I spotted this kathak dancer at the Gateway Hotel in Agra. He was on a little stage, dancing to a piece of recorded music. His audience was a bunch of foreign travellers, several of whom had just made the 5-hour drive from Delhi, and were now relaxing at the bar watching him over their beers.
The dancer told the story of the blue-skinned God Krishna and his lover Radha. It was a beautiful story, embellished with subtle glances and elegant footwork. In the story, Krishna and Radha meet in the forests of Vrindavan, he plays the flute for her, and even the birds and the deer stop to listen to the magic of his song. She quarrels with him, over the attention he pays to other women. As he cajoles and teases her into forgiveness, she becomes lost in his leela. In the eternal all-consuming fire of her love, she forgets herself and merges into the divine.
The real tragedy of it was that the performer was quite competent, with at least 10-15 years of rigorous training behind him. In spite of people moving around, or ignoring him completely, he danced with grace and dedication, as if he had all eyes upon him. I felt so bad for him, I wanted to run away and hide somewhere.
That night in my hotel room, I asked myself - Why does this happen in India, this trashing of our art forms until they become a pathetic mockery of themselves?
I realized that there are multiple issues, some of them quite complex. But I believe our lack of respect and value for our art forms is definitely one of the problems. The hotel staged this performance in their lobby, in a noisy area near the bar, perhaps because they had no other venue. But because it was presented like that, as an optional "cultural" show with drinks at the bar, the dance became a trivial tidbit, a take-it-or-leave-it affair. There was no formal introduction to the performer and his background, no explanation of kathak traditions or gharanas, no story outline – as a matter of fact, there was even no seating around the stage for anyone who wanted to watch the whole performance. It is as if the hotel had decided already that this was a boring performance, and not worth the effort. Naturally, the performance just tanked. When you yourself treat something like trash, it is very difficult for others to treat it with respect.
Contrast this with my experience at The Oberoi Bali. The hotel arranged a Balinese dance show with dinner, a rendering of some scenes from the Ramayana. They had amphitheatre style sunken seating for those who wished to view the show. For others, there were tables set discreetly so that every single person had a view of the dance. The waiters were quiet and hushed, you could order food and drinks, but it was clear that there was a performance, and you had to give it due respect. On every table, there was a one page description of the show, describing the acts that it was broken into, and giving a brief summary of the storyline. I’m sure we didn’t understand all the nuances of the performance – but we enjoyed it because of the way it was organised.
Some would argue that it is not the hotel, but the artiste who is responsible for audience delight. If the audience doesn’t like something, then either the dancer is to blame, or the dance form itself is to blame. Why was the kathak dancer not able to have any impact on his foreign audience? In spite of the poor seating and noise, could he not have drawn the audience towards him? Could he not have told them the story before dancing?
Unfortunately, our classical performers are not geared to explain their art to people from other cultures. The Indian art tradition assumes that audiences come from the same broad cultural milieu. It presupposes a shared cultural background where the stories and legends are commonly understood. In addition, the classical dance forms also assume that audiences understand the format in which dance is delivered, for example, the way in which sections of story/emoting are interspersed with sections of pure rhythm/dance. The other problem is purely practical - I very much doubt the dancer had the necessary English-speaking skills to explain the origins of kathak, or its morphing over the ages, to a foreign audience.
My personal view of the matter is that in our country, it is not practical to leave the matter to the artiste. Most Indian performers, including those from both folk and classical traditions, have poor/basic English education levels, with little or no exposure to overseas audiences. Their skill lies in their art, and not in the packaging or marketing of their art to overseas visitors. In my mind, it is very much the responsibility of the intermediary – for example, the hotel, or the tourism development board or the tour company arranging the performance – to ensure both the dignity of our arts as well as an enjoyable experience for the tourist.
As someone who is part of the tourism industry, I will do my bit to make things better. But I suspect it will take a while to get to the point where "cultural" performances don't make me squirm.