The NRI dancer
- Divya Devaguptapu
February 15, 2013
Everywhere I go I am called an NRI – Non-Resident Indian, a word coined to describe an Indian citizen who hasn’t resided in India for over six months. According to Wikipedia, the term "non-resident" refers only to the tax status of a person who, as per Section 6 of the Income Tax Act of 1961, has not resided in India for a specified period for the purposes of the Income Tax Act. That said, the term today is (ab)used to categorize Indians living outside of India in more often than not, a derogatory sense, especially for dancers. The NRI dancer is defined as one who isn’t a serious practitioner, who has enough money to flaunt around promoting herself in Chennai, who has to pay (even if she cannot afford) exorbitant “NRI rates” of the sabhas and musicians, who is (perhaps) not “Indian” enough to be practicing the age old Indian dance form and who can never equal the essentially “Indian dancer” in her knowledge, ability and seriousness. Quite a blanket statement!
In a global world where the “World is flat” (A thought provoking book by bestselling author Thomas Friedman), there has been a huge shift in perception by global economic super powers, companies and people in the way businesses work. Geographical boundaries are becoming seemingly irrelevant. With the Microsofts, Apples and IBMs changing the traditional perception of how a business works, leave alone technology, even the most basic of human needs, food, is now globalized. Sitting in Chennai one is eating apples grown in New Zealand and sitting in San Diego one is eating mangoes grown in India/Thailand.
Artistes have always been regarded as global citizens and cultural ambassadors. With so many top-ranking artistes in the music field based across the globe, the divide between them and the average Chennai/Delhi based Carnatic/Hindustani musician doesn’t exist! If Pt. Ravi Shankar-ji had been based in Delhi alone, he may not have received half the recognition and fame that he did across the world. But we have never called him an “NRI musician”; instead we have given him the highest civilian honor, the ‘Bharat Ratna’ and also heralded him as the foremost cultural ambassador of the country.
In today’s global world where every employer is striving to be an equal opportunity employer, I am glad that the prestigious Music Academy is also striving to give all deserving dancers, irrespective of geographic location, an equal opportunity and I truly applaud them for their efforts in making this process transparent and fair. On a similar note, at a recent conference in Chennai, more than half the performers and presenters weren’t based in India. The conference academic advisor was from a University half way across the globe from Chennai. The artiste should never be judged based on where she comes from, but rather what she brings to the table or let’s say, stage.
Why is there a need to constantly compare dancers purely based on geographical location? I have seen this comparison time and again and this is what has got me thinking. What does it take for an NRI dancer to be considered a serious practitioner of the art? Is she not a serious dancer because she is miles away from her gurus, with her only guru being the mirror in her modest home studio? Or because her research material is restricted to just the number of books she is able to check into her suitcases coming back from India or the local US University library archives? Is she not a serious dancer because she sits up late at night and during the wee hours of the morning making at least 50 phone calls to the “Chennai sabha gatekeepers” only to land one show in the season, which despite all her efforts is attended by just a handful of people? Or because she has no godfather in the field to help her land the “prime time slots” and “coveted titles / awards” during the season? Or because her day begins with having to care for her family and domestic chores with no domestic help (unlike her resident Indian peers), from changing diapers to working on new choreographies even as she drives her children to school and soccer practice? Or because her practice time is restricted to the few hours when her toddler naps or in the middle of the night when the rest of the household has gone to bed or because she sacrifices on her own sleep only so she can get all her choreography, practice, research and PR/marketing done at the same time tending to the rest of her duties as a wife and mother? Or because she has a left a $100K+/year corporate career to pursue her passion, which means she isn’t so rich after all to afford all the exorbitant rates? In what way is she any less than an average India based dancer, who perhaps does all the above as well?
