Kings to sabhas to corporates: the politics of patronage
by Lada Guruden Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: ladasinghg@yahoo.com
September 8, 2003

The fall of kingdoms and courts led to decline in patronage and left the artistes suddenly bereft of backing. The late 19th and early 20th century saw the merchant community of Chettiars and Mudaliars support the arts when many displaced artistes moved to Madras. Around 1899-1900, the first sabha came into existence in Madras. The hundred year old Triplicane Parthasarthy Sabha is one of the oldest. These sabhas were not involved in presenting dance. Founded in 1927, the Music Academy was the only sabha which took up the fight for saving Sadirattam, thanks to enlightened members like E Krishna Iyer and others.However, it was not till the late 70s and early 80s that sabhas started dominating the dance scene.

Even in the 60s, the famous December season had all the rasikas flocking to the Music Academy. The morning programs were free while the evening programs were ticketed. The World Theosophical Convention in December when the international community used to come down to Madras was an opportune time for Indian artistes to perform for an international audience. That started the trend of the internationally famous Chennai Dance and Music season, which now spans late November to February.

Till 1965, there were only five known sabhas conducting dance and music recitals on a rather small scale. R Krishnaswamy of Narada Gana Sabha says, “Sabhas grew in numbers between a twenty year period from 1950-1970. The chieftan system had been abolished and people wanted to get exposed to Indian arts.” Since dancing in temples was banned, gradually some groups of people in various parts of the city came together to form a sabha which could “preserve the tradition of Indian art forms.” Krishna Gana Sabha, Narada Gana Sabha, Music Academy, Tamil Esai Sangam and Kartik Fine Arts are some prominent sabhas of Chennai (Madras was renamed Chennai in the mid 90s), which have impacted the growth and direction of Bharatanatyam to some extent.

On the role played by the sabhas, Late Pattabhiraman (editor of Sruti) said they popularised and democratised dance and music, “These days the sabhas do not care what kind of audience they get. They also do not care whether the audience come or not. They get their money from corporate sponsorships…Sabhas have no real interest in developing the art form.” Krishnaswamy admits that corporate sponsorship has helped the sabhas sustain themselves.

Sabhas started wielding control in the Chennai circuit because they had tremendous support of the local community who provided the initial funding so they could see the best performers. In 1985, the Federation of Sabhas was formed. Some say, this was the launch pad for all the ills that started plaguing these sabhas. It is a general belief among the dancers, established and upcoming, that the Chennai season has suffered in terms of aesthetics and quality, because of proliferation of sabhas leading to an abundance of performances and mediocrity of execution. But, not many dare to speak against a sabha.

One of the better known faces of Chennai, dancer Priyadarshini Govind feels that though sabhas ensure the continuation of dance and music, they can also make or break a dancer.

While these sabhas continue to showcase Indian artistes, they also feature non-resident Indian (NRI) dancers, giving them an opportunity to perform in their own country. This has led to Indian artistes accusing the NRI community of bribing the sabhas. The first donation of $ 1,000 was made in mid 1980s to a sabha in Chennai. Anita Ratnam says the problem with donations is that, most of the time those who pay, do so to wangle a performance opportunity. Krishnaswamy is aware of money having crept in the working of the sabhas, but he sees no problem if NRIs want to donate money to ‘use the stage'.

The entry of sponsors in late 80s, has tremendously affected the Chennai scene and sabhas in the last decade. Sadanand Menon brings up a host of issues in his article, “What are the sponsors sponsoring?”1 Over 138 sponsors sponsored the 1995 season and even if all contributed Rs.10, 000 each, it would amount to Rs.14 lakhs. Menon calculates that the actual figure could be anything between one and two crores. If this money can go into “setting scholarships, welfare schemes, endowments” and “ printing literature related to the arts,” the dance world would be that much richer.

Critic Leela Venkataraman asserts that control by sponsors and hoteliers has made the festival season the monopoly of a close group of persons, its commercial angle giving it a touristy flavour. 2

Going by the amount coming in by way of sponsorship, it's unbelievable that today, in some cases, artistes get paid as less as Rs.1, 500 a performance. Even a top dancer gets only Rs. 7,500, which is insufficient to pay the dance troupe, orchestra and technicians. However the same is not true for the payments made to classical musicians.

Since the mid 90s, there appears to be a growing trend in a few artists being presented by different sabhas at different venues during the season. Some fly by night operators, mostly from Mumbai, used to fix programmes during the season for dancers, in return for a commission. Ever since Sruti magazine took up the issue, the routine cases of middlemen have become less common.

