By Umesh Venkatesan
I have heard tennis players say that they pursued the sport because they were “ball hogs,” greedy of the limelight and the freedom an empty court affords. I suspect that many Indian performing artists feel likewise (bell hogs?), and in the case of some arts such as Bharatanatyam, why not? After all, the style originated and evolved as a solo form, with chief importance placed on a codified repertoire known as the margam (Sanskrit for “path”).
However, I was forced to reexamine this belief after working in New York City and with the Indian diaspora, catering to audiences spreading vastly beyond the predominantly Desi patrons in suburban auditoriums...
Consider some of the most recent Indian classical dance productions by local companies (Malini Srinivasan’s “Tejas Luminous”; Sonali Skandan’s “Mayura: Blue Peacock”) and by artists from abroad (Renjith Babu and Vijna Vasudevan in duet; Ramli Ibrahim’s “Krishna: Love Re-Invented”), all of which enjoyed much success in the New York metro. What did they share? Teamwork.
While some capitalized on the captivating power of synchronized rhythmic precision, others exploited the sculpturesque poses attainable with a colorfully clad troupe. While the trend of increasing group productions has been observed for quite some time now, the idea that these efforts may actually be necessary in places like New York is not often articulated. In cities where “dance” once referred primarily to tutus and minimalistic leotards, Indian classical dance artists have teamed up to promise an enriching and multidimensional experience for the uninitiated— one that might not be as effective if consisting of a lone performer— and ensure audiences have ample information to motivate their attendance.
For sustainability purposes, it would seem foolish for anyone to forsake the team performance idiom in favor of a staunch traditionalist perspective. Barring the few virtuosos we encounter, this type of attitude may result in a failure to thrive professionally. But we should also recognize that collaborative work plays a critical role in artistic development.
Speaking from my own personal experiences and those testified by others, there is potential for incredible technical and creative growth of artists when engaged in group productions. Both active and observational learning coalesce in such endeavors, with individual benefits often seen far sooner than in solo practice. Perhaps the most appealing feature of dance groups is that they do not require diva status (in either skill or name).
With a talented choreographer at the helm, an average but diligent practitioner of the art can be integrated seamlessly with others to create something valuable and impactful. When the whole is greater than the sum, we have visual magic. In this sense, group productions are essential training experiences for future generations of Indian classical dancers.
The message to emerging artists at Navatman and the community at large is that collaboration is an important gateway to a successful independent career, owing to multiple socioeconomic and artistic factors. Ego and eagerness can consume all of us at times, and the ideal margam is not always clear. But share the ball and hold out for more marshmallows, and you will be rewarded, if not by a solo slot at Lincoln Center, by a more beautiful toolbox to explore and cherish.