Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
Why dance festivals?
Khajuraho proved to be the starting point in the mid-Seventies for returning dance to the precincts of the temples, despite the fact that by the Anti-Devadasi Act of 1947 passed in the Madras Presidency, the practice of dancing in temples was banned. In less than 30 years of the passing of the Act, the State itself reversed its policy.
The idea was more to sell the erotic aspect of the Chandela-built temples of Khajuraho, rather than any serious attempt at fostering a dance connection with temples. The success of this initial temple-related festival led to imitations which senselessly tried to duplicate the novelty of the Khajuraho model. Thus were born several dance festivals all over the country - Konark in Orissa, Elephanta and Pune in Maharashtra, Mamallapuram and Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, Somnathpur and Hampi in Karnataka, Qutb in Delhi, Rajgir in Bihar, Surajkund in Haryana and several imitations and spin-offs.
The Khajuraho Dance Festival was a success largely due to easy airlink provided on the Delhi-Agra-Khajuraho-Varanasi-Kathmandu route. Group movements, especially of foreign tourists visiting India, largely contributed to Khajuraho's popularity and the once-a-year-for-a-week dance festival was a mere additive: after all tourists came the year around, not specifically in the week of the festival.
Rule number one in promotion of tourist destinations is to have proper access, transport and abundant activity to sustain that heritage site. While Khajuraho proved lucky, other destinations proved cumbersome: Hampi is a 350 km rough drive on bad roads from Bangalore; Modhera, in Gujarat is nowhere near civilisation; Konark is a three-hour drive from Bhubaneswar, ditto Puri; Chidambaram is an overnight train trip from Chennai and Elephanta is a good part of an hour by ferry from Mumbai. Except for Delhi's Qutb and Pune's Ganesh festivals, most destinations defeated the purpose for which all this expenditure is incurred.
What does an average festival cost? This year, a tractor manufacturing company, had to bail out the Madhya Pradesh government to the tune of over Rs. 20 lakhs.The returns: nil. Even 10 per cent of the costs is not covered by gate sales, priced ridiculously low. Then too, local administration can make or mar festivals. Over-zealous district administrators tend to occupy front rows once the VIPs leave. In one such festival, the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and their orderlies sat in the front row and when few foreigners moved in front to take photographs, the DM shouted at his SP: Confiscate their cameras, and if they don't comply, confiscate their passports!
Visibility, in every sense of the word is marred. The festivals are poorly publicised. True, sundry posters and advertisements appear but too late for anyone to plan a trip, especially from abroad where planning is done often six months in advance. For visitors at home too, no ticket on most affordable modes of transport is generally available at short notice. Visibility is affected in another sense too: most of our classical dance forms are based on solo artistry. The intricacies of their art, especially the abhinaya aspect, are lost on the viewer if seen from too far. Such festivals should depend more on group works and choreographically intensive production so that viewers have a broader perspective, literally.
Representation itself is limited to few chosen names. How the same names circulate everywhere is amazing but often fixers and influence-peddling publicists sit on every committee year after year and decide who is in, who is out. Political favouritism has seeped into dance too and a particular film star is a regular fixture in certain festivals, owing largely to her closeness to political masters or their infatuation with the starlet. It is the same critic who, without seeing her dance, recommended her to the Konark festival and when questioned if he had ever seen her to recommend her, he is on record having said: I am told she is a good dancer! And that was enough for the committee to rope her in bypassing Sanjukta Panigrahi, Sonal Mansingh and many other established Odissi artistes. Nothing illustrates such malpractice more than this celebrity's example: For three years in a row she featured in the Khajuraho festival, one year for Odissi, another in Bharatanatyam and the last occasion was actually a pairing with a male Kuchipudi dancer, as the theme that year was "Purush" in Indian dance. On the appointed day she could be seen but the male dancer could only be seen permanently etched in the stone sculptures of the temples! Our dancers can be extremely creative when it comes to self-projection.
The projection of dance through festivals is a worthy idea no doubt but the ground realities and the organisation leave much to be desired. Most festivals take place between February and March. It may be the best season in India and the occasion of Shivaratri providing an opportunity to propitiate the Lord of the Dance, Nataraja, but it shows poor planning. Most foreigners, especially from Europe, have holidays in July-August. Not a single festival takes place anywhere in these months. December, around Christmas, provides another influx but even the Qutb festival of Delhi is over by the first week. Modhera in Gujarat starts around Sankranti or Pongal, in mid-January. Pune's Ganesha Festival around September (Ganesh Chaturthi), the Konark in the first week of December reflects poor programming. The Hampi, Chidambaram, Khajuraho and Surajkund festivals all take place in February-March, thus compressing too much in too short a space and that too in areas far flung from each other.
Although dance is projected music is not? Why? Or local folk forms? After all, in Khajuraho or Konark, why not include the regional art forms? It is less cumbersome to present and offers easy organisation. Besides, even the peripheral association with the temples is not necessary. In most cases, the actual dancing takes place far from the temples. This came about after the initial apsaras descended from the steps of Khajuraho temples which the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) strongly objected to as affecting the delicate and antique stone structures. In their wisdom they never looked above - to the sky - from where most of the serious damage came: the airplanes flying over the cluster of temples, creating irreparable fissures and cracks in the structures. Typical of our bureaucratic planning, everyone danced and tried to have a merry time, drowning public conservation in private conversations!
The temple connection is unnecessary since very few of these are easily accessible or have a direct link to dance. Orissa is a good example: instead of the million temples of Bhubaneswar, or Puri where as a practice the Maharis danced anyway, the site is far removed to the Sun Temple in Konark. That was aeons ago, now it is on a constructed stage far from even that temple! To beat it all, a local guru, peeved at not being included by the local-powers-that-be undertook to organise his own festival, which owing to heavy participation from the artiste community proved to be far more successful!
The audiences are thin. At one festival, in Puri, only 20 could be counted and this included the security staff. The popular and well attended festivals are, alas, organised by individuals: Pratibha Prahlad's Vijayotsava in Hampi; late Protima Bedi's Vasanthabba in Hessarghata (Bangalore), Suresh Kalmadi's Ganesh Utsav in Pune and Gangadhar Pradhan's in Orissa. Lesson: let individuals be supported with the funds the various State tourist boards squander. It is a wasteful exercise and facts speak for itself: After nearly 20 years of such festivals, and 50 years of Independence, the total tourist traffic to India is less than one per cent of world tourism! It may be a joke but not surprising when once the director of India Tourist Office for Scandinavia, which means 40 million people in five rich countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland) asked me: do Gujarat and Rajasthan share common borders? A man, posted on precious foreign exchange and tax payers money, did not even know the map of the country. Like all good things must come to an end some day, the time to write the epitaph of these festivals has come. Only few dancers, some bureaucrats and the cursory passerby benefit from these wasteful, poorly organised, relatively inaccessible dance festivals. Poor Nataraja. Rich Nata-ranis!
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