Dancing with Digital.

Consumption of art has undergone a metamorphosis in recent times, especially after COVID-19 pandemic led to the new normal.

Classical dancers across the world saw this as an opportunity to explore the digital medium. Compositions and choreographies were created or modified to suit viewership through mobile and TV screens. Artists began to get used to performing in the absence of audience response and feedback, the fuel that an artist thrives on.

Taking a step back...
I am amused at how we went about everything typical to a Margazhi in December 2019, utterly clueless about how every shred of normalcy would be redefined in but, a few short months. As we started wrapping our heads around the new reality, the classical music and dance community became early adapters to the digital space.

From performing in temples to dancing for a live audience and now a device’s screen, art of Natya has come a long way.

Irrespective of the medium, certain aspects, nonetheless, remain unchanged — the quantum of research, ideation and practice that go into a presentation. Everything else has since been renewed-(or)-removed-(or)-digitized.

As a matter of fact, online presentation of the art comes with its added challenges of managing space, lighting, editing music and videos, camera sensibilities, and the list goes on…

Artists no longer have the luxury of choosing to become tech-savvy. This level of versatility expected from an artist today has been normalized in the industry and has become a standard hygiene factor.

A major challenge posed to artists today is their ability to hold the attention of the audience through a virtual medium, which leads an artist to scrutinize every detail in their presentation, spend more time on research and bring out the “WOW factor” in each performance. However challenging, this is a great enabler for a “Dancer” to become a “Thinking Dancer”, which helps them carve their own niche. Exposure to different ideas and thought processes are also helping artists evolve. Talks and interviews with senior teachers, workshops and demonstrations have benefitted students and practitioners across the globe as location isn’t a constraint anymore.

But wait, isn’t this how all globally recognized art forms like Cinema have evolved from mere stage plays to- silent movies to- color pictures to- “Jurassic Park” and to the extent of an “Interstellar”?

Drawing parallels
To think that “Cinema”, a term that has become so common in our day-to-day lives has gone through significant changes and yet stays as the most successful and desirable art form is a story in itself for us to not ignore.

Every movie relies on two things – Story & Expression (or) Acting. These two aspects form the fundamental of any movie that released in the early twentieth century or just yesterday!

With these aspects as fundamentals, Cinema and the associated industry always try to achieve three things through each and every movie;
1. A good idea
2. A good execution of the idea
3. Sell the idea to as many new audiences as possible

Agreeing that cinema and classical arts are viewed in the same platform today, the significance of movies overbearing upon other art forms in the digital medium cannot be ignored. Today’s generation is more impressionable than ever and is gravitating towards good content irrespective of the art form it belongs to. For the classical arts to appeal to the younger lot, it wouldn’t hurt to take a leaf or two from the history of cinema.

Referring to the pointers mentioned on cinema, the classical arts industry has mastered the technique of generating creative ideas and beautifully executing them each and every time.

But, are we thinking about reaching out to new audiences? While we enjoy a niche audience online and offline, the arts cannot thrive based only on this viewership anymore.

This question along with a few more have been plaguing my mind for quite some years and here are some of them…

How do we attract new audiences and sustain viewership?
When we performed live in the Sabhas, the demographics of the audiences is predictable - peers from the community, organizers and connoisseurs. As a community, we need to acknowledge the fact that we have been facing stiff competition from other digital content available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., even before the advent of the pandemic.

What will drive an individual, who has little or no connection with the arts, to watch a dance program on a platform when there is a glut of options?

What makes one choose a content over the other?
The surge in the amount of interesting and informative content is mind-boggling. We must, thus, rethink the definition of art and what it can be substituted with. It is up to us to create a scenario where people will either compare and contrast two performances before choosing one artiste, or compare a performance and an OTT show, before settling on the latter. To put it in a nutshell, it lies in our hands to try and understand what will influence one’s decision-making process while making this choice, even as we propagate our art forms.

Food for thought
When we think of the art form solely by placing ourselves on a pedestal, it does hinder the way in which we perceive and propagate it, while performing and teaching.

The vocabulary of classical dance forms is ancient and that it cannot be comprehended easily is a challenge we are faced with. In the days of yore, not everybody who watched a performance understood every nuance, but what they could connect with was the emotion. In other words, Abhinaya was the backbone of every presentation.It is through abhinaya the audience perceives the depiction and this creates the ‘experience’ for the rasika or the viewer. When we talk about the themes and compositions written by poets in the 16th and 17th centuries, we understand that quite a number of them are still relevant with their content in today’s context! Many new socio-political themes are also being explored, but in my opinion, they have not been able to increase viewership significantly.

Way Forward…
Natya is deep-rooted in society and culture; it is holy and ancient. Nevertheless, the pertinent estion is how do we hone and encourage gen Z to pursue the art form, considering the excess of other content and options available?

Plato believed that all art was mimetic by nature and was an imitation of life. Dance is exactly this — a reflection of what we experience in our everyday lives.

As teachers and practitioners, do we encourage students to associate dance with their life experiences?

The take aways from practising an art form are many. While certain benefits both intangible and tangible are celebrated, there are many that go unnoticed. Practising an art form teaches you sportsmanship, to be a team player, manage time effectively, to be able to perform under pressure and increases one’s emotional quotient tremendously, the most talked about virtue in corporate leadership today!

If these benefits are realized and represented well to students and parents alike, we might be able to elicit a greater appreciation for the art. Subsequently, more people will be encouraged to watch, understand, assimilate and take the art forward, in any capacity!

“History of evolution states that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.” – Michael Crichton, Author

While we have enjoyed the niche and stature of classical performing arts, we have to take cognizance of the ever-changing factors of the world around us and continue to evolve, while staying true to our roots.

Credits: Photos: Aarthi Madhumita, Dance instructor- Koothambalam.

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