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Of critics and editors
- Ashish Mohan Khokar

September 23, 2014

Pune University's Lalit Kala Kendra made a commendable effort to bring together various voices in the dance field on the occasion of a two day (Aug 27/28) seminar on Micro & Macro in Dance Writing. With senior Bharatanatyam talent like Sucheta Chapekar's guidance, Associate Professor Parimal Phadke undertook a meaningful seminar. Gurus, critics, editors and publishers, teachers, dancers and media honchos shared their thoughts. As one who has traversed all three roles in last thirty years (as critic of India's largest circulated English daily the Times of India and later, columnist India Today) and then editing Rasamanjari for 5 years and editing-publishing attendance, the dance annual for 15 years, my views come from practical experience. It may help budding dancers and journalists/critics, who wish to write on dance with integrity and meaning.

Parimal Phadke, Ashish Khokar, Sucheta Chapekar

Dancers first, since without them critics and dance editors and publishers wouldn't exist! In all humility, writers of all shades, ought to accept this basic premise. Dancers learn an art form for many years, then strive harder to reach where they wish to be, professionally. But just because one learns dance it does not mean one becomes a dancer. Or a professional. It takes a minimum of 20 years of consistent work/output to become a known dancer of repute. Dance is a serious calling, beyond being a profession or vocation. It needs stamina, will power and total surrender, and above all, a real guru. There is a big difference between a guru and a teacher, but more on that in my next column.

Critical appreciation (that's the operative word, not mere criticism. In fact, "professional assessment" is the best word, not even criticism) helps a dancer get noticed, then known and finally, established. Patrons and support from the public help artists become popular. When all winds prevail favourably, backed with staying power or financial stability, a professional dancer is born. Talent is the first basic ingredient, but not the only one, as Shelley wrote, "Full many a gem lay unseen...."

A critic then becomes a link between the seen and the reported, savoured and shared. In India, the concept is a bit erroneous because in the west, a critic gives his or her considered assessment so readers can come see the show in the season, when it runs for weeks or months. Thus, a critic and his assessment are very important for the success of a show, commercially. In India, hardly any show runs that long. A review after the show is of little practical use, except if favourable. Then the artiste can learn from it and use it to pad his or her bio profile and use for availing some benefits from the systems of patronage. The real reason why critics are important in India (and no one even thought of it in the 2 day seminar or touched upon it) is that they sit on many committees of patronage and importance. In addition to their writings, their opinions decide fate and career of artists, especially where awards, shows and tours are concerned. That's the plain truth. Has anyone heard of any dancer photocopying unfavourable reviews and attaching to their bios? Rarely.

Part of the mismatch lies in most average dancers' genuine belief, "What a does a critic know?" and that's sometimes true too. Most critics of yore did writing as part time activity. They were employed in comfortable or petty government jobs and attended shows in the evenings and then wrote something they knew of (music or dance). Many post independence critics had no clue about pan Indian forms and were exposed to their immediate arena or region only. Then too, if they knew classical form/s, then they hardly knew folk or modern trends. There were only one or two exceptions, who went on to become national authorities on the subject and wrote many books we still refer to.

Next phase (1980s onwards) came the age of I, me, myself school of self glorification and promotional writing, where, a critic positioned himself or herself as the centre of all action! This slowly started the process of devaluation and led to critics with low credibility. Few respected such writings or continue to.

Dancers can tell by a write-up how much a critic really knows because a dancer knows his or her limitations or flaws, best. Dancers also can tell how much a critic understands the layers of poetry or technical terms of music. Dancers know if a critic knows mythology well or understands historical names and contexts. Dancers are too polite and the system makes them supine and deferential to a critic knowing full well how much damage (more than good) a critic can do to a dancer's career, especially a budding one. Critics cannot affect much the dance standing or career of an established or star artiste but upcoming dancers need good reviews. Established names ideally don't care or comment on critics.

Then too, a critic should not write nasty stuff and be fake and friendly in person. Double standards win few friends. Dancers have elephantine memories. Most will not remember ten good reviews one might have given them but one unfavourable line will hanker them forever. They may not readily recall all trips and awards that came their way thanks to opinion makers but one word of disapproval makes most see red. I write, most. Secure dancers will carry on but that's a rare commodity.

Critics ought to keep a neutral distance. Be nice and civil, on or off stage. Class cannot be bought and culture is not a byproduct of commerce. One Johnny-come-lately branding or posing himself as a new arrival on the dance scene, writes nasty things about a Kathak doyen's son or a Bharatanatyam diva's dance and then goes gets selfies with them posted on FB! Dancers who are insecure and need to reach out, use such writers for self promotion. Most others know such critics are just posing. They know such critics don't know any dance style in depth and can write equally well on food, fashion, films or finance. These are not critics but generalists. They drop names and use the social media for reaching out but cannot even be called journalists. They may get free tickets to travel here and there but not last long, meaningfully. Believe you me, social media is not media. It is very transitory. Real people who matter and run the system rarely even read the social media or even the net.

