BUILDING BLOCKS: Curating/organizing a dance festival - physical and digital: Part 1

 In my series of interviews on the building blocks of a classical dance performance, I begin before the dancer is on stage, emoting through her expressions and giving a presentation of her sadhna in her technique; even before the choreographer has prepared the steps or the musician has set the music. The process begins when a person sitting in the comfort of his/ her living room is thinking of curating a series, an event to mark an occasion or a festival. He or she then develops a concept and goes about assessing dancers accordingly, books a venue or platform, perhaps chooses the literary compositions and the music, and last but not least, arranges for sponsors and funds for the event. It is an arduous task, planning everything from scratch. And usually, the curators of classical arts events do it less for remuneration and more for their love of the arts. They are satisfied if their hard work pays off and the artists get a platform and the right kind of audience.

And then suddenly, there is a pandemic, the first in a hundred years, and humanity goes into a near-total lockdown. All events are cancelled overnight, auditoriums closed, and the arts swallowed up by the gloom of disease and anxiety. But this passion for the arts is a wriggly little caterpillar. The moment it wriggles out of its cocoon, it starts to spread its wings, and there goes the monarch butterfly in glorious flight. And you see the dancer again, maybe not in her full makeup, maybe not in her elaborate aharyam, but with her beautiful eyes displaying all the expressions, her feet tapping and her technique captured in the eye of a camera instead of in front of an audience. And she is everywhere: on your laptop, on your mobile, on your TV, dancing on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. And the curator is still sitting in the comfort of their home, this time, not by choice, but still doing whatever it takes to carry on curating.

I spoke to four curators with slightly different trajectories: Dr. Usha RK, whose curated events I have watched many times on stage and a repeat of one on Shaale again during the pandemic; Dr. Anita Ratnam, whose multiple Boxed series (the latest one responding to the new lockdowns), Andal's Garden, Devi Diaries and others, have been among the highlights of the online dance presentations during the pandemic; Geeta Chandran, whose curation of the annual Natya Vriksha World Dance Day festival I have always admired; and Vidha Lal, who forayed into curation only during the pandemic with her successful Sankalp series of weekly Kathak performances.


What is curation?
Curation is a very western concept. Not much curation happened in India earlier. The first requirement of curation is that you need to pay your artiste. Everybody is a curator today, but they pay nothing. Everybody with a Facebook account is a curator today. Every day, I get a request to dance for someone presuming I will dance for free. I think this is becoming a trivialization of the arts - you record at home and send, and they will put on Facebook. They give no money or help with the recording or anything - just give a 15-minute recording and it goes on their Facebook or YouTube.

Curating for the annual Natya Vriksha World Dance Day festival...
We have been doing the Natya Vriksha World Dance Day festival for 15-20 years. All round the year, we look for good artistes who haven't found a good platform in Delhi before and will present a very traditional repertoire, not very experimental work, because there is usually no space for solo artistes to present a traditional work to a good audience. And besides light and sound, we work on the audience. Sometimes curators say the audience is to be organized by artistes. We work hard on that as organizers: every senior artiste is called, and we make a celebration out of it so that the artiste goes back feeling like the right people have seen it. Sanjeev Bhargav used to do a great job of organization and curation: the artist was well paid, the festival well curated, well attended and well organized, beautiful venue, volunteers, publicity . . . that is curation at a professional level.

Khajuraho and Konark are the other big festivals that are well curated and well organized, but there also standards are falling now. There are some very good artistes juxtaposed with some sifarishi case. So when dancers organize, they are particular about quality. But here also, dancers give opportunity to others so that in turn, the other party gives a chance to their own students - you scratch my back, I scratch yours. To have a professional dance festival without these things is tough. I have faced a lot of problem raising funds for my festival. For many years, it was Natya Vriksha earnings that I was pumping in. Slowly, we got government support, but that is never given in time, it comes much later, and you never know whether it's going to come or not.