She belongs neither here nor there, for in India she is constantly labeled an “NRI dancer” who cannot (for reasons I have never understood!) be considered a serious practitioner of the art. In the US, she is just another exotic eastern fancy like Yoga, Ayurveda or vegetarianism! And for the Indian organizations in the US she is a “local artiste” and cannot be given a prime time slot as she isn’t one of the divas from Chennai. So then where does she stand as an artiste despite all her efforts? What is the use of tirelessly slogging away with her adavus, dancing to her own taped voice and practicing new choreographies for hours on end when there are no takers for her commitment? Her only audience for the longest time being the mirror in her studio, reflecting everything – her choreography, devotion, ecstasies, frustrations, perfections and imperfections! What then determines a serious, professional committed dancer?
It’s great that with the deluge of online forums, blogs, video sharing and social networking sites, practically anyone with an internet connection and an opinion has an opportunity of being heard. However, we should be wary of how we voice our opinions and criticisms. After all, what are we all trying to achieve as artistes? In the over competitive dance field we often lose perspective of why we dance. We dance because it brings us joy, because we believe in the language of dance and because it’s perhaps the best expression of ourselves. As practitioners of Indian arts, we are taught that natya is not just for mere entertainment but upliftment too. If we are trying to elevate the audiences through our performances, perhaps we should first learn to elevate ourselves as human beings. Spend our energies on more important issues pertaining to the art form – for example, why do we have a dwindling audience for classical dance - as opposed to heedless criticism of other artistes.
It may sound utopian, but I hope to see a world where we artistes come together to bring about a change, a change for the better. To work together as one and bring our dance forms into the forefront and give it the status that it deserves in the global world of dance. To promote not just ourselves but the art. To build better and more discerning rasikas, to spread the glory and sheer joy of movement, and to be the change we want to see in the system. Lastly, to live and let live!
Divya Devaguptapu is an “NRI dancer” who lives in San Diego and Chennai. She is a senior disciple of the Dhananjayans who has been practicing and performing Bharatanatyam for over two decades.
Thank you for your impassioned response, Divya. Anita Ratnam's article was quite harsh about the NRI dancers during the season. Interestingly, though she lauded Mythili Prakash, let's not forget that she is an NRI.
As a scholar and dancer myself, I repeatedly witness the utter judgement that "native" Indians often apply to our dancing, our knowledge base, our "confusion" as ABCDs, our loose morals, the way we speak our parents' mother tongues and even the way that we speak English.
At least we make the effort to learn about our culture and challenge some of the regurgitative pedagogies, anachronistic values, and fictional mythological histories that so often accompany how classical dance in India is taught and performed. The small-mindedness, the utter gossip, the exclusive cliques, and the back-stabbing attitudes give so many dancers back in India a horrible reputation across the world. We all know how nepotistic and feckless the dance scene can be in India, and how impressed individuals are by silly titles and laurels with little attempt to learn about substance of an Indian phiringee who's already been written off as not being Indian enough. The xenophobia embedded in the Indian psyche will keep Indian dance yoked in a state of auto-orientalist colonial self-indulgence unless a sense of welcoming to all practitioners of Indian dance occurs. Ironically, the presence of white phirungees turns many self-respecting Indians into sycophants while they simultaneously ostracize the NRI as an unintegrated foreigner who will forever be "almost, but not quite" Indian.
- Anon (Feb 16, 2013)
Thank you both for your responses.
The comment is interesting given that I had mentioned my personal opinion on the dancers curated for the Music Academy 2013 morning festival. I did not mention names but it was quite apparent that these performers diluted and dissipated all the goodwill and admiration that you women have earned through your consistent hard work. All the dancers who were programmed are already known names, some of them stars in their own firmaments in the vast land of the US of A. I mentioned Mythili Prakash who has made the exception of spending more time in India now and maintaining her mother's empire in the USA simultaneously. And Mythili is simply wonderful. She is exceptional. NRI or not.. To hitch classical dance to the bandwagon of culture is the typical response of most NRI's. What has one to do with the other? But it is too late. Ballet is not European culture but Bharatanatyam has become Indian culture or a skewed version of it..
