The new Impresarios

Once they took India\'s exotic glory to the world. Now, cultural showmen present a fusion of global and Indian styles.

Published: 15th January 2012 10:59 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:15 PM   |  A+A-


Sumant Jaikrishnan, scenographer, designer and installation artist.

It happened suddenly in a restaurant in Mantri Mall in Bangalore’s Malleshwaram. Groups of young people sitting around got up and abruptly broke into a carefully choreographed dance sequence. Diners and drinkers were arriving and leaving, but Bangalore stood up and took notice. It was impresario Madhu Nataraj’s way of announcing the arrival of an edgy, interactive dance form in town, enacted through Namma Dance Utsav Bengaluru (NDUB), the latest dance festival on the block.

“I wanted to take dance out of traditional spaces and directly to the people on the streets, the child in school, and the woman at home,” says the founder, director and choreographer of Natya Stem Dance Kampni.

Among India’s exciting new impresarios, Nataraj is redefining the contemporary Indian cultural space and entertainment with her experimental productions. The score for the restaurant gig by the young composer Ricky Kej also became the dance festival’s theme song. “Restaurants like Koshy’s and MTR came forward with food for the artists, and designers pooled their talent to create spectacular costumes. We were able to engage and involve Bangaloreans from different walks of life. That’s why the reach of the festival was so extensive and well received,” explains Nataraj.

New Indian impresarios like Madhu Nataraj, Anil Srinivasan, Anita Ratnam, Dharamdutt Pandey and Sumant Jayakrishnan are stretching the boundaries where art, culture and entertainment meet. Corporates use their services to enhance their image; governments sponsors cultural festivals that are visualised and executed by them, and officialdom seeks out their talents to redefine public spaces as theatres of imagination.

Nataraj plans big. “Mark your calendars for the third week of November. The festival will have different themes each year. Last year we had the National Dance Company, Wales, alongside folk artistes from Karnataka. Next year we’ll have three international groups. We’d like to create a strong Asian presence on the international dance arena, while providing a platform for local dancers,” she says.

Recipient of the prestigious Mohan Khokkar award, and having performed in 32 countries worldwide, Natraj is an exponent of Kathak, Kalaripayattu, Thaang Ta, Iyengar Yoga, Body-Mind Centering and folk dances of India. She works with a team of actors, designers, dancers and musicians, designing programmes for different audiences, from educational institutes to high-profile corporates; NGOs to women’s organisations, and even physically and mentally challenged children. Using ingenious methods of promotion like flash mobs and short films that go viral, and attracting the widespread goodwill of Bangaloreans, her team garners corporate support. A creative coup was to gather six internationally renowned dance photographers to contribute to a limited-edition calendar as NDUB’s festival souvenir.

She is the second generation of Indian impresarios, which began with Rajeev Sethi and Martand Singh. Sethi’s dramatic debut was the Festival of India conceived more than 20 years ago. For the first time, Indian culture was turned into a glorious global extravaganza with dance, music and art beguiling and captivating the world.

Sethi and Singh were protégés of India’s first cultural czarina Pupul Jayakar, a close associate of Indira Gandhi. Sethi studied under Pierre Cardin and Charles Earmes in Paris before he started on his Indian cultural journey. He has curated award-winning exhibitions around the world, founded The Asian Heritage Foundation, and is in the process of setting up a South Asian Design Center in New Delhi.

He is the first to design luxury behemoth Louis Vuitton’s 454 stores across five continents with an Indian theme. As the curator of Mumbai’s new airport, he is currently working on the art programme for Mumbai’s Terminal 2 that will be unveiled in 2013. Delhi’s other cultural showman is former ICCR culturatti Bijan Mukherjee who started Impresario India, to promote the arts. Every year he stages 65 programmes of music, dance and poetry featuring edgy choreography, Tagore songs and Assamese culture inspired by the mighty Brahmaputra. Mukherjee’s vision sees the next generation as an evolving cultural shore.

The difference between Sethis generation and Nataraj’s is that the new impresario is keen on bringing the world to India and create a contemporary, composite production, while the pioneers took exotic India to the world in all its dazzling glory.