People spend a lot on publicity and all but do not pay the artistes. So we had a rule - first pay the artiste, and then see what is left to spend on other things. Artistes should see that there is hope and a profession in the arts. I think these are the takeaways of my festival. We build new components each year - workshops, films, lectures, discussions, talks by people from allied disciplines, scholars.

Geeta Chandran
Geeta Chandran
(Photo: Anoop Arora)

How the dancers are chosen
We keep a watch throughout the year and keep observing and following people. For the first few years, we went to gurus and asked them to present their best students. But that system didn't work, so I started seeing a lot of programmes. We already have a list for the next two-three years because there are so many good dancers we have found. We also take the help of my students, since they are also watching a lot of dance. It's a totally democratic process of selection. We sit together and decide - it's a process of watching, engaging with youngsters - and we always got compliments from fellow dancers on my choice of artistes.

Having people from various disciplines in the workshops
At the end of the day, we are talking body and dance. I don't believe in genres, there are only body and aesthetics. There is so much to learn from contemporary dancers and their discipline and engagement with the body. I think Bharatanatyam is the most contemporary form.

Dance is dance. Everybody is working hard on their own forms. Santosh Nair, for example - he comes from a background of Kathakali and Chhau training, and what contemporary dance work he does! I think we need to learn so much from such people who have evolved their own style on the foundation of the classical. We have integrated what he has taught us about body, spine and balance into our warm-ups. We offer everything; students decide what they take back. I think it's important to break these genres, mental blocks of classical, contemporary, folk; dance is involvement of body and mind. Our workshops are open to all, not just my own disciples.

Guest speakers
We need role models; there are not enough of them, and these young dancers also need to understand the history of the various dance forms and how these people (guest speakers) have evolved. They don't read etc., so if they understand and admire their struggle, they might learn these things. We have eminent scholars and critics come and talk to them so they understand the earlier period and the struggles of those dancers.

We actually plan for almost two years so that there is availability of the performers and others. I withdrew my own students from the festival one year. Many dancers organize festivals just to put their own students on stage. Then they say they are curators. In the past ten years, I have featured my students once or twice. Otherwise, all four dancers are outsiders. It's never our own dancers unless they are exceptional and have presented something spectacular. Last year, we had a Natya Vriksha presentation, only somebody backed out and three of my dancers did their group work to fill in for them.


What has your experience as a curator been like over all these years, and especially during the pandemic?
I have to go back even further, because curating comes from the Greek and Latin word 'curator', which means 'to select'. The skill - it comes from training, but it's not something you can actually train in, like maths or business. You have to have huge curiosity, which was instilled in me during my work as a television producer in New York. Every week for 10 years, I produced a variety programme for the Indian community in the US, a series of news and interviews and entertainment clips and Bollywood songs etc. I have a Master's in TV and Theatre from the US. I learnt how timing was extremely important. In American TV, they would say, "Even God doesn't get more than seven minutes," meaning no matter what anybody had to say (through their performance), you give them seven minutes. In order to get seven good minutes, you have to do a lot of preparation. So my training and thinking came on the field: deciphering what audiences would like each and every week, and delivering that on schedule. And also the skill of assembling a team, because you can't do this all alone.

When I returned to India, 31 years ago, in 1990, the first thing I did was set up the Arangham Trust in 1992. I wanted to do something for dance, which is when the Narthaki dance directory came out. That was basically me as a producer or a publisher. In 1993, I organized my first festival, which involved both dance and theatre. I called it Old Text, New Textures. I worked with theatre veteran Veenapani Chawla and Kathak choreographer Aditi Mangaldas. Aditi and I are almost the same age and are colleagues. Veenapani Chawla was a little senior and she had just moved from Bombay to Auroville at the time. I became what I call a 'festival director' for the simple reason that I felt that the work that I was doing and interested in creating, there was nobody else in Chennai at that time thinking of that.