I have not and did not write off all dancers based outside India. There are some who are excellent. The ones who were programmed were mostly a let down.. Take the criticism in stride. What does my opinion matter? OR is it that most of you are used to glowing reviews all the time?
You have chosen to live outside India and practice the dance. If that finds a link to your homeland, great. More than audiences, NRI dancers have bankrolled sabhas and musicians, for that itself you must all be lauded. But good dancing is good dancing and bad dancing is just that... disappointing.
Good luck and keep the faith.
Dr. Anita R Ratnam (Feb 16, 2013)
Divya, you make an impassioned case, a case for the larger good of art than any personal agenda from what I can read. The article was tough in tone, full of passion, though for some people it could read as a bit being defensive, from a random people perspective. But it did not to me.
You have also made an excellent observation on the struggles of an NRI dancer or let’s say a serious art pursuer and how much more effort and grit it takes, given US lifestyles. That is one of the finest paras in an article where essentially you are rallying against mass branding. You are imploring shrotas to listen, hear or watch any performance without bias and judge for the pure articulation of art than a predisposed opinion which is another lovely point you make: and it is indeed a fundamental point. But then art is in essence about fundamentals. To quote you, everyone brings something to the stage: this is what I read it as: watch, listen and hear everyone and from everyone you will learn something. Sometimes what to do other times what not to do. But if you do listen or watch purely for the art you will always be learning something which in a sense is the goal.
The example of Bharat Ratna Ravi Shankar, I thought was a little out of place in context and material. Your article objective and his case are different. Overall, your article reads of an honest appeal, though given mass consumerism I wonder how many will see the true and brazen point you are making. This article may well be perceived in two distinct ways by the readers: either as an impassioned plea against collectively cosmosing of NRI dancers or as a bearding of Dr. Ratnam because she put you in that very bracket. I suspect most will read it as the latter than former, and that’s a shame.
But then when does public opinion matter? One should always function in life on the pure strength and courage of one’s convictions and that in itself is a rare quality, NRI or not.
Non Ratnam-ed Indian (Feb 18, 2013)
I am happy that this topic is finally being discussed - this blanket "NRI" label is so misleading - as mentioned, what is an NRI - someone who just moved to India, someone who was born abroad? Someone who has not paid Indian taxes in more than 6 months? (If that is the definition, then I suspect MANY in India would be termed ‘NRI’).
Back to the point, dance should be judged as dance, good or bad, and personally I find many senior dancers who criticize NRIs should reflect on their own dance - have they kept up? Are they overweight? Can they sit in araimandi still? Yes, maybe many of the dancers who performed at Academy were not up to par, but is it simply because they are NRI, or they were not good dancers?
And contrary to popular belief, money does not grow on trees abroad, so when YOUNG dancers and teachers yearn to travel to the USA in hopes of making big bucks - when all they have behind them is the goodwill of a few friends abroad, they should also question whether their work is really up to international standards and worthy of the high price tags they charge. Shall I even mention so-called Indian "modern dancers" from India?
The world is getting smaller and as fashion, media and art converge, so too does dance and dance standards. Soon hopefully "NRI" will be an outdated, old-fashioned term reserved for those who want to cling to some distant past of an "us versus them" mentality.
- Anon (Feb 21, 2013)
Ultimately everything comes down to ones artistry. I also feel that it is the responsibility of the dancer to get over the barriers of the critical eye by merit or else it becomes mere sensationalism and one of creating a politic to gain attention. Also the comparison with Ravi Shanker is fantastic, he was a global citizen as are many other artists settled abroad but travel to India and are still just as Indian as they are when they left and return. That is accomplished by merit and not politics.
- Urmila Raghavan (Aug 19, 2013)
I just stumbled on this blog and found this article to be interesting. I saw Divya's dance at NGS, Chennai. There are so many dancers at this standard that it seems contrived that she is hell bent on making a big issue of a small matter. Sorry if I am harsh but if merit has to dictate, than please rise to it and all this pettiness will vanish into something more substantive!
- Anonymous (Oct 3, 2013)
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