Delhi based dancer Rama Vaidyanathan who has been able to carve her niche in Chennai, feels the presence of sabhas saves the dancer the trouble to look for her own sponsor. In contrast, Geeta Chandran who has little experience with sabhas and the Chennai audience says she cannot bribe to perform during season. “While the less proficient but glamorised colleagues get crowned, talented youngsters are left out of the race. They are incapable of buying platforms from sabhas and even performance opportunities are less for them,” writes Leela Venkataraman. 3

Dhananjayan points out that the poor image is enhanced by most sabhas employing part time secretaries who are extremely unprofessional. “Sabhas today mindlessly put any and every artiste on the stage without knowing his/her proper qualifications.” Krishnaswamy's defense is, “We select the artistes through proper selection committee, on condition, that the artiste must respect the sanctity of Bharatanatyam. Dancers like Chandralekha will never find a place in the sabhas because her dance is vulgar exposure of vulgar emotions in a human being.”

Bharatanatyam trained Navtej Johar accuses sabhas of sticking to the status quo and remaining conservative, because they want to play safe and cannot afford to inspire change at all.

Since 1987, new sabhas have come into existence. Over the past 16 years the number of organisations conducting festivals has increased from 39 in 1994-95 to 73 in 2002-03. The total number of dance and music performances peaked at 2052 in 1999-2000, dipped to 1947 in the next season and again swelled to 2098 in 2001-02 and 2188 in 2002-03. 4

In the ‘Chennai Season'”, Sadanand Menon advocates “urgent co-operativising and rationalising” of sabhas which could lead to “annual earmarking of specific amounts by rotation to each revenue for improving infrastructure and facilities” for the larger benefit of the masses. 5

The arrival of corporates on the cultural scene has been a boon to many artistes. Young dancers find that better emoluments for performances commissioned by corporates balances the loss in revenue from sabha performances. The role of corporates has come under fire from those who think that in the 40 minutes of package, they do not present but trivialise the dance before an ignorant and sometimes uninterested audience. However, Anita Ratnam thinks that the professionalism of corporates has helped evolve the dance scene. She stresses the need for better communication between dancers and the corporate world so that dance can benefit.

“Corporates have money and the platform, what is the harm in using them?” asks Navtej Johar, “I did a small piece for the RADO watch launch in Delhi because I needed money for my production Re-Membering.” C V Chandrashekhar cannot bring himself to earn money that way. However, he adds, “If their dance at such occasions does not influence their traditional repertoire, I do not have any problem,”

Priyadarshini Govind believes the problem itself is more with finding an opportunity to perform and going through the cumbersome ritual of arranging everything. By the time the artiste gets to perform, she is too exhausted. “You need to run after dancers because they are least bothered about providing information about themselves which is important if they need to have a programme or an invitation to perform, ” says Arshiya Sethi, former creative head, Habitat World, Delhi.

Tapas Bhatt, Director, Kala Khoj, Pondicherry, says there was some talk in the late 80s and the early 90s with the Dept., of Culture, Govt., of India on the ways of managing the Indian art scene, but nothing came out of it. She feels that art impresarios need to take over the dance scene today.

There has to be a definite cultural policy on dance through which India can benefit as a global entity. At another level, art administrators need to come together to build a larger network of performing arts that extends beyond the geographical boundaries. A good example is Shanta Serbjeet Singh's APPAN - Asia Pacific Performing Arts Network - which under the patronage of UNESCO is striving to make a world of difference to the Asia-Pacific region in the realm of performing arts. And, here, there are no sabhas to make or break it!

Footnotes
1 - Economic Times, December 24, 1995
2 - “Festivals which are more than a celebration,” The Hindu, Chennai, December 2, 2000
3 - “An Index of Merit,” The Hindu, Folio on dance, Dec 27, 1998, p 13
4 - “The Mad Mad Madras Season: 2002-03,” S Janaki, Sruti, Issue # 222, March 2003
5 - “The Chennai Season: an orchestra of opposites,” New Indian Express, December 31, 2000


Lada Guruden Singh is a Delhi based Bharatanatyam dancer who has completed his post- graduate diploma in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. The above article is the second excerpt from his dissertation on “Bharatanatyam: In step with time” for which he interviewed gurus, dancers, editors, critics, presenters, art impresarios and dance historians in person, on telephone and email.