As a critic, one must know one's subject thoroughly with basic facts about various forms. A critic must also be informed about a dance's musical mode and possess ethical codes. What is ethics? Ethics means dharma. A critic is not a PR agent for one dancer, guru or an institution. A critic may like their work but each work need not be great. Dancers assume whatever they do by way of a body of work is meritorious. Dancers cannot assume each work they do is exceptional. Each work is a stand alone. A critic should not compare apples with pears. Merely sounding pompous and down-putting wouldn't help. A critic cannot also be perceived to be of herd mentality, walking and talking in gangs and groups. Independence is a hallmark of a critic and an uncompromising personal conduct. No wining dining with subject and minimal social contact. If a critic is to be pet dog or cat of a dancer or lobby of guru, then the real animal is far better!

A critic should also not be judgmental. Each work and dancer is separate. Don't mix issues. A doesn't like B and B doesn't get on with C, so A or B ought to be disliked too? A critic should also stay away from dance politics. Dancers are very insecure due to volume today…, add opportunities and short shelf life, so dancers can spread tales about you know who did what? Dancers also don't want to read criticism but glorious words in print. It is human nature, that's why in the opening para I stated ASSESSMENT is the operative word, not CRITICISM. Who can assess? A dentist can tell the health of one's teeth as much as a jeweller the quality of gold or a gemstone. For each enthusiastic parent, their child is a Kohinoor; it is for the teacher to decide a child's ratings/grades/capacity. A critic can be like a dentist, a jeweller or a teacher. If and only if the critic has credibility, credibility comes from solidity of work and from that stems reputation. Reputations take years to build. It is built on conduct that is born of karma done with dharma. There is no other way. Such a critic may be a loner and not move in gangs or groups (yes, you see some such at seminars and festivals), even sit alone and may lose in the short run but such critics will go far, be respected and remembered for long, even after they are gone. They are the benchmarks.

A critic needs to be compassionate without being gushing. Feet touching by dancers ought not to mean that a critic's ego is so frail that good reviews will follow. A critic is to be read, not seen in front rows. Critics are exalted PR agents if they sell their wares and wish to benefit by the system. Such critics would then naturally have zero credibility.

While critics can write reams and reams, editors decide what goes on in print. An editor has an overview and an insider view. An editor edits. Period. Not just draft, words and paras but thoughts, intentions and attitudes. A good editor knows whose agenda is what. A seasoned editor can tell why a certain story is being planted or platformed. An editor decides what's relevant. All above is the prerogative of a real editor. The editor also decides who writes for his/her space.

An editor also works under several constraints. In print media today, except for the Hindu, arts coverage is on the decline. Space is at a premium in mainstream media. 25 years ago, I was given quarter page in TOI Delhi. Then 500 words. Now, I'm told by another national daily to compress an 86 old dear departed guru's lifetime in 200 words! Be that as it may, while it is surely a test of brevity (which many critics don't even know the meaning of) it also shows how to structure short pieces. TIME magazine's obits can be less than 25 words. But then it is read worldwide.

An editor must know complexion of the paper, its stand and approach to issues and possess knowledge about its readership. A portal is very different from a newspaper. A portal has endless space though a good editor can ensure a crisp draft. Portal is not a personal blog to go on and on… or an FB account. Portals serve the purpose of immediate outreach and are now an important outpost.

Dance journals stay on shelf for long and reach far and wide. In a country of a billion, there are only single digit journals. In dance, just three: a monthly from Madras, a quarterly from Hyderabad and an annual from Bangalore. All from south India, none from Delhi or Kolkata or Mumbai. There are few good journals in Hindi from Nagpur and Delhi and some in vernacular from Odisha and Gujarat but they naturally remain limited in terms of language specific readership. Dancers and musicians rarely read or buy any journals, unless featured in it or the subject interests them. This makes it difficult to sustain these. Publishing dance books or biographies is far worse a prospect. Only the subject and its immediate circle read such biographies. If the subject has students, then a few hundred copies sell, else freebies. It takes minimum 5 years to sell stocks, other things being equal.

Lastly, no one thinks of the distributor. A shop space is at premium. The shopkeeper will only stock those books that fetch the shop maximum commissions. Naturally, such a shop would not keep journals and poorly brought out dance mags few would buy off the shelf. The heavy commissions bookshops take discourage both the publishers and writers.

All in all, what's the solution? Problems we know. One good and practical idea is if dancers care about their art and heritage, then instead of mouthing empty shlokas on the greatness of Saraswati they ought not to waste monies on shawls and flowers they often give to main guests at functions, or on annual days. They can start buying dance journals/books and gifting these instead, because while flowers will wilt next day and no one wears shining shawls again, a book will stay on a shelf forever. Amen.

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian, biographer, critic and author of many published articles and over 40 books on Indian arts and culture. He served govt. bodies in many capacities and also teaches Indian dance history and aesthetics for university faculties. He is the curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection and chairs the Dance History Society which hosts an annual convention and dance discourses that afford many talents a platform. He has mentored many and instituted five awards through attendance, the dance yearbook he edits and publishes.

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