Let me attempt to track the journey of a young Indian who wishes to become a serious dancer.
She/he would have generally started learning classical dance, say, at the age of five—either due to initiation by the parents or having easy access to a dance school close-by, or because their friend was already learning the art form, or knowing that it would help in school as a co-curricular activity, or (in rare cases) with the understanding that intimate knowledge of an art form would impact one’s overall well-being. After eight to 10 years of learning regularly, at the typical rate of about two classes a week, there develops a fair understanding in both the teacher and the disciple as to how much potential and staying power the latter displays to pursue such a demanding art form.
Remember, all this learning and watching and imbibing of art is today happening in the context of regular pursuance of academic learning. For one of the key values in India is that whatever else they do, everyone must perform brilliantly in regular school! I have observed that students who are unable to multi-task and manage time efficiently at the senior school level find it hard to pursue the arts. The role of the dance teacher and the parents becomes much more critical in the senior school years when all kinds of other changes too are hitting the child: hormonal changes, changes in expectations of themselves, peer pressure, mounting academic tasks, and so on. That is the time the dance teacher and parents can provide the students stability and an enabling environment.
After this stage of churning, the ones who survive may end up presenting their debut show. The arangetram, but, seems to be the final destination for many. The teacher must convince the disciple that the struggle has just about begun.
Then comes the point in many artists’ careers, when after formal education (graduation/post-graduation) they examine the question: what next? By the age of 21 or 22, matters seem to have muddled more than ever before. Assuming that talent, learning, skill, support are all there, does society today really empower the artist to take the plunge and give up everything else to embrace the arts forever?
Do we provide answers to the questions that plague the young dancer: How will I support myself? Where are the opportunities to perform? How will I be noticed as a serious dancer? Who will help me? Yamini Krishnamurthi told me that the financial support system for dance needs to be sorted out. Her own father had even to sell off a piece of land they owned to nurture her career as a young dancer! Imagine—even Yamini! Most performers would have to agree that they could not have reached their positions of eminence without the financial support of their families. Or they otherwise turn to teaching at very young ages, even if teaching is not their skill or preferred career option.
This then is the challenge for cultural policymakers: we have to create systems when a dancer can safely assume that with talent, training and passion, they will be supported by a system that can enable them to move out of family support. If we have to seriously nurture classical dance as an option for our youth, then we will have to make dance sustainable. And revamp opportunities for youth to showcase their talents. Years ago, Spic-Macay had a wonderful system where every senior artiste’s performance was prefaced with a youngster’s performance. That wonderful idea has since been abandoned. Today only the stars are promoted.
The writer is founder-president of Natya Vriksha, Delhi. She is both a performer and teacher.