If Sethi is India’s first avant-garde showman, Delhi-based Sumant Jayakrishnan is his indubitable inheritor. The much-in-demand scenographer, designer, installation artist and theatre practitioner is the architect of the most important cultural galas in town. Trained in visual communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, he studied theatre design and scenic techniques at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London. Today, his work spans the entire spectrum of design — from theatre to exhibition, art direction to fashion.

“At 25, performance ruled my life. Gradually I learnt that I couldn’t just do one thing for the rest of my life. Since then I lent my artistic abilities to a number of fields and tried to do justice to each,” he says. Jayakrishnan’s talent is clearly manifest in his whimsical and dramatic creations: the 80 foot day-glow map of Manhattan, the sets and costumes for Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the art direction in Deepa Mehta’s film, Water. “Learning to see invisible structures in space is crucial in adding elements. The next step is to place your unique concepts into the immovable structure. The rest is up to your creativity,” says Jayakrishnan, who capitalises on his out-of-the-box aesthetics. He is currently gearing up for the India Art Fair, for which he’s designing the look of the place, followed by the Indian Design Forum.

The new Indian impresarios attempt to begin where Sethi, Martand and Mukherjee have left. If Nataraj personifies Horme, the Greek spirit of impulse, then Chennai-based Anil Srinivasan is the embodiment of Eulabeia, the personification of discretion. Extensive research for an event is de rigeur for Anil, whose annual events — Universe of Sound, Maestro, Music Canvas and Music University are Chennai’s top draws. Spread across three days in December every year at Sivagami Petachi, Universe of Sound is attended by more than 2,000 enthusiasts and well-known musicians like Srilekha Parthasarathy, Ramesh Vinayagam, Unnikrishnan, T M Krishna and Shubha Mudgal. Trained as a classical pianist, Srinivasan describes the events as, “Melody in Indian classical, harmony in Western classical, and rhythm in dance or percussion, are the three main concepts that all performances are based on. I present events that will cater to students of music, their parents and rasikas (connoisseurs). I’m very particular about the place for any event, and prefer smaller halls to big venues, where the crowd gets to interact and learn more, and it appears full.”

Approaching people for sponsorship is not tough according to the musician. “I’m a performer myself, and share a comfort level with a lot of people. Approaching them is not difficult, because they know me as a performer,” he says. Srinivasan shares a close relationship with friend and Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, with whom he has collaborated on music that has been described “devastatingly beautiful” by no less that guitar legend John McLaughlin. “Sponsors like Mahindra, Ramco, Ashok Leyland and Swathi Soft have helped us produce our shows regularly,’’ says Srinivasan. Jayakrishnan agrees, business houses can be quite generous. “When big corporates understand the world of art and performance, and don’t just limit their support to fashion, it’s refreshing. It has to be given its due. Abroad, corporate sponsorship for performance-based events is a norm. I wish the same for India,” he says.

Srinivasan has global habits too. He invites people to his events using SMSs and social networks. All shows, including Universe of Sound, covers approximately 55 schools—about 5,000 students and 10,000 parents. “This is how I build my database,” says the 34-year-old impresario, who studied at the University of Southern California.

Siblings and advertising and communications professionals Lakshmi and Saraswathi of Chennai, who run Event Arts, are children of the Facebook age. “We use Facebook a lot, because it has good reach, to create an event and publicise it, and then approach the media,” says Lakshmi. The sisters hit the headlines for one of the biggest events in 2010, Mathrubhumi, which featured legends Shankar Mahadevan and Aruna Sairam singing in various Indian languages, with the show strung together with a poem. “I can never forget that event. It was so fulfilling to hear Shankar say it was brilliant working with us,” recalls Saraswathi.

