BUILDING BLOCKS: Curating/organizing a dance festival - physical and digital: Part 2


A weekly series for just Kathak
During this pandemic, everybody was trying to show their creativity, some even by cooking and cleaning, and classical dancers started putting their own videos shot in their homes, just like that. Most videos were sad—they featured melancholy poetry etc. Then I realized that slowly, people had started online festivals where they were not offering anything to dancers, but dancers were making sincere efforts, like wearing full costumes and make-up, putting up curtains, presenting a good performance any way they could. Time is money, and they spent entire days putting in this effort, despite no remuneration. This made me feel very sad. We didn't know how long we were going to be in this situation. If we are going to be like this for quite some time, like another year, I don't think the message should go out that artistes are free. This is our bread and butter. Senior artistes were not doing much of this, but the younger generation was putting a lot of content on social media for free, which I felt was dangerous. Ultimately, why would anyone pay to see such artistes (if they readily put up free new content)? Some of my content is on YouTube, so if you want to watch for free, watch YouTube. Why do you want me to come and dance 'live' for free?

So the youngsters were the ones finding an outlet for their agitation by putting content on social media. I wasn't offering a great amount, just a token amount to motivate them. I discussed this with my parents too. Earlier, I thought I would pay the artistes from my own pocket, from the earnings from my online classes. Then I mentioned this to Prachi Dixit ji, who is a very good artiste friend of mine from Los Angeles. She's the founder-director of Nupur Academy LA. She said it's a beautiful idea, and 'how can I help?' I told her the help I needed was monetary help. And she said 'okay, I'm in.' So she came on board first, and then I spoke to OrganiKrishi, who make organic food. One of the partners is a family friend. When I spoke to them, they also accepted the idea with open arms and came on as co-sponsors. Alaknanda is also one of my friends and a Kathak dancer who lives in Noida - her institute is AIPA (Alaknanda Institute of Performing Arts). She also said 'I would like to help you out' and joined hands with Sankalp. Innee Singh started his own production house, Harbilights, and that's how the journey began. Then I spoke to ShashiprabhaTiwari and you for reviews, because an artiste needs visibility - and a good audience. I thought if I can provide these three things to artistes, that would be good. All said yes and the whole festival became well organized. Sunjeev Singh helped with the posters. Innee Singh helped with the video editing etc. I used to pay for that from the sponsorship money.

Vidha Lal

Vidha Lal (Photo: Anoop Arora)

Format and presentation
I prepared all the content myself, including the introductions for the episodes. I didn't want to do it without announcements. Plus, if I am seen, it makes a difference. I had thought earlier that I would add just a voice note, but then I thought I should be visible. I had seen a few festivals online and they didn't have many viewers. There was no senior artiste to act as the face, no good presentation. I thought, I have to make it look really nice and do it formally, properly, and I can say that I was successful.

I know more young dancers in Kathak than in other fields and I know them personally. All the younger ones associated with me would definitely watch. That's why I thought I should concentrate on one dance form. Sometimes some people don't want to watch other forms, for various reasons, so I thought let me try with Kathak, and if response is good, then maybe I would do another series with other art forms. Hence there's been only one season so far.

Selection of dancers and videos
I did everything myself. Many people would send me videos. I would then also ask for biodata and video links. Some dancers were unknown to me, whom I was discovering during this selection process. Also, not just Delhi, I had to present artistes from all over. So I watched their application videos. Some I selected that way and some I approached because I had seen them earlier. I wanted to make sure that every student is connected with their guru. Sometimes I have seen younger dancers go from one teacher to another, dozens, and not be with any one properly. That message should also go out that the guru's permission is necessary, hence there were small clips of the gurus. Also, we might know them by name, but face recognition is also important for the gurus. It looks authentic and students also gain confidence. That's how I designed it.

I edited my own bytes. Most artists would edit their own and Innee Singh would compile them all into one. My promo video was also made by Innee Singh. I started with making my own posters, then Innee Singh offered to help and then Sunjeev Singh started making posters and editing videos. Conceptualization and curation were all based on my thought process. Like Swati, the dancer from Singapore: her guru was with me in Kathak Kendra and worked with me in the repertory. Some years ago, when I went to Singapore, Swati had conducted my workshops, and that's how I knew her.

