Reflections from #Navadisha16: The Present

This is part two of a three part series on #Navadisha16. Please read part one (The Disclaimer) before reading this post. This is an inward looking post about some of the discussions currently taking place within the South Asian dance sector. My last post will be more outward.

One of my biggest frustrations with the Classical Indian dance world is the lack of debate, discussion and analysis. The Guru Shishya structure is set up to disallow critical thought and the sector stagnates by this archaic construct. Navadisha was a welcome opportunity for discussion, unfortunately many self promoting speeches overran which stifled room for debate. The conference was thought provoking and the organisers did a fantastic job of encouraging a platform for further debate.

I became exasperated at the lack of credibility given to established artists, with “young” used as a blanket term for everyone under 65. Everyone seemed to misinterpret my criticism to validate their own opinions. Some used this as verification that gatekeepers must be sacked, others assumed this was a dig at Gurus. My intention was to give talented, established artists the respect they deserve. We must support and recognise when someone has progressed from “upcoming” to “established.” It’s a label and identity we within the community can give to fellow artists.

With changes to the political landscape (which I will expand in my next post), artist opportunities are diminishing, which has brought with it bitterness and resentment. I believe the structures of South Asian dance, alongside these diminished opportunities has led to trauma for many. Parts of the conference transformed into therapy which diverted from the analysis required to progress.

I heard a lot of people criticise ‘gatekeepers’ for their shortcomings, with little further thought as to why things are stagnating and what we can do to change this. I’m of the belief that the stagnation in the South Asian dance sector is down to a number of different factors, which everyone must address. I don’t think it’s possible for every failure to be the fault of a handful of people, everyone engaged in the sector has a responsibility. There is an impression that gatekeepers sit in an underground lair, next to a shark tank, making decisions which will affect everyone’s lives. This is extraordinarily far from reality.

While I do not know what happens elsewhere, I do know that artistic decisions and choices at Akademi are made via auditions, independent panels, and applications. Mira is not always a part of this process and has occasionally disagreed with their choices, while respecting their autonomy. The gatekeepers do not convene at their Bond villain lair and say “so and so did not touch my feet, let’s all black list them”

I found the aggression towards the ‘gatekeepers’ misguided. The ones who attended the conference have been open minded and engage in discussions. The real anger should have been directed towards the ones who have consistently not listened, to the point where they did not even show up to the conference. The anger, in my opinion, should be at the antiquated Guruji culture which has actively discouraged debate, analysis and has encouraged closed minds. It is the responsibility of “young” artists to challenge these Gurus, and for gatekeepers to open these closed minds.

There is an assumption that these gatekeepers are all-knowing, all-powerful, celestial beings with the power to move mountains. There is an assumption that society and the arts are completely inviting and approachable to diversity. In reality, Mira uses every ounce of her supposed power to sell the virtues of investing in South Asian dance. It is a waste of Mira’s time to use a shred of this “influence” to discuss individuals. The role of a gatekeeper is mostly lobbying and campaigning for a sector, and meticulously balancing budgets to stretch limited resources, to help artists.

The most illuminating discussion at the conference was with Anu Giri from Dance Umbrella. When people cried that gatekeepers are holding them back from leaving the South Asian world, she point-blank said that none of the mainstream venue programmers listen to their recommendations. They make their own minds up about whom to program. Anu told us that the gatekeeper/Guru culture is substantially worse in ballet, and these issues are not reserved to one dance sub community.

Anu told us that she does not believe that in 2016 people are unable to use the internet and google opportunities themselves. This got me thinking. Why were so many people angry that they weren’t getting xyz opportunity without taking the initiative to research themselves? Why were artists waiting for the gate to be unlocked instead of climbing over the fence?

While I do not think that the gatekeepers are immune to criticism, they cannot be responsible for every flaw and stagnation. There were consistent references to Akram Khan as the benchmark for success. There were regular discussions about Producers, with the assumption that a Producer will turn you into Akram Khan. This does not take into consideration Akram’s artistic genius and his relentless hard work, nor the creative input by his Producer.

There is a category of talented artists who have worked hard and have been let down for various reasons. It may due to funding restrictions, a lack of career planning, or just sheer luck. For them, I have genuine sympathy. There is another category of artists who have not put the work in, are unprofessional, and have a sense of entitlement to their success.

As someone raised within the South Asian dance sector who now works in a corporate environment, I have been astounded at what passes for professional in the South Asian dance sector, and the lack of self-awareness. People are habitually late, do not practice, and turn up with horrendous attitudes. In the professional world 9.00am means you are in at 8.50am and logged in, ready to start work at 9. In the South Asian dance sector 9.00am means turn up any time before 9.30am. In the professional world you raise grievances in a calm and collected manner. In the South Asian sector, you are rude to the employer, and turn the whole team against them. In the contemporary dance world people constantly train, and work on their physicality. In the South Asian sector there is an air of arrogance: some people love to claim South Asian is harder than other styles and therefore no cross-disciplinary training is required.

I have seen some artists behave in an unprofessional manner for years, who then complain about their lack of progression and opportunity. In other sectors if you continuously behave unprofessionally, you do not keep your job. I regularly see South Asian artists belittle legal documentation such as Public Liability Insurance and CRB checks. Not breaking the law is a good virtue of professionalism.

Everyone believes that they deserve to be Akram Khan, without recognising the two hours of practice he has done every day since he was a teenager. There is hard work and professionalism behind success and in a competitive environment with limited opportunities, you cannot succeed without putting in the work. These aren’t qualities of every artist I’ve seen, but stagnation cannot be the sole responsibility of a handful of individuals.

The gatekeepers have got their flaws, and I think they are responsible for failing less capable artists. They have been too afraid to sit dancers down and tell them they are not Akram Khan. Some artists are frustrated that they haven’t succeeded and this may be because they are not up to the standard required, and no one has told them that. Or alternatively, they’ve been told and have decided not to listen.

Changing the state of South Asian dance is not a responsibility of a handful of gatekeepers, but a collective responsibility. I feel that stagnation is the diagnosis of many symptoms from training, to unprofessionalism, to attitudes. I do think the gatekeepers deserve criticism, but calling for decapitation without a full analysis of failures is short sighted. Once the head is cut off, another head will grow in its place. If the problem is in the backbone, we should fix that section instead of putting a new head on an unstable torso.

Before we continue with this witch hunt and decapitation attempt, I think everyone needs a moment of reflection. If a gatekeeper won’t unlock your gate, have you tried to use google to find ways to climb the gate? Do you turn up on time to work and foster a positive working environment? A handful of people can’t be responsible for every failure in a sector.

A lot of the discussion at Navadisha was insular and dated. For my last blog (due later this week) I hope to write about the future of South Asian dance.

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2 Comments

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  1. Thanks for this Kavya. Lots to think about. My favourite line though: ‘I became exasperated at the lack of credibility given to established artists, with “young” used as a blanket term for everyone under 65.’ I laughed and laughed.

  2. Though just for the record, at 43, I am of course fully in favour of this approach.

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