Meaningfully Dancing Words
Sharmista Mukherjee, the only daughter of India’s future President and former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee [her two other siblings are males] was in Chennai, sometime ago.
I met her at a 5-star hotel’s rendezvous room courtesy the Ariyakudi Music Foundation Trust, a body trust that has been a deserved recipient of the Government of India’s largesse. It was sponsoring a programme by her.
Sharmishta pleasantly surprised me.
She very well informed, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, focussed and totally apolitical.
“If I even dream of saying something about dad’s politics at home, I would be asked to shut up bluntly,” Sharmishta said giving the short shrift to my suggestion of handing over something to her pop.
Her dance performance I witnessed in the evening was champagne stuff.
A traditional Nadaswaram recital by Thirumeignanam Brothers TKR Ayyappan and TKR Meenakshi Sundaram preluded Sharmistha’s essay.
The duo played the immortal Oothukkaadu Venkata Subbaiyer’s composition in Todi Raagam – Thaaye Yashoda …
Its sections of the Tamil lyrics’ English rendering applicable to Sharmistha’s performance are given below:
Trinket cajoling the feet
Bangles tinkling the wrists
Pearl garland’s wave
Etching the neck’s beauty…
The dancing legs’ dainty steps
The movement of lithe limbs
Congruent to the rhythmic beats…
Slightly on the plump side, clad in a white Salwar Kameez and a maroon Dupatta punctuated with floral designs, Sharmishta was the personification of confidence as she answered queries in a school-marmish strictness that often got softened by genuine smiles that touched her expressive eyes.
Excerpts from the hour-long chat:
TSV Hari: Conservatives associate a sexual stigma of Devadasi [courtesan] tradition innuendos with all dance forms Bharatnatyam, Kathak, or Odissi or Manipuri …
Sharmistha: That is the residue of a despicable colonial mindset. Our foreign rulers could not come to terms with any selfless art form. A woman dancing in a temple offering her art to The Almighty was seen by the British as an attempt to solicit the rich through sexual favours. For their nefarious purposes, they forced the women to do precisely that abusing a part of our proud ancient culture for political misuse and then stigmatised all those who did not fall in line – the women or those whom they got in touch with. Since independence ill-informed sections of India’s middle-class aped this stupidity. The degeneration of cultural values, the mad urge to enrich oneself by copying the neighbouring neo-rich and the resultant chase of improper personal gratification in terms of exploitative sex of people who accumulated wealth through foul means widened the scope of this social crime got worsened by descriptions of prostitutes singing-dancing in a Kotha, doing a crude imitation of some silly dance form making it appear like Kathak in Hindi movies worsened an already bad situation. It is so illogical … because none can sing while dancing as the latter is physically strenuous. The naiveté of the masses spoon-fed by the unprincipled so-called creators of Hindi cinema are the perpetrators of this heinous crime.
TSV Hari: M.S. Subbakshmi, dancer par excellence Bala Saraswati – are two famous names of those who came from the Devadasi system here. They are considered the embodiments of chaste womanhood here. The Tamil term Thevadiyaal is generally understood as denoting a prostitute. But it actually is a corrupted version of Devar Adiyaal a servant of the Gods. In ancient times, in India, women could sing publicly and do the odd jig in a temple to express pristine devotion like female saint Mira Bai. Christian nuns are supposed to be brides of Jesus and one calls them sisters and mothers. Females – being of the weaker sex – be they monks or dancers – are always exploited whatever be the religion because that is the accursed trend of a society going from bad to worse. In India, rich lechers of a male exploitative society began exploiting art forms because of possessing undeserved wealth which led to corruption of the whole society. Laws have been promulgated against it, yes … but what does one do the dirty minds of socially better off, financially higher individuals who insist on the continuance of such evil practices?
Sharmistha: The laws are becoming stricter with every passing day and with a vibrant media that watches social evils like hawks things are becoming tough for wrongdoers of every kind. Laws alone will not set everything right. Awareness, additional proactive corrected behavioural patterns have to be jockeyed into place to ring changes for the good. The governments, I am sure, are doing their best. But if a difference has to happen at the ground level, people will have to shed wrong and false beliefs.
TSV Hari: In Tamil Nadu, the system of the Sabhas – or voluntary organisations that appreciate art used to help staging of plays and provide platforms for dancers. The same organisations’ decision makers have begun making unreasonable physical gratification demands of females and a lot worse from budding artistes and/or creators. This kind of perfidy dampens enthusiasm of artistes on the one side and on the tripe other available for almost free on television kills has nearly killed most purely traditional art forms’ almost all over India. Some street-theatre methods have miraculously survived in Maharashtra, Bengal and to a very small bit in Karnataka. To preserve the pristine beauty of ancient India and the restoration to their former glory, corporates will have to chip in with tax free rupees through sponsorships for meaningful fare. Central and state governments will have to accord tax breaks to encourage these endeavours.
Sharmistha: Some sort of state funding is available without the bad strings. Dance festivals in Khajuraho, Chidambaram and Mahabalipuram etc and my shows in Chennai are ample evidence of these. That said, things ought to vastly improve in all spheres of state encouragement.
TSV Hari: May be you should talk to your father Pranab Babu who is the Finance Minister and lobby for the sake of art.
Sharmistha: If you know my father – his political and personal lives are totally unconnected to each other. None of us at home can even broach anything connected to his job to him at home. But, I have been arguing with him for several years to get something done to ensure that in India we have more museums, more art galleries and more modern floors for classical dances and much more tax friendly encouragement for the arts without achieving any success. In some places, the make-shift stages have protruding nails that make dancers bleed and most performers put up with it as an occupational hazard. Like the Government of India, my father has his own set of work speed and methods. Metamorphosis for the better is never sudden. It will be sure, slow and steady.
TSV Hari: Cheap entertainment through television … featuring feature films from Hollywood to Bollywood to Kollywood … to Tollywood … dubbed atrociously in local languages steal audiences away, make art financially unviable and poison Indian youths’ cultural roots. Can someone not do something about this?
Sharmistha: The stage was never meant to compete with the screen. Drama or dance – are art forms meant for the people with class. The analogy would be like paintings of artists in galleries and their cheap paper-printed reproductions sold in the streets. Live performing arts need encouragement to develop their unique, niche status … A painting of Raja Ravi Verma featuring Lord Krishna stealing the dresses of bathing women ought not to be compared with the printed reproduction of a sleaze-peddling Hindi film starlet’s bathing scene. Doing that would be like comparing the audience of opera singer Luciano Pavarotti with the crowds that used to throng to listen to Michael Jackson.
TSV Hari: Unless the corporate world realises there is money to be made and saved, none would be interested in investing their wealth. As a well-connected person close to the corridors of power, what would you recommend to right this wrong and make it worthwhile for all concerned?
Sharmistha: My parentage has got nothing to do with my being a performer … and I am no expert to suggest anything to anyone. I can, however, say that if performers hone their presentation to perfection and market the programmes the right way, success await round the corner. If the programme is good, finding the right backing will not be too difficult … because … word will eventually get around to the right people. But to make that happen, people will have to try hard. Nothing comes easy to anyone and there are no free lunches anywhere.