About 15 years ago, when I had only begun my lessons in dance, my mother, who escorted me to classes then, was given the task of preparing my ghungroos or ankle bells — an essential component of most Indian classical dance forms.
On a two-metre long piece of rope, she painstakingly knotted in place 200 bells (about 2 cm in diameter) — one at a time. It took her over two hours to finish.
I have always looked back to that day which acts as a fitting metaphor for my training in dance — it requires patience, dedication and family support. A regular classical dance training lasts more or less seven years, even after which students may choose to continue and develop the nuances of the art form. It is not uncommon, especially among established exponents of the classical dances, to be mentored by several gurus of distinctly different dance styles.
Padma Bhushan Alarmel Valli, for instance, received training under the legendary Pandanallur Sri Chokkalingam Pillai and his son Sri Subbaraya Pillai, then she went on to study Odissi under eminent Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his disciple, Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena.
“Constant practice and a lot of it is absolutely key to success,” Valli had said in an interview to Lokvani in 2012. “When I was young I owe it to my mother who woke me up at 4.30 a.m. and made sure I practised. That hard work really paid off.”
Family encouragement and interest does indeed play a key role in a classical dancer’s life as most teachers and practitioners recommend an early start for beginners. Children as young as five years of age enrol for classes. In fact, 15 is considered too late to begin.
Classical dance demands a huge investment of time, and it is primarily this perceived limitation that the burgeoning business of “western” dance takes advantage of.
Anybody Can Dance
The Delhi Dance Academy was set up in 2008, and now operates four studios in South Delhi, teaching over eight styles of dances and dance workouts, the latter being a fairly popular activity in the city these days. “Most of our clients want to join the dance workout classes. Zumba is especially in high demand,” says Uma Bawa, studio Manager at the DDA.
Zumba is a dance workout developed in the mid-’90s by dance instructor and choreographer Alberto Perez. It combines dance with aerobics and borrows elements from hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue and mambo. It also burns 500-1000 calories per hour, as the DDA website informs visitors, topping the chart of dances with the highest calorie-burning figure. Interestingly, the classical dance form Bharatanatyam features third on the list and burns 400-600 calories per hour, tying with aerobics.
DDA’s professional courses have the next largest takers. “The students enrolled in these batches are taught theory, choreography over a period of six to nine months. They then assist in taking classes. Finally they join the academy shows organised for corporate houses and take individuals classes,” says Uma. Many students are simply absorbed by the institute. Some move on to try their luck in dance reality shows and others take classes and train students for cultural events in schools and colleges.
Likewise, Big Dance Centre’s Professional Dance Study Programme is a two-and-a-half month course where students are trained in primary techniques of different forms bollywood, freestyle, contemporary, hip hop, jazz and gymnastics.
Bollywood choreographer Shiamak Davar’s One Year Dance Certification Program (OYP) trains dancers between the ages 15 to 28 in “over ten dance styles with specialized training in Shiamak Style”. Each year, Davar’s website says, students with the most potential are then inducted into the Shiamak Davar Dance Company.
Government scholarships for dance, although provided, are barely sufficient to pay the teacher’s fee, and yet the Sahitya Kala Parishad website suggests that the paltry sum of Rs 3,000 per month should pay for housing, travel, other expenses.
Hardly a bad bargain. A wide age window, more styles in less time, and performance opportunities at the end of it.
Classical dance entails years of rigorous practice and endless lessons in theory of both dance and classical music. Besides the technical aspects, gurus must also strive to familiarise their students with the Indian epics, legends and mythology, which often form the theme of a dance production. It is an additional challenge for Delhi-based gurus to explain to linguistically diverse students the nuances of the languages, like Tamil and Telugu, that many southern Indian songs are composed in. And after all the sweat and blood that goes into a classical training, for an advanced student hoping to strike it out professionally, there is a dearth of performance opportunities.
Its own enemy
Kritika Ahuja, a political science student at Delhi University and part-time dance instructor swears allegiance to Bharatanatyam, which “established her as a dancer”, but she is now exploring other styles. As a choreographer for the Indian dance society of Miranda House, Delhi University, Kritika likes to incorporate elements of Bharatanatyam into her productions, presenting “fusion” pieces that work with the college-going audience.
Kritika also takes workshops and individual classes in belly dancing. Asked why she chose not to pursue Bharatanatyam purely, she answers, “I wanted to experiment with different dances styles and not to stick to only one…but classical dance has always been my first love.”
While Kritika has charted her own course, the only way to ensure that more talented youngsters do not give up classical dance as a career or serious hobby is to assist them financially and create opportunities for performance and growth. It is here that the government can help immensely.
Government scholarships for dance, although provided, are barely sufficient to pay the teacher’s fee, and yet the Sahitya Kala Parishad website suggests that the paltry sum of Rs 3,000 per month should pay for housing, travel, other expenses, including fees in the capital city, in 2015! The token scholarships, though, bring performance opportunity, and that is why they are coveted. The selection process, too, is not entirely transparent, according to insiders.
Notwithstanding competition from “western” dance forms, classical can never go out of style. While it is deeply rooted in tradition, the dance vocabulary is constantly changing, modern stage lighting and sound techniques are being incorporated into performances, and mythological episodes are being presented with evolved interpretations. The returns surpass the investments in classical dance. The fact that the field is highly competitive due to shortage of opportunity and to a considerable degree politicised, are the only threats to its survival.