enough.’ Everybody should learn in a proper way, improve with effort and get the same opportunities according only to experience/skills.

So when will the novelty wear off? When will it be so common to see non-Indian Odissi dancers that there will be nothing special about it? The general public must learn to appreciate the quality in arts, the more one knows about something the better one judges. Let us all focus on searching and promoting only quality, or there will be a day in which foreign dancers will not be anything special and public will lose interest because we haven’t been focusing on what was important: to improve and evolve as artistes.

The local press in Odisha gives much more attention to non-Indian dancers. There are a number of interviews focusing on how much foreign dancers love Indian culture, Odia culture and Odissi. It is obvious that people who have traveled the world to learn Odissi must appreciate it and the beautiful culture it comes from. There are so many in-depth and more thought-provoking questions we can focus and debate on. There are very interesting questions about Odissi and literature, society, religion, gender, professional development and even relation with politics, how festivals are funded, dance in public schools, etc. that we can think and talk about, rather than focusing on superficial matters. There are a number of dancers born in Odisha who have been working diligently since childhood, but who are constantly overlooked by the press. It would be fair if the press would highlight these local artists, showing their work and dedication and having to overcome many obstacles to present Odissi with integrity and respect to the form.

Foreign-born dancers also have an advantage of ‘double exposure’: both in India and their country of residence, which makes it much easier to be known. Many of the non- Indian Odissi students have a good financial situation (as travel/study in India will require some financial stability) and a good education. Both skills and financial resources are needed in order to develop a marketing strategy, organize photo shoots, video recordings, traveling to festivals, savvy use of social media, etc. This, compared to the circumstances of many of the local-born and settled dancers, is a privilege, and that marketing capacity is actually working. To get to be known depends much on personal connections and financial investment.

Ambitious dancers who are ready to jump to the stage will be happy to leverage whatever the shortcuts available to them: paying more to learn more ‘advanced’ items regardless of experience, seeking attention by giving interviews that focus on the “foreign label,” and by getting programs because of nationality rather than quality. The honest and principled dancers will just work hard and reject what is unfair, otherwise the art and the artists situation will just go worse.

Odissi is growing worldwide and more students will come from outside India. It is important to nurture the art in India and create more Odissi lovers, a more informed public, more support for our art, and better quality art and artists… Students, teachers, gurus, journalists, juries, politicians, organizers… we should all understand that we are one, we are a community that should work for the same purpose: to spread high-quality  Odissi dance.

 

Comments

  1. People outside Japan win Judo gold medals, and that is true globalisation of the sport…Similarly, Odissi practioners globally am sure are ready to be better than the best.

  2. You got the point: the dancer is not the dance; the dancer is only a vehicle. So agree with you.

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