The Reviewer's Bias
- Aparna Keshaviah, Boston

July 22, 2009

According to a 2007 survey of over 200 Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai, Bangalore, and Delhi, 1 in 5 teachers and almost 1 in 3 students do not read any current writings about Bharatanatyam1. Dissatisfied with the present state of dance journalism, many Indian dancers assert that articles today contain little research and are written by anybody with an axe to grind.

As a professional statistician and Bharatanatyam dancer, I sought to investigate such claims through analysis. I selected The Hindu Friday Review as a barometer, being one of the most widely read print sources that is regularly perused by 1 in 4 teachers and students alike. Reviews published between December 2006 and February 2007 (during the Dance Season) were scrutinized, and statistics were compiled on the number of sentences that were complimentary, critical, or entirely descriptive. A total of 71 reviews were analyzed - 56 written by a total of 8 (though primarily 4) authors in Chennai, 7 written by 1 author in Bangalore, and 8 written by 2 authors in Delhi.

Overall, 55% of sentences were complimentary, 27% descriptive, and 18% critical. A common thread across all 3 cities was disproportionate praise. It is highly unlikely that all 7 performances reviewed in Bangalore were flawless, and yet not a single article contained criticism. In Chennai, one reviewer glowed about a performer's "masterly command" that rendered "the dancer... indistinguishable from the dance." Completely disregarded was the fact that this dancer went so off tala that jatis had to be re-started. What could possibly explain such a glaring omission? Simple: this dancer was advanced in age, not technique. Apparently unquestioned veneration supersedes critical thought.

I do not suggest that reviews should strive to embarrass - already there is too much fear of criticism. But the public deserves a candid appraisal of dance as presented onstage, without veneers of reverence, deference, or preference. When young dancers are evaluated, criticism is readily given (in 24% of sentences, on average). But in reviews of middle-aged and older dancers, criticism is sparse (in 15% of sentences on middle-aged dancers; 3% on older dancers), and is often masked by hypothetical statements like: "drawbacks in the nritta...could weaken the impact greatly." Such indirect language merely takes up printed space that could otherwise be filled with more substantative dialogue.

Precise language is important in a review, since words are all the reader may have to form an impression. Yet there is a common tendency to confuse idea with execution. A dance-drama's over-ambitious reach, which created a sense of hurriedness, was summarized as: "the dhurita kaalam treatment was the biggest deterrent." And when in actuality a dance "lacked the 'spice' of a javali," slowness was blamed as the culprit. Rapid tempo can animate, and stillness can be dramatic - so tempo itself is not problematic. But because it is easier to talk about than poor execution, tempo becomes a palatable substitute. Taking these reviews literally, as often happens, why bother advancing technique when maintenance of madhyama kala is all that is required?

But by far the biggest problem with dance journalism today is not the excess of 'PC' or confounding language; it is that reviews lack true critique. Written remarks convey whether a performance was to the reviewer's liking, but give little objective description to allow for an evaluation based on the reader's own sensibilities. Missing is a reasoned assessment of how the dance communicated within the intent set forth by choreographer/dancer. Instead, criticism amounts to nitpicking (costume color is a popular target), and reviews are hijacked for personal grievances: "too many 'borrowed' movements - say, clapping as in folk forms, or jumps in Kathakali style...serve no purpose."

Reviewing The Friday Review
The aforementioned 2007 Survey of Bharatanatyam revealed that there is no pan-Indian set of values, definition of tradition, or even execution of movements within the form. Fully 50% of dancers believe sexuality belongs in Bharatanatyam (provided it is not vulgar), while the other half say it has absolutely no place. Some dancers deny any influence on Bharatanatyam from northern India or abroad; others feel such influences exist and are harmful; and yet others believe these influences have inspired the dignified, precise aesthetic the form enjoys today. And while many dancers believe the ideal araimandi is formed by facing the knees completely to the sides (in a 180° spread), some feel such a stance is unnatural, preferring the knees to face diagonally (in a 90° spread). Reviewers, too, hold diverse opinions. Describing a young dancer's performance, one reviewer in Chennai exclaimed: "As expected, most of the nritta segments were short and undemanding." Another reviewer in Chennai described the younger generation as "eager to win applause, raring to display marathon jathis." So do we expect undemanding nritta or marathon jathis from youngsters? Both are true - there is no uniformity in expectations or values for Bharatanatyam. With such diversity, then, who exactly benefits from an assessment based on a narrow point of view, forged from age or stylistic biases?

Critique is an art form in itself that does not respond well to small-mindedness. Reviewers should provide the reader with a sense of a performance's intent as well as execution, questioning both in a larger context. A useful review paints a picture of the dance instead of the dancer; the limitations as much as successes; and the relationship to dance culture more than to the reviewer. The Indian dance community would be better served if polite statements about tasteful costumes and pleasant smiles are replaced by pointed language that brings the performance to the page. Exceedingly positive, imprecise, biased reviews do little to educate or advance the field. And in the interest of keeping an already disgruntled readership, reviewers at-large should reconsider their purpose and find courage to speak honestly. After all, friction is needed for movement.


1The 2007 Survey of Bharatanatyam was conducted by the author under the aegis of the 2006-2007 U.S Fulbright Grant.


With over 15 years as a professional Bharatanatyam dancer, and a Master's degree in Biostatistics from Harvard University, Aparna Keshaviah performs, teaches, and researches in a hybrid format. Her work integrates art and science to explore relationships between music and dance, tradition and innovation, and stylistic paradigms. For more information, please visit www.keshaviah.com