Presenting younger teachers
It was not done deliberately, it just happened, I asked Gauri Diwakar and Anuj Mishra . . . like, Rani Khanum ji and Rudra Shankar's father are not younger. I was not only promoting the young artistes but also the young gurus. Because when we think guru, we think white hair, over 50, but that stereotype needed to be broken. We saw younger artistes teaching very honestly and working hard, and somehow, I was able to spread that message as well.

Criticism over lack of transparency in stamina and technique
Negative people will find negativity. My intention was not to showcase their stamina in the same way as it appears on stage. But if someone is dancing for even 10 minutes, they are clearly dancing in one go. Each item is at least 10 mins—the stamina, if they have it, is obvious. In live videos, there are so many glitches, like sound, network etc., that the quality of the presentation drops. And I was not interested in compromising the quality of my festival. So that was my motive behind it, hence the recorded videos. We don't know in what circumstances the artiste is making the video in this pandemic. So the artiste has the confidence and comfort of making the video at their convenience, even if it is at 2am in their own home, but to the best of their ability and their best work.

Plus, I did it for the first time and it's not like I had a big support system: no one with a name or any organization. Even now, there are festivals going on in which barely 10-12 people watch live. What is the point of 'live festivals' like that? In the pandemic, it was no point judging the artistes. We wanted simply to make them happy and give them a platform. If the platform is pre-recorded, then what is the issue? Many dancers got other platforms after people saw their recorded performances on my festival.

If we have to adapt, this is the best way. Even in films, actors give many takes and their performances are recorded. Why do they then get awards for their acting if they have not acted live in theatre? How can you not see stamina in a pre-recorded video? The dancer might have rehearsed 10 times before making the videos and the 11th take was what you saw in the video. I prefer to see the positive in everything. Many ministry festivals also adopted this format later, with pre-recorded videos. It allows for clear video, clear sound, no interruptions. The audience can enjoy the performance fully, not like a patchy call. I don't even know whether everyone has such high quality internet. I cannot say, 'First install high quality wi-fi in your home and then I'll feature you."


I did my first interview with Usha RK, an arts consultant, who has worked with both veteran and young artistes and performers for over three decades, promoting and propagating classical arts. Her interesting thematic presentations have been widely appreciated, of which I have watched Devi Kshetram, Divya Pushpam, Navarasa Nayaka and many more. Many of them have been reported on my blog.

Do you go about curating an event according to a distinct concept?
I don't put together performances which have already been performed elsewhere. Often, a curator will simply choose the location and the dancer, and the artist will perform what they have already rehearsed and performed before. For my programme, they cannot do an already prepared piece. I develop the concept and give them a piece to work on. Sometimes, you get some thoughts and you begin to wonder how the concept will translate on stage. So I would like to use the word 'conceptualization' instead of curation.

I started working on conceptual programmes way back in 2006. I wanted to carve a niche doing something unusual. I took the compositions of Bhadrachala Ramadasu and I had 7 male dancers do it and it became very popular. It was the story of the poet, but told through his songs. The seven dancers portrayed the whole story of his life. Similarly, I realized that many characters from our mythology do not get too much space in the imagination, in that they are not the front runners in the story, but are vital, like Draupadi, Karna, Surpanakha, Ravana etc. So we took these characters for Patra Parichay and introduced them. For instance, Ravana is never the subject of a whole program, but in the program, we introduced him as a great hero, a Shiva bhakta and musician. We explored all the aspects of a character. So we called the series Patra Parichay. In Delhi, we did Ahalya, Surpanakha, Karna and Draupadi. It was very popular in Bengaluru and I did many more there. These were very successful and the dancers wanted more such chances.

From there, we moved on to the great saint-poets of the 17th century. This had Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar. We did the whole Ramayana through the eyes of Thyagaraja. We got Carnatic musicians to sing for us, not the regular musicians. You got the feel of a Carnatic music concert, but we did dance to that. It was very different. Nobody was doing an entire evening of Thyagaraja's compositions. Muthuswamy Dikshitar is a very complicated composer and also a tough composer to adapt into dance because of the vilambit laya. So these sorts of projects became a challenge for the dancers right from the beginning: how to think, conceptualize, sit with musicians and record and then how to present it. The dancers were excited and enthusiastic and begged for a chance to do something. One of the things we did was the panchabhoota linga by Dikshitar. Each linga, which represents one element, is associated with one kshetra. We did it as one whole evening's performance, the first element by one dancer, the second by two and so on till the last one was performed by five dancers.