I thought, let's have a festival because then my work and the other two's work could be like a small window into the possibilities that people are working in other than classical, because Chennai was (and still is) considered the seat of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. So I started a festival in 1993, and then the festivals continued every other year. I would always look at who my audience was. Can I take the work into schools? Can I have a noon show? So in the 90s, I was doing so much work, I was going to offices, corporates, schools . . . I would book a theatre and have three shows for schools, have the students do essays: there was a lot of interactive work in those shows that had not been done until that time, which came from my training as an actor and a classical dancer. I was moving into what we now call contemporary dance. I was moving into neo-classical then, and afterwards I went into something new. It was only in 1998 that I began collaborating; between '93 and '98, I was doing these small shows, almost like trials.

The first corporate that was very open to me was ITC. At that time, it was headed by Mr. K.L. Chugh, who was very pro-arts. And then there was Zarir Cama at HSBC. It was because of individuals that I was able to get a step into the corporate world. The idea was, how can we use or harness the arts for their rising middle management? I started using storytelling to talk to middle management. I worked with the Hindu and Indian Express and what they called Newspapers in Education, doing balance workshops. Now theatre has theatre exercises, but 30 years ago in India, we were still making those discoveries and I was one of those in my city making those discoveries. In every effort and venture, I was developing and honing my skills. I did two Natya Kala Conferences - 5 conferences in total.

As a curator, I knew one thing: one has to collaborate with like-minded or better quality people who are very good in their field. So when I started collaborating with lighting designers, set designers etc. . . . I am a first-generation artist from both sides of my family. There's no one else in the arts. As a first-generation professional artist, I did not have any role models in the family to set any standards for me. The only standards I respect are hard work, determination, basic values, persistence. I will add stubbornness and madness as well, because to be in the arts, you need those two qualities. As you know, in a country like ours and a society like ours, dancers are the quickest to be devalued unless you become famous. I had to create my own path. I looked to people whose work I liked or read. I did interviews. My seniors in classical dance had already become divas and they said dance is everything, you can find everything in Bharatanatyam, everything in Kathak. I disagreed. Every classical form is wonderful, but it's not complete. Not if you're restless and searching. Then, if that form you've trained in for 15-20 years doesn't give you what you're looking for, you have to look elsewhere. That doesn't make you dishonest or disrespectful. It just makes you curious. Ravi Shankar once said, "If you're curious, you're blessed."

One of the things I had to do was unlearn and relearn many things in my dance training. I knew I was a very good collaborator because if I wanted to work with somebody, even when I was hiring and paying them, I never made them feel like they were being hired and paid. I had to make them feel like we were all in this adventure together. We were equal stakeholders, which was a very different paradigm from classical dance, which is extremely feudal. Theatre doesn't do that. It starts with a script and the director sitting with all the actors at the same level on the ground in a circle. In a circle, one is of the same level; one doesn't know where it begins and where it ends. That kind of democratic beginning is what I learnt in the US as well. Even though I was a producer, my team was all my age. We all worked together, then we ate and drank together, something that never happens in dance. In theatre, we all go out after rehearsal. It's very rare that we go out with musicians etc. in dance. Maybe rarely, on tour, but not as a practice. The diva system is very much in place.

In curation, I recognized my skills as a producer. If you have an idea, you can look at the idea and at the end product. A curator has to know very clearly whom one is creating that product for, who your audience is. That is very important. The demographic, the age group, the tastes, if you're going to be radically shifting, how much you want them to shift with you. Usually, a very successful speaker is one who talks 15-20% above the level of the audience, not more than that. You should not lose them or turn them off. For me, to keep the audience engaged and intrigued is equally important. My curatorial skills have built over the last 20 years. How one does festivals, conferences, how one gets academic consultants, how one gets the right mix of performance and scholarly papers, getting a book published - I like to think of the end product as well. I don't like to think of something that starts and ends with a stage performance. I like to have documentation: young people from journalism schools come and write about it, artists come and create a sculpture or a painting . . . I have paintings and sketches of all my performances. It's a multi-dimensional approach to even a dance performance. My curation on Shivaratri had all kinds of arts, puppetry, music, dance, theatre, dialogue, debate. The dances are from the traditions of Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For this, I appointed three curators, young people, and I taught them how to curate. I gave them time and told them how to select (not whom to select), then how to arrange, and about timing. All three are dancers from classical dance and are first-time curators.

