If you thought that the art world is a free and unfettered space where artistes are able to create, constantly pushing the boundaries of skill and talent towards greater achievement, innovation and new hope, you need to do a rethink. A recent episode involving the brilliant Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas has revealed the narrow-minded, straitjacketed vision of one of our leading cultural institutions and some of our dancers.
Early in the new year, Mangaldas’ admirers and friends, including me, were delighted by the news that she had been selected for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for 2012. It may or may not have struck everyone as odd that the award was not for her achievements as a Kathak dancer, but instead for a category titled Creative and Experimental Dance. Nevertheless, we rejoiced because our sleepy Akademis are prone to turning deaf and blind to true artistry. Mangaldas graciously accepted the congratulatory messages that poured in, but there seemed to be a tinge of regret and hesitation in her responses, and the reason for this soon became apparent in a message that she shared on her Facebook page, stating that after much introspection, she had decided to decline the award because the category of Creative and Experimental Dance was incorrectly applied to her work.
She stressed that a major part of her work remains firmly rooted in traditional Kathak, and more importantly, she has “persevered towards preserving, making it relevant, letting it harmoniously and homogeneously evolve, helping the stream of Kathak to expand and be ever rejuvenating and full of energy and life.”
What prompted the Sangeet Natak Akademi to nudge an acclaimed Kathak exponent into the “experimental” category? This is not to say that the “experimental” category is less worthy. Would it not be unjust to award an acclaimed artist like Anjolie Ela Menon in the category for furniture or jewellery design, because she has on some occasions painted exquisite pieces of art furniture and jewellery? Or, would you term Tarun Tahiliani a florist because of his association with the brand Ferns N Petals? Seeking a dialogue with members of the Akademi, Mangaldas discovered to her shock that among the reasons cited for her exclusion from the Kathak category was the fact that she is given to not wearing a dupatta (conventionally draped by dancers over the upper part of the body and the head) for many of her productions. It was suggested that the use of the dupatta brought a sense of modesty and dignity that was becoming to the style, and a departure from this tradition was unbecoming. Much of this dialogue was conducted privately, remains undocumented, and would probably never have become a matter of public debate had Mangaldas not shared her views on Facebook.
In response to her Facebook update came a response from five gurus of the Kathak Kendra that has revealed that khaps are not unique to any single community in India. We have our arty khaps too! Four dance gurus and one tabla guru in the employ of Kathak Kendra have posted a response on Facebook stating that they “feel surprised that you want yourself to be considered in the category of Kathak Awardees but on the other hand you are refusing the basic traditional attire of it. We think that we should not confuse the younger generation.” Their response is not surprising in a nation where godmen, politicians and people from several walks of life have revealed their feudal mindsets in discussions revolving around the status and safety of women. Neither will it be surprising if the Akademi and other institutions decide to reward the arty khap for remaining mired in narrow-minded, visionless bliss.