We are at the cusp of yet another World Dance Day (29 April) and cultural organizations are pulling out all the stops, planning events that pay homage to classical dance forms. My thoughts, however, return to a recent public lecture series conducted by the Raza Foundation at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, where the Kathak veteran Kumudini Lakhia, speaking about the decline of the soloist tradition across Indian classical dance forms, lamented, “Today we have a number of dancers. But not much dance!”
It’s a statement that resonates with the classical dance fraternity. Indian classical dance as a full-time profession is highly demanding. If you look at the things a dancer is supposed to be thoroughly proficient in, it would alter your experience of witnessing a recital. Comprehensive knowledge of classical music, the vocabulary of the particular dance, and an idea of other styles, is essential. Then, one needs a thorough grounding in rhythm and physical fitness that allows for the implementation of complex rhythmic patterns. Also crucial is a knowledge of history and mythology (which comprise the maximum content of most classical dance forms), a decent acquaintance with some of the seminal treatises on dance like the Natyashastra, Abhinaya Darpana and others, a mastery over several native languages, an aesthetic in costuming and make-up, a home and family conducive to the growth of the art form, a generous guru who imparts knowledge at the right time, and last but not least, a fair amount of financial security. This is a list of the “very basic requirements” for a dancer. To then pursue a dance form with blind passion and evolve into a soloist of high merit is another journey in itself. After this comes the feedback from a discerning audience and specialists like expert commentators, scholars and critics. A successful dancer is one who combines all of this into her or his art practice and life. Indian classical dances are essentially meant to be solo affairs. It may not be surprising, then, that institutions such as Kalakshetra in Chennai, Kerala’s famous Kalamandalam, Santiniketan in Bengal and Kathak Kendra in Delhi have not managed to produce an impressive number of soloists in their decades-long existence. Proving, time and again, that institutionalized training in the classical arts can only serve a limited purpose.
Classroom exercises are good to bring in a sense of discipline when a child starts learning the art form. They also help build a sense of community. However, once this training in the basics of the dance form is over, a serious dancer needs to pursue her or his art form under the guidance of a single guru. The 20th century saw some phenomenal gurus who have trained some of the finest talent and passed on their artistic legacies. If the post-independence era saw the steady rise of famous soloists in each dance form, that number had grown manifold by the 1970s.
Kelucharan Mohapatra in Odissi, Birju Maharaj in Kathak, Kalamandalam Gopi in Kathakali, Yamini Krishnamurthy and the famous female impersonator Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma in Kuchipudi, the Jhaveri sisters in Manipuri, and Vyjayanthimala Bali, Sudharani Raghupathy and Padma Subrahmanyam in Bharatanatyam were able representatives of their forms. The 1980s saw a proliferation of recognizable faces thanks to the television era. Soloists in every form were taking Indian classical dance to a global audience through the state’s public service broadcasting facility. Bharatanatyam had the likes of Alarmel Valli, Leela Samson and Malavika Sarukkai. Madhavi Mudgal and Sanjukta Panigrahi represented Odissi, while Manju Bhargavi and Shobha Naidu were experts in Kuchipudi. Kathak exponents Aditi Mangaldas and Rajendra Gangani and Mohiniyattam dancers Bharati Shivaji, Neena Prasad and Gopika Varma and were names to reckon with.
But the last two decades have seen a steady decline in the number of soloists—it can be blamed on the increasing commercialization of classical dance, or the abuse of technology. However, among all the classical dance forms, Bharatanatyam continues to be better placed, with a host of young soloist stars. Among the male soloists are names such as Vaibhav Arekar and Pavitra Krishna Bhat from Mumbai, Praveen Kumar and Parshwanath Upadhye from Bengaluru, and Renjith Babu and Bhavajan Kumar from Chennai. Among the women are Meenakshi Srinivasan, Mythili Prakash, Navia Natarajan, Vijna Vasudevan and Uma Sathyanarayanan. It might be the popularity of the dance form or the sheer commitment of the artistes, but Bharatanatyam does have the highest number of soloists today. In fact, for a dancer with a keen sense of rhythm like Parshwanath Upadhye, there is almost no equal in the field. He is the uncrowned prince of the Bharatanatyam scene today and his Facebook page has more followers than those of some minor Bollywood stars, over 13,000.One can find but a handful of names with equal heft in other dance styles.
Odissi has Arushi Mudgal from Delhi and Rahul Acharya from Bhubaneswar. In Kathak, the names include Prashant Shah, a student of Kumudini Lakhia, Gauri Diwakar, a student of Aditi Mangaldas, and Vishal Krishna, who represents the Benares gharana. In the North-East, dance forms such as Manipuri have young stars such as Sinam Basu and Sudip Ghosh from Kolkata. Kuchipudi is probably the worst-represented classical dance form, with less than a handful of names to reckon with countrywide. Amrita Lahiri, Jaikishore Mosalikanti from Chennai, Prateeksha Kashi from Bengaluru, Reddi Lakshmi from Delhi and the current and probably last of the female impersonators from a traditional family of dancers—Ajay Kumar from Vijayawada. The decline of Kuchipudi is a tragedy worth writing about separately.
The real flag-bearers of Indian classical dance, then, are those who have worked hard, passed the rather tough litmus tests of quality and standards and made a name for themselves. A solo career is a tough bet. With increasing costs, the reduced availability of trained musicians and orchestra members and lack of serious state patronage, the challenges in the field have increased. So what keeps the current generation of soloists going despite all the odds? It seems to be their determination to pursue the art, the guidance of their gurus and the gumption to take on the world without compromising on quality. They are all well educated, with basic qualifications to keep them going in case dance cannot. They are social media savvy and full of ideas. While their training in the classical form is based on what they learn from their gurus, the addition of modern themes and contexts expands the traditional repertoire of the dance form. In this too they continue a long legacy inherited from their gurus.
We can only hope that these young soloists will prove Lakhia’s fears wrong in the time to come.
Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic based in New Delhi.