My role as a curator overlaps with my roles as a collaborator, producer and performer. And I look at all of them as separate and yet overlapping.

Anita Ratnam
Anita Ratnam
(Photo: Sam Kumar)

When everything was closed, the arts proved to be not just a profession but a way of living. You curated multiple series: Boxed, Devi Diaries, Andal's Garden and others.
As soon as the lockdown was announced in March 2020, I started thinking of what to do. We activated the Narthaki digital platform. For the first three weeks, however, we were all just preoccupied with how to manage groceries and everyday things. But my mind was buzzing. I don't have a school, I don't teach, I have no student, and that is by design. There are already 2000 schools in my city. My skills were in other areas. I was interested in that uncertainty, fear and paranoia of the initial lockdown, and in how to bring all those questions into a performance. I spoke to my friend Chitra Sundaram in London; she's an excellent dancer and thinker. We decided a time of 2 minutes and together we thought about being trapped, 'boxed'. All this was over one phone conversation. Everybody only had handheld phones, and many were in apartments. So we thought, how about giving readymade music from a bank of musicians I would reach out to, created music, then a bank of editors? Let the dancers shoot two minutes of movement from two angles, which we could edit.

We reached out to classical dancers. They were finding it really difficult; they were totally paralyzed, just not able to move outside. So then we widened the net and started asking contemporary dancers, and they immediately got it. All my years of curating, writing, years of Narthaki had led to a network of many young people who were so eager, so ready. We had three editors and two line producers. We told the dancers, "Don't worry, we will make you look fantastic." The editors were in touch with the dancers; they discussed the location, then the editors advised them on where to place the camera, and then some of them ended up using their own music and some, our music. That's how Boxed happened: an idea, a call, the backend of tech support. We sent back videos a maximum of twice if they were not working. If after two attempts the dancer didn't get it, we dropped it. Over 7 weeks, we had great viewership and a competition, but the really great thing was that per edition, there was a senior dancer critiquing them. In the end, we offered all the dancers mentoring. And only two dancers took the mentoring offer. Nobody was interested in being mentored, even for free, especially classical dancers.

Between Boxed, we had many premieres of dance films. After they saw Boxed, well-known dancers sent us 2 or 3 minute films to show. It turned out to be a wonderful series in the height of the lockdown, when none of us knew when we could travel, step out of our homes. It was very successful but completely self-funded, since there was no way of going around and asking for grants etc. But down the line, everybody had to be paid, even if nominal amounts.

Devi Diaries: Everybody was doing Devi. Originally, there's not as much of Devi and Shiva in Kathak and Odissi, but now everybody is doing Devi to expand the repertoire, even Mohiniattam. We thought, let's reach out to classical dancers, because Boxed had such a contemporary look: everyday clothes, absolutely no dance costumes. For Boxed, they were supposed to dance in the state they were in, absolutely no aharya. Only then would Boxed be true to the mission. So for Devi Diaries, I thought, let them be dancers. We had many styles besides Bharatanatyam.
Many artists were very depressed at this time when I contacted them. They had mental health challenges, or were caring for sick people. All dancers also had endless online platforms and festivals and there was a lot of free dancing happening. The fear was, if I am not seen, people will forget me. So there was no shortage of free content to watch. Devi Dairies was thus more expansive. I told my team to find five people from different styles, with good quality audio and video, and dancers were given a budget to edit the videos themselves. By October, people had become much savvier about editing on their phones. Again, we gave them only 3-4 minutes, and the series went on for 31 days in October. By this time, I had already conceptualized Andal's Garden, because Margazhi was coming up in December.

