In a few days, I will be leaving for a 1-month dance tour of Europe. I having been doing these tours for the last couple of years, traveling to different cities to present Odissi through performances, workshops and lecture-demonstrations. My time in Europe has been an incredibly eye-opening experience on many levels, and is something I look forward to every year. Besides the opportunity to visit and learn about these beautiful countries with their vast histories and culture, it is particularly interesting to understand the relationship between Indian culture and performing arts in the local cultural context.
One of the advantages of being a classical dancer in the US, or any country with a fair-sized South Asian community, is that the community ends up mediating a lot of culture for you. While we do our fair share of breaking down the art form/culture to uninitiated audiences, the community actually ends up being that medium to acclimate people, even if on a superficial level, to Indian culture and context. In many areas, even remote ones, it is not so difficult to find a local community, temple, shops, etc. in a pocket of town. And while classical dance and music performances are presented from time to time, it is the local culture – the temples, ashrams, shops, restaurants, etc. that end up filling up those gaps on the interim by their accessibility.
When I began to travel to different cities in Europe, it was very interesting to see just how dance/culture is mediated locally, particualry in areas where access to India and Indian culture is so limited. In fact, one of the main challenges I hear during my stints abroad is the inability not only to find and sustain students who are willing to pursue the dance form, but also to engage audiences who are unfamiliar with Indian culture who are willing to attend and support dance presentations.
I have seen this challenge addressed in different ways – many individuals give up, others try to ‘fuse’ Odissi and bellydance/Bollywood to make it more ‘appealing’ by selling ‘exotic India,’ some try to water the dance form down as much as possible so as to not lose students, and then there are others who try to continue to teach and perform as they have learned from their teachers in India.
While this issue may seem daunting and almost impossible, I think there is tremendous scope for visiting and local artists to work together to educate and engage new audiences. However to do so, it requires a lot of “out of the box’ thinking, particularly for Odissi dancers who travel abroad and focus their efforts mostly on performances and teaching items to students at workshops. As Odissi dancers, it is also important to see ourselves as educators. Dancing, performing, and teaching well are all great assets, but then what are some of the things we can do to work with artistes/institutions abroad to create and sustain an interest in these art forms?
Education/outreach plays a large role in these efforts. It may not be realistic to expect Odissi to have mass appeal, but what we can do is educate our public to at least understand the work and context of what we do. Viewing dance through performance only may peak an audience’s interest, but it can also create a distance between them and the performer, particularly in areas where Indian culture is not as well-known – ultimately the performer becomes nothing more than a pretty object onstage. Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to present an Odissi performance at Palacio de Monserrat in Sintra (Portugal) . We were not expecting so many people, but as the performance started, we had an audience lined up outside the room where we were presenting. I had not planned to speak initially, but I realised that by doing my own announcements, I could also explain the context of what I was doing in more detail, and that really enhanced the audience’s understanding and appreciation of what I was presenting and moreover, it made me (and therefore the art form) more accessible to them. Another friend of mine has worked on a collective with her co-dancers, to bring Indian classical dance in various cities throughout Spain. What I find particularly laudable about these efforts is that in addition to the workshops and performances, they spend a considerable amount of time focusing on the non-performative aspects – regular lectures and articles on culture and mythology are offered to create more informed and aware dance audience, to de-exotify the art form and make it more accessible to others.
Moving forward, education/outreach will be a critical element for dancers, and these skills should be part of one’s training from early on. Local and visiting artists should explore ways in which they can work together to create presentations that will incorporate more education/information and moreover allow a level of audience interaction (Q&A, etc.).Doing so will expand the level of accessibility to engage and sustain an informed dance public.
Bhubaneswar: April 13, 2017.