Chennai, the culture capital of south India is home to many impresarios of  varied styles. Nalini Radhakrishnan, CEO of Media Mix, who runs the company with her daughter Lavanya Iyer,  specialises in sports and entertainment. “We do not focus on one particular event. We got Saskia Laroo, a female saxophone player in 2006 to perform at Temple Bay. In 2010, we organised the performance of the famous Malaysian Odissi dancer, Ramli Ibrahim,” says Lavanya. Media Mix also organises jazz performances from the Netherlands at Lady Andal School in Chetpet. “Earlier this year, we put together an event with artistes from France and Britain. It was unique and much appreciated,” adds Iyer. Not many know that Radhakrishnan is an ace shooter and is big on badminton and golf. “We also conduct a golf tournament every year at the Cosmopolitan Club,” says Iyer.

India’s GenNext impresarios come from a variety of cultural and academic backgrounds. With a background in history and anthropology, new ideas are the secret behind Chennai-based Kiran Rao’s successful productions. She converted a 100-year-old mansion into Amethyst, a boutique and cafe. “We’re open to collaborations and experimentation. But the gallery in itself is cosy and can hold only a few,” says Rao. “There have been several performances here, the space is relaxed and allows for interpersonal interaction. We once had a dance performance by the Chennai Sangamam group of Koothupattarai, and one by Vyjayanthimala Bali. For jazz performances, people like to hold a drink, socialise and enjoy the music,” says Rao, who also hosts literary events.

Events are the playgrounds of impresarios. In Kochi, circa 2000, an unknown youngster, Ranjini Haridas, walked down the ramp to win the Miss Kerala crown. “It struck a chord with the public, because they had seen nothing like it,” says Ram Menon, executive director of Impresario, the organisers. He says the initial impetus is aimed at getting the right sponsor. “The investment for organising Miss Kerala is Rs 40 lakh.”

Today, the show has become an inescapable annual event. Many winners, like their Bollywood counterparts, have become film stars. Reema Kallingal, the Miss Kerala Runner-Up 2008, is a rising star. Indu Thampy, the 2010 winner, is three films old, while Rohini Mariam Idicula, the 2007 winner, is now a model based out of London.

Apart from the innovation, flamboyance or complexity of themes, personalities make or break an event. When Diego Maradona landed in Kolkata to a delirious welcome on December 5, 2008, it also heralded the arrival of a new event manager — Dharamdutt Pandey, CEO, Celebrity Management Group (CMG). “It was a tour to generate interest in football among common people. We conducted a clinic at Mohun Bagan Club, and Diego was felicitated at the Salt Lake stadium as the chief guest at a football match. We didn’t have much funds and relied heavily on marketing, TV rights and ticket sales,” says Pandey. His impressive yearly jamborees now include visits by other football greats like Diego Forlan, Branco and Lionel Messi, culminating in FIFA-approved friendlies between global national teams. On Messi, Pandey says, “The experience was awesome and the reception from the fans amazed us.” Short of funds but long on enthusiasm, CMG reportedly paid the Argentine team an exorbitant fee in advance, confident of the outcome. CMG, created by marketing executives and close buddies Dharamdutt Pandey and Bhaswar Goswami, has plans for a football league in West Bengal akin to Major League Soccer. Called Premier League Soccer, six franchisees based out of Siliguri, Kolkata, Barasat, Durgapur, Haldia and Howrah will be finalised by January 25 and the tournament should start by the last week of February this year. “Each franchisee will have the right to sign on four foreign players, of which one will be an ex-World Cupper. Each team will have renowned coaches like Samson Siasia, who managed Nigeria in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. There is a bidding option and players will be auctioned,” said Pandey. Today the company, though Kolkata-based, has branches in Dhaka, Durban and Buenos Aires.

The celebrated Paul Szilard writes about being an impresario, “Not an artist, yet hopefully with an artist’s taste, not even a critic, yet certainly with a critic’s judgment. Indeed an impresario is a critic who puts his money where his opinion is, a man making his living not so much off the artist but through the artist. And also a man who lives dangerously not only on his own wits, but on the wit of others. And he also lives a hell of an interesting life.”

For the new Indian impresarios, an interesting life is a work in progress.

With inputs from Jackie Pinto (Bangalore), Ayesha Singh (Delhi), Shutapa Paul (Kolkata), and Shevlin Sebastian (Kochi)

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