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The Capital's PR agencies were marketing more than consumer products this year, as classical dancers and musicians added complexities to their portfolio, says ANJANA RAJAN.

AS THE year 2003 rolls to an end, it blends seamlessly with 2004 for performing artistes, winter in India being the hottest performing season and likely to go strong till February. The turn of the year, however, does inspire some stocktaking. Apart from costs of staging a performance, what seems to have risen this year is the belief among artistes that Public Relations agencies provide the panacea for all oblivion. A young dancer laughs at the prospect: "Imagine the classical character Vasantasena from Sanskrit literature selling her `wares' through a PR agency!"

But others don't find it funny. "We worked so hard, but no one wrote about us," laments Pandit Charanjit Lal, founder of the Pandit Chatur Lal Memorial Society that presents concerts by eminent musicians. He finally hired a PR agency this year and is pleased with the results. He is not the only one. From giants like Ustad Bismillah Khan to the current child prodigy, plenty of artistes have found a place, for a price, in the portfolio of PR agents. Even the announcements and invitations of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Central Government's apex cultural body, come through such an agency.

But when these PR specialists - with clients ranging from bathroom tile manufacturers to Ayurvedic pharmaceuticals, fashion designers to fast food restaurants - put their skills to promoting the merits of classical dancers and musicians this year, they were not always found up-to-date on their classical three R's.

As one young executive, conscious that famous artistes are "like demi-Gods" and "very different from other clients", commented, "The main problem is you don't know the ragas and things," and admitted to having been in a fix when asked to forward such information to journalists. But ragas and talas were not the only technicalities missing in the education of some of these professionals striving to "market" their exalted clients.

Among the striking remarks made by PR agents early this year were the pronouncements that Sonal Mansingh, who received the Padma Vibhushan, had been "conferred with the Padma Shree", and that Kathak exponent Jayant Kastuar, Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, "also does Kuchipudi". One young thing, armed with a file full of legendary names in the art field, confided, "These dancers all have a funny way of dressing and drawing their eyes."

Later in the year, a diligent executive had a newspaper's staff frantically searching for a "journalist with a bindi" to whom she said a programme invitation had been given. While they searched for a woman, it transpired the mystery journo was actually a man with a sandal paste tika on his forehead. The question is, if such everyday aspects of our culture are unknown to them, how safe are performing artistes' reputations in the manicured hands of these pretty PR girls and their handsome male counterparts?

Or schedules, for that matter. If a PR representative promised journalists in vain that flautist Ronu Majumdar would be available for snacks and a chat with journalists about his food preferences up to half an hour before ascending the stage, tabla wizard Zakir Hussain demanded of his organisers why a press conference had been organised if all the media persons then demanded individual interviews with him.

But press conferences are a must, it seems. Only, nobody knows what news is to be divulged. Sitting benignly behind the mikes, dwarfed by the hoarding of the sponsoring agency, the artistes `field' questions. What will they be performing, is one of the common queries. "Come and see the show, you are all invited," is the common reply. It is enough to remind you of the adage, "Ask a stupid question, get a... ." But why blame the media? They are trained to look for facts. Then again, why blame the PR agents?

What do you say to the media relations professional who wailed, while trying to arrange interviews with shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, "Woh to gussa ho jaate hain!"

No, artistes are not easy to "sell". Let's wish all parties better luck next year! In the meantime, the `art mart' reveals vacancies for qualified artistes' agents possessing thorough knowledge of both art and artiste. Any applications?

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