Past Your Prime

When you live long enough, you have seen, heard, encountered, and even experienced them all … those crippling social “isms”—racism, sexism, classism. But, when Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri brought his gavel down in the Delhi High Court on Feb., 28 2003 upholding an ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) rule that dancers over 45 shall be retired from the category of “performing” artists to that of lecture-demonstration presenters, the sound of “ageism” resonated loud and clear, carrying its discordant tones even across the oceans.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed in 1997 by 62-year-old bharata natyam dancer Komala Varadan who had taken the ICCR to court insisting that her name be kept in the category of “performing” artists.

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations is no ordinary sponsoring organization. It is a governmental agency under India’s ministry of external affairs, and is primarily responsible for putting together cultural packages catering to the coveted foreign market.

A bureaucratic internal rule that picks the country’s cultural representatives based on their birth certificates and sends them abroad for me to “experience,” is an affront to my aesthetic intelligence.

According to those interviewed by musician/journalist M.S. Rajan in an article on Narthaki-On-Line, we, the international audiences, are responsible for ICCR drawing up such bizarre rules. He quotes Delhi-based dancer-choreographer Geeta Chandran as saying, “it is body that matters for dancers and audiences abroad, and not the mind.” In other words we have all been delegated to the role of cattle, stampeding with drooling tongues towards lush green pastures ... the greener, the better!

Is it a body thing after all?

ICCR’s categorization of dancers into age-defined designations of budding artists, performing artists, and lecture-demonstration presenters, is clear indication that they have not read the pulse of the foreign audience.

I decided to test the pulse of the dance community in America by forwarding Rajan’s article to the presenters, dancers, and critics known to me. Those who responded were unanimously either annoyed or enraged. Lewis Segal, the dance critic of Los Angeles Times called this, “a bizarre cultural event” and said, “Stalinism in the arts is always bad news. Stalinism coupled with ageism and the assumption that the classical dances of India ought to inspire erections rather than reverence is downright ridiculous.” If it is a firm, young body that I want to see, I would head to Las Vegas, and not to a bharata natyam concert.

Indian critic Subbudu says, “those dancers above the age of 45 can give lecture-demonstrations instead of solo dance performances. Otherwise dancers with disappropriate bodies would invite demonstrations outside the auditorium.” I disagree. It is presumptuous on his part to assume that dancers over 45 have bodies that are “disappropriate” for dance. I should know! Today I look, feel, and can dance better than any of my 20-year-old students. You don’t have to turn 45 to let your body go to the dogs. You can do that at any age, in which case you should not be dancing anywhere … not on stage, not locally, not abroad.

With all this focus on the physical, has the ICCR essentially reduced the dignity of Indian dances to that of runway modeling? What about the unique ability of its experts to transform the sensual to the sacred and the vulgar to the venerable? Does it not require a great deal of introspection, self-discovery, and growth before dances of such depth can be created or performed? How can anyone impose an age restriction on a journey so profound?

David Roche, who for many years produced the famous San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and is currently the director of Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, raised another important point. “Ramnad Krishnan (Karnatik musician) once told me that musicians are mere children until they reach the age of 60,” he said. “Up until then their raga interpretations are considered puerile.” Wouldn’t a similar growth period be essential for dancers as well, especially in an art form that continuously seeks to transcend the physical?

Intergenerational Warfare

Ageism has always been expressed as “intergenerational warfare,” primarily focused on the proportion of job opportunities and the Federal budget allocated to programs benefiting older adults. In defense of the ICCR, let us assume that this rule was made only to make it easier to support young talent or as New York based dancer Uttara Asha Coorlawala says, “an attempt to spread the goodies around rather than allow a few, and now senior stars, to hog all opportunities.” Do the ICCR officers apply the rule across the board to every artist or do they sneak in clauses of “extraordinary circumstances” or “exceptional cases?” Anita Ratnam, one of India’s brightest choreographers, asks, “How does one grow into a legend without government patronage and support?”

The ICCR officers need to find ways to support their issues without turning them into national statutes. Instead of discriminating on the basis of age, why not discriminate on the basis of quality? “We regret to inform you that your application was rated No. 15 by our selection panel and our budget can only support 12 touring companies this year.” Simple.

Catering to the Audience

Let us assume that this rule is made in the genuine interest of marketing their “best cultural package” to the international audiences. Since no successful marketing of a product can happen without a survey of its consumers, has the ICCR done a field study of their audiences abroad? Have they surveyed the event producers and booking agents? Have they talked to the presenters, the grant makers, and the critics? And when presenters approach them with specific requests, do they readily listen?

