I had an interesting conversation with a senior art critic in Chennai last week. He said, “I am worried about the future of Bharatanatyam in Chennai.” I was surprised, “How so? I see that the number of performances, performers and the money spent therein has been increasing exponentially year after year!” “That, Mr Iyer, is precisely the worry,” he said. “I am not sure at this rate of expenditure if this will be sustainable for a long time, given the fact that ticketed programmes are not even a handful.” With this thought lingering in my mind, I went through the dance schedules of sabhas. I was able to count close to a thousand dance performances within a span of 90 days - ‘the season’. I am sure the number will double if not more, if we count the unlisted sabhas, temple programmes and arangetrams. Now, what better could happen to an art which is being performed in 2,000 or more occasions in a single season? Nevertheless, I began to make enquiries. Bharatanatyam performances (and for the purpose of my enquiry, I include all Indian classical dance being taught and performed in Chennai), can be broadly be classified into three categories, a) Margam – performed by a single or more performers, adhering to the traditional repertoire, b) Thematic group performances by a group of performers, usually led by the guru and based on a story or a theme, usually no fixed repertoire is adhered to, and c) Dance productions – large attractive stage dance dramas usually with pre-recorded music and arrays of sets, technologies and features to attract the galleries. All three have their own audiences.
A dancer’s skills are truly tested in a ‘margam’; A guru’s ability to conceptualize and choreograph is exhibited in a ‘group performance’; and a performer’s ability to bring together dancers and technicians and put up a big show is exhibited in a ‘Production’. What is the cost of these performances and who pays? While there are many sabhas that do not require any payment from performers for a ‘slot’, many require performers to pay between Rs 5,000 and Rs 50,000. As for the cost of accompanying artistes, performers have two options. One, using a live orchestra, which sounds more professional and the other, using recorded music. If it is a live orchestra, the cost varies between Rs 10, 000 to Rs 25,000 depending on the seniority of the accompanying artistes. In case of an arangetram, the cost of orchestra is double, if not more. One ‘margam’ presentation will cost anywhere between Rs 15, 000 and Rs 40, 000 for the performer, not including the payment to be made to the sabha, if any. One ‘group presentation’ costs anywhere between Rs 25, 000 and Rs 75,000 and a ‘production’ costs between Rs 2, 00,000 and Rs 15, 00,000. None of these costs includes the cost of invitations and advertisements placed in the newspape` I have not included any arangetrams and salangai pooja in this because they are perennial, not seasonal. Arangetrams cost anywhere between Rs 3 and
Rs 10 lakh.
Now, who pays for these performances? Most are sponsored by parents and spouses. In case of productions where large monies are involved, a few are sponsored by corporate houses and most of the money comes from the guru/choreographer/director. Extrapolating the little data, including the costs of costumes, jewellery, invitations, publicity and advertisements, my guesstimate is that Bharatanatyam and its ancillaries spin around Rs 20 crore within a matter of three months at its peak, and a similar amount is spun during the other three quarters of the year put together.
Bharatanatyam including its ancillaries in Chennai is a Rs 40 crore per annum industry, most of the money coming from rich parents. I am pretty unsure how long this trend will continue.
To look at this positively, if this continues, a very healthy, high-quality art scenario will emerge due to the sheer magnitude. Whatever the case may be, as the season opens up, let us welcome it with an open heart and scout for some promising new performers besides visiting the regular ones. Happy dancing!
(The writer is a management professional, a cultural speaker and activist. He is also classical lyricist and Indian percussionist)
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