In this way, I would form the concept and then choose the dancer since the dancer should be someone able to deliver the required story. When I decide upon the tale, I think of a dancer who would be appropriate; for instance, when I was thinking of the japa flower for Divya Pushpam, I was thinking of Tanya Saxena, and she executed it beautifully. When I was thinking of Divya Vahana, I thought Dakshina Vaidyanathan Baghel would suit the mooshak with her humour. Young dancers are very enthusiastic and hard-working. I give them a basic idea of the mood of the piece. They have an amazing capacity to work hard and develop it.

Usha RK

Usha RK

Once you have worked on the concept, research and literature, do you decide the pieces to be chosen, or do the dancers select them?
Mostly, what happens is that I give them the thought and they revert with a few compositions and their plan. We also work with the musicians and the musicians also come up with ideas. When we were doing Ram Katha with Sathyanarayana Raju, Sathya, the musician DS Srivatsa and I sat together and decided how to go about Hanuman and Shabari. When we were doing Guha, we chose a Hindi bhajan. Whatever ideas I give them, they follow to the t.

After this is the choreography... Do they do it themselves or do you guide them?
No, choreography they do themselves. It is entirely their own choreography. I don't come in till the rehearsal stage. They do whatever they want with it till then. Then I see 3-4 rehearsals. In the first rehearsal, I check that it should look like one whole, since there are 3-4 dancers doing their own pieces in one programme. They should not look like they are performing in spurts. There has to be continuity and flow. If I find anything jarring, I tell them. They change it and come back with something according to my feedback. If nothing works, I tell them to try again. If that is okay, I tell them to go ahead and develop it. Then I leave them with that and in case of any discrepancy, I tell them to leave it altogether and replace it with something new. And they are keen to make changes as required. After that, I see them for only for one rehearsal and then the final, last rehearsal. Then it is time for working on the finer points like trimming or extending.

What about the costuming?
They all decide on their own but before they finalize it for the stage, they have to take my approval. And after working with me a few times, they know my mind and come with their input accordingly. They have to be serious about all this. It has to be grand and royal. We give them full freedom; if you tie them up, you won't get such results. We should be there, and yet not be there also. I told Parshwanath Upadhye once to wear bright colours and also to tie a dhoti instead of a stitched costume and he looked much better. Even Pavitra Bhat would wear a stitched costume with pleats and I suggested the dhoti to him. He liked it so much, he only wears dhotis now. I showed them how to wear saris with borders as dhotis. All the big dancers have worked on their costume - Yamini ji, Chitra ji, and Raja and Radha Reddy look like queen and king on stage. So I told them to work on their costumes. Dakshina Vaidyanathan is very lucky. She has her mother Rama Vaidyanathan as the guiding force. Vidha has Geetanjali ji to support her. Whatever they wear is okay with me as long as they look grand on stage. If anything doesn't work, I tell them so that there is no jarring difference in the level between two dancers. I do not give anyone preferential treatment. That is why I compere for all of them. And since I give the subject, I try to explain it myself.

You feature mostly young dancers in your programs. Is that a deliberate choice?
I realized around 2006 that there was a gap between the batch of dancers like Malavika Sarukkai and the current batch: it just so happened that many dancers in the middle batches settled abroad: Shoba Natarajan, Sujata Srinivasan, Kamala Reddy, Vidya Subramaniam. So there was a gap. If we don't train the younger people to whom the baton can be passed, the gap will widen. It started with that thought, and so, to equip the younger generation of dancers, I started off with a batch of six dancers from Bengaluru. Every three-four years, after one batch was established, I started working on the next. Now, it's been many years. Parshwanath and Mithun Shyam, I have been working with for many years. They are seniors now in their own right. I have worked with over 600 dancers over all these years.

