When I first started Navatman with Sridhar Shanmugam, ours - and our fellow artists would often wonder, why exactly is it that no one wants to pay for the arts?
We’d cite common examples: our tickets cost less than ordering a meal in! You spend more than that 2 drinks in a night out in Manhattan! Your cab fare is less!
People would argue with us: “you can see other great artists at cheaper tickets”.
This is absolutely true...but those other artists were also struggling. The arts world was (and still is) facing downsizing audiences. It can sometimes feel like a battle to the bottom in terms of pricing to try to get patrons to sit in seats.
It became painfully clear to us that these systems just weren’t working for anyone (and still aren’t).
So, it was our goal at the end of the day to change how we valued and paid for the arts. We started with Drive East many years back. I remember the first year we said tickets would cost $25 - $35 for certain artists and how many people told us we were crazy via email, phone, and otherwise. This was a time when most Indian artistic performances would never charge above $20 in NYC. I remember how as a team we went back and forth on arguing on the price. Was it too much? Would we be shooting ourselves in the foot? We tentatively placed artists who had great followings at $50.
And it worked. People grumbled, but tickets sold at an unexpected rate even given the pricing. Suddenly, the next year, it was just expected that we would charge this much…
We never told anyone this, but we began to actively try to raise the price of arts presentations to get people beyond their inherent biases - (the funny part is, that these prices still do not cover the cost of presenting them). But it didn’t matter - because this kind of price valuation is important in so many contexts from building equality through perception and making sure that we are creating a sustainable economy for Indian arts moving forward.
Now, we see impacts beyond our organization. We passed on the word to other artists and organizers, through late night conversations and Drive East trainings, and I could only hope we were emboldening other artists and organizers to think differently about how they could price themselves and they would relay back to us about how our steps forward helped them push differently in their own economies back home.
By valuing arts - and Indian arts, at that - to prices equivalent to what we pay for other services and projects in the world around us, we not only change perceptions on valuation of the arts, but also battle inherent biases that surround these values.
Why we call the Mahabharata “a reclamation”
The other day, a few patrons asked us why our rendition was so “modern”. How could we look at the Mahabharata through the lenses of gender and caste? Were we not disrupting the traditions?
Another patron raised concerns about retelling a story that has been used to oppress people in India in the past. Would the retelling stoke these fires again?
It is, for exactly these reasons, for those who believe that the Mahabharata can only be seen through a particular interpretation or lens - that we are doing this work. An oral tradition that became literature that has enraptured South Asia for ages, it is time we gave the Mahabharata far more credit - the conversations we are having right now about these topics are written word for word in the Mahabharata. Bhishma speaks of equality in the Bhishma parva. Duryodhana speaks of unfair behavior and privilege when referring to the Pandavas. Jarasandha, Sisupala and other great kings argue over the dangers of breaking traditions while others oppose their inability to see into the future.
Ultimately, the Mahabharata is an incredible story of humanity and its flaws. In the books we read, translations of the critical edition (a compilation and amalgamation of the thousands of stories of the Mahabharata) taught us the beauty of all the pains of being human. It teaches us that one can be a guru, a deeply respected teacher, and make incomprehensible, ugly decisions (Ekalavya’s thumb) - it teaches us that the best among us can be overcome by emotions that cause them to utilize their privileges in unfair advantages (Arjuna when he first meets Karna, Karna’s demand to disrobe Draupadi) - it teaches us that too much ambition can cause wars (Duryodhana).
The Mahabharata teaches us there are two sides to every story. It does not teach us only a particular type of narrative, a particular type of morality.
In some ways, we are not rewriting or re-envisioning the Mahabharata. We didn’t need to. The story was already there...we are merely pulling the story together to pass down to a different generation. One that deserves to hear it from different perspectives.
- Sahasra Sambamoorthi