Andal's Garden: I had more information on Andal than most people. And this was the first time that Kathak, Mohiniattam, Manipuri were being performed to Andal. We sent the music, which was Carnatic, with tweaks for the particular dance form. And why not? Everybody does Meera and Kabir. I told the dancers, only outdoor settings. We had already opened up by December, there was some travel. I said, enough drawing room-living room dancing. And I said no side hair knots and no garlands; nobody should be frozen. Just respond to her poetry. And the music has to be Tamil, no translation. Along with evening talks, it turned out extremely impactful, people found so many layers to this one poet.

Since imagination and attention spans have shrunk so much, I don't know who will sit in an auditorium now for one or 1.5 hours without looking at their phones. Since people are streaming these performances on their phones, you never know how many people are actually watching. I'd say through these three series, I think my team and I have established that if you create interesting content, it will reach and deliver and will be spoken about and remembered. But our attention spans have been severely challenged.

I am looking at hybrid events now, which can feature many forms including stand-up comedy, not only classical dance. I'm a big sports fan, I play sports as well. I have a degree in theatre, dance, dance history, women's studies, literature, TV - if I don't bring all strands of my education, experience and skill together into curation, what is the point? The digital medium is not going to replace the live medium, but it is an interesting way of developing one's curatorial skills. One doesn't have the burden of seeing one dancer for 45 minutes, one can find lots of new talent, unknown names who've acquitted themselves so well and are trying harder than bigger names.

My hat as a producer is never going to be removed because I am always wondering, even with solo work, who will watch, how it will morph. That is also what a curator does: it doesn't end with one event. A curator has a relationship with artists because a curator is also an artistic director who gets into the process of creation, not simply the final product. A curator is always talking to the artist during development. I was not picking the final product but was in the trenches with the artists, talking, juggling ideas, helping them make selections. In all our works, the artist has held a joint copyright. They can put it on their own platform and with our permission, can also put it in other festivals as long as all the credits are given. A curator must have a huge passion for the arts and go beyond oneself, especially if one is also a performing artist. A dancer can be narcissistic. But a curator doesn't think of those things. If a curator likes something, especially if it's with an artist doing unusual work, then their job is to wonder, how do I frame the work so that audience gets it? Hence it is important to understand the background and the process for every artist and every act. It's a lot of unglamorous work and does not get valued in India; even an independent choreographer doesn't get valued in India.

Curating during the pandemic has been joyous, very challenging and expensive, because I got support only for Shivaratri. Nothing before that. There are ways in which it can be monetized later, though. Sometimes, we are so busy creating that we can't stop to think of how to market it. I did not dance much for the entire year, and then just to test myself. Curation is not a chance to show your own work.

As a curator, how are you looking at making the best of two worlds: online performances and curation?
The pandemic has given rise to the camera operators and the editor in dance: they are the stars. These are two things we never thought about before the pandemic. I'd say that I would definitely nurture this new group of tech-savvy young people and because the digital medium is something most of us watch on our phones, the informality of our own lives while watching a formal performance, while eating or sitting in the car etc., has changed the way we look at art. The first 30 seconds, if the frame is not interesting, you'll move on unless that person is a friend. As a curator, I will look at upskilling people with good phone cameras and editing skills and then pairing them with interesting acts, classical, contemporary, whatever. That, and the digital format, has to be smart, cool, eye-catching. Value systems and parameters are very different from live performances. In live, I would go completely the opposite, look at small, tight groups of 40-50, in intimate surroundings, very minimal lights, lamp lights, solo performers doing something very meditative and quiet which will not work in the digital format - abhinaya or something. Something where, in the live moment, you can only get that rasa by being in the same place as the performer. 

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