“No,” says Anita Ratnam. “They have their own agenda. During the recent Edinburgh festival, while the organizers only wanted contemporary work from India, the ICCR insisted and “recommended” a package of classical dancers instead.” She also added that when ambassadors have approached specifically for her performances, they were told that she was not available … without her even being contacted.

Jonathan Hollander, the director of Battery Dance Company in New York, had another story to share. “When I introduced the Jhaveri sisters in the U.S. in 1993, I had to twist their arms because they didn’t want to send Ranjana. They thought she was too old. I respectfully disagreed and insisted: and I was proven right.  Jenneth Webster, the producer of Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival, agreed with me that Ranjana was the Margot Fonteyn of Indian dance.”

Maybe it is time ICCR starts paying attention to the cultural trends in the markets that it serves, for never in the age of dance history has the admiration for mature performers been higher than in the last 50 years or so. In the concert dance circuit, it is not the Britney Spears lookalikes but the “past their prime” dancers such as the Margot Fonteyns, the Martha Grahams and the Balasaraswathys who have always danced to sold-out theaters. Fortunately the trend continues unabated.

When I reached Los Angeles based dancer/choreographer/ Don Bondi, he was rushing off to a rehearsal after a quick celebration of his 70th birthday. Ironically he was rehearsing for an upcoming summer production in “celebration of longevity in dancers and rejuvenation through dance,” to be staged at the acclaimed Highways Performing Venue.

Celine Schien, who works with 58-year-old dancer Chitresh Das shared a triumphant story of their upcoming collaboration with 75-year-old kathakali exponent Govindan Kutty and 60-year-old Balinese master Ni Ketut Arini. As they embark on a National Dance Project funded tour, she spoke of the excitement that this project has generated from presenters and from the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave them a major grant impressed by the age range of the dancers and their mastery. At a time when funding for the arts in the U.S has gotten scarcer than the Chennai water supply, such stories don’t simply happen.

Talking about audiences … who are the “foreign” audiences that ICCR serves? Fifty years ago the audiences may have been political dignitaries and the international festival circuits. “Their role,” says Uttara Asha Coorlawala, “was to show that India had ‘culture’ if nothing else. I even have an article on how they sent dancers to perform in France to precede negotiations for French fighter planes.”

But today the scenario is completely different. It is the Indian diaspora with its own formidable presence, large enough to be divided and subdivided into groups based on distinctions of language, religion, and even last names that provides the main support for these events. So when Alarmel Valli (who is over 45) made her first Los Angeles appearance a few weeks ago, it was the Subramaniams and the Venkatachalams and their weekend-dance class-attending-teenage-daughters that flocked to see her. The Patels and Desais could care less and the mainstream Western audience or media weren’t even aware of this event. This being the case, whom is the ICCR trying to impress with their youthful cultural packages?

Senior Indian dance critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh applauded the judgment saying, “After all, it was only focused on presenting classical dance abroad.” Are those of us living abroad not entitled to the best that India has to offer … the craft that has been honed to immaculacy, the wine that has been aged to perfection? We are not interested in the crumbs … give us your best and in the field of classical dance and music, that comes only with age.

Ask us, the Indian diaspora, and we will tell you that our most memorable dance events have been of touring artists who were way past their half-a-century mark. When Vyjayanthimala, at age 70, presented a 90-minute performance in 2002, the packed theater sat in stunned silence as if in the presence of divinity; When a portly Birju Maharaj, also in his 70s, created thunder with his quicksilver footwork, or a bald Kelucharan took us with him for a secret rendezvous in the moonlight with Krishna, we rejoiced, dreamt, and fantasized along with them. In fact the appearance of their youthful dance companies, as brilliant as they were, actually turned out to be as much of a distraction as a siren on a silent night.

Lewis Segal put it correctly when he said, “it is the best older dancers who have lived with their art long enough that can focus their energy and our attention on essential and often revelatory movement statements, or break our hearts by infusing layers of complex emotional, intellectual and spiritual implications.” It is these layers and revelations in art that we wish our next generation to experience—all these thousands of teenagers attending Indian dance classes week after week, uninspired, and unmotivated.

With our social calendars full of dance debut performances, we have enough youthful exuberance. Our eyes and minds long for something more sublime, more substantial and more divine.

So keep your young and beautiful
Send us your old and your wrinkled
Your aged masters
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse
of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

As a footnote, I would like to inform readers that on Aug. 25, 2003, I will be celebrating my 27th birthday … for the 18th time, and you are all invited!

Ramaa Bharadvaj is the Director of Angahara Ensemble in California. A dancer of distinction, she has won multiple Lester Horton Dance Awards for her choreography and performances. She has served on dance panels for the California Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. You can contact her at www.ramaadance.com or ramaa@adelphia.net


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