When I did Nathdwara with Kathak dancer Abhimanyu Lal, he refused, since he did not want to do the abhinaya. But Geetanjali ji intercepted it. He called me many times to say that this was not his comfort zone and he did not want to do it, that his mother was pressing him to do it. Geetanjali ji was all for this concept but Abhimanyu felt his abhinaya was not remarkable. But that day it came out so well; the picture that Innee Singh took of Abhimanyu sweating and begging in front of the lord became very famous. He told me he was indebted to me for that. And then he did Lord Vishwanath of Kashi also. It is like a challenge for them and it helps them develop. It is a service to the dancers. If I did not get sponsors for younger dancers, I would finance the entire program from my own savings. If dance is my passion, then this is my service to it. I save from my pocket and finance the event.

Your introductions to a program and the individual pieces are a standard part of the performance. It helps connect with the audience.
Whatever you are doing, if the base or the premise is strong, the performance will also be strong. All the ingredients have to be collected and measured and served properly. My corporate background tells me that consistent presentation is essential for selling your work. When you go to buy a toothpaste, you will opt for Colgate because you have seen it on TV 25 times a day. The recollection comes to you easily and you immediately look for the red and white of Colgate. It is called recall value. Instant recognition - This is called packaging your product by giving it a logo and colour combination. Now, a heroine will advertise Lux and a boy playing in the mud will advertise Lifeboy since that is the difference between the two. Each product has to be showcased for the right target audience. I also have to work on my presentation to the audience. For instance, I used a logo with a bow and an arrow to show Divya Astra. I wanted the youth to understand that astra is not some fuddy-duddy thing, it is a weapon. What is today the nuclear bomb is the equivalent of the Sudarshan Chakra. I want them to relate to what there is (in the classical form), but in a manner they will appreciate. If I make it look like a sabha program, then youngsters will not come. And if I don't let young dancers interpret it the way they want, then they will not do it; they don't want to do it like an old varnam.

Today's generation thinks differently. We used to have one-and-a-half hour varnams. Today, maximum half an hour: after that, nobody will sit and watch a varnam. In my programmes, the duration the dancer gets is about 15-20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, you have to shine. SP Balasubramaniam told me once that, 'A song is just for 4 minutes. Out of that, in a duet, you get 2 minutes. And half a minute is for instruments. I get only one-and-a-half minutes to sing in such a manner that I am remembered for generations to come.' I tell my dancers that in the first 3 minutes there must be a 'wow' moment. In Surpanakha, Dakshina is remembered for leaving the stage through the audience. Either the people should be crying or saying 'wow'. They have to be sitting on the edge of their seats. But I think these young dancers are capable of more and more. In the beginning, if we push and guide them, they are very quick to learn. They are very fast in thinking; they don't waste time. We did a program in which the sakhi is the hero, the main character. We got three new compositions written with Karthik Hebbar and Abhimanyu. The program went very well. We wrote a new javali in the old format. Who will develop musicians like this? We have a brilliant young Sanskrit writer called Arjun Bharadwaj, a new boy for the Telugu composition and Abhimanyu wrote the third one, three new people to write. We made new compositions with the flavour of the old ones. It had the flavour of an ashtapadi. We have always developed people. Karthik now performs with Vaibhav Arekar, Vidya Subramaniam and so on. The first time he worked with us, he was uncomfortable. We encouraged him throughout and his confidence soared. We have to have the passion to encourage the new generation. Build the resource people also. Nobody is permanent in this world, and before they go, they have to develop the next generation.

Would you be interested in doing anything online, since we do not see the COVID situation resolving in the near future.
No. I am not as yet fond of online, though in Russia, everything is online. For a video to come online it has to have some standard. There is now fatigue of the online thing and the attention span is also very limited. For the time being, there is no other option, so it should be short and crisp and good quality work, then people will definitely watch. I did some more short works. I did 'Ek Aur Vikalp' in which we took one composition and made two dancers make their own interpretations. They did their solos and then a duet.

Do you think that online and physical performances will continue to thrive together?
I think not. Once the actual performances come around, the virtual ones will decrease. Plus, the cost of videography is a deterrent. My opinion is that the quality of a performance should be maintained. It is also not an easy medium. You have to dress up properly with apt sari colour, make-up and jewellery, the house or venue has to be orderly / aesthetic, and you have to choose an interesting corner. There are many drawbacks. So let's hope live programs are back soon.

Note: This article first appeared in