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The great natyam mart
As Chennai turns into the international headquarters of the Bharatnatyam empire over the next two months, artistes and connoisseurs will buy up every kind of dance merchandise in the city. But for love or money, you won't find a free musician
On a busy alley running off the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore stands Shanthi Dance Needs. The name sounds artless - and is definitely ungrammatical - but how else do you name a shop that sells everything from underarm sweat pads and Bharatanatyam costumes to false plaits and paper flowers?
Master tailor TVS Mani runs what can only be described as a dance accessory mall. He has keen competition in the neighbourhood. The venerable Giri Trading that specialises in spiritual/ritual merchandise has now started serving as a one-stop shop for dancers too. Then there is Sukra, on a parallel road, with its exhaustive collection of ornate dance jewellery - real, fake, gold-dipped.
Over the next two months, as Chennai celebrates the short, cool season called margazhi with a culture orgy, these shops will be packed with frantic buyers. With the press of last-minute buying around him, Mani will refuse to deliver a costume in anything less than 20 days. Dance and music guides and CDs will fly off the shelves at Giri as will the pretty chokers at Sukra. Videographers and brochure makers will have their hands full with NRI dancers looking to carry back documented trophies. And hotel rooms to lodge rasikas (connoisseurs) will be in short supply (See 'At home in the margazhi melee' ).
Several assorted markets feed off the dance boom in this season. But one demand far, far outstrips supply : musical talent to accompany the dancers. The diary of every dance musician - mridangam player, flautist, violinist, singer - is full, has been so since last February when the bookings began after the 2009 season. As these musicians juggle packed diaries, rushing from one venue to another, a bizarre comedy of shortage unfolds.
"Last year, at the afternoon recital of a senior dancer, the mridangam player checked an SMS on his mobile just before the start of the last item. He picked up his drum and walked off the stage, presumably to his next programme. The bewildered dancer then managed to wind up with the singer, flute and kanjira, " says a dancer who never fails to be amazed at the demand-supply skew in Chennai's art scene.
One of the worst-kept secrets of the sabha season in Chennai is that a good many mid-rung sabhas are not beyond demanding some sort of reverse payment for putting NRI artistes on stage. At $300- $500, goes the buzz, you can grab a slot at a prestigious venue.
"Chennai is now turning out to be the international headquarters of the Bharatanatyam economy. The sheer number of dancers from Chicago to Sydney converging on the city fuels some sort of consumption mania. The spender could be anyone who has anything to do with dance - dancers, teachers, students, fans, scholars. You find them all over the Mylapore and Alwarpet markets, falling over themselves to tank up on dance accessories, " says dancer Anita Ratnam.
Till about a decade ago, the winter festival was not the culture overload it is now. There were around a dozen sabhas, a few hoarier and more prestigious than the others. It was the ponderous Music Academy that got the splashy margazhi festival as we now know it going in the 1920s. With the buzz, the participation, the sponsorship and the NRI patronage multiplying over the last few decades, the number of sabhas today is inching towards 100. In fact, two new sabhas have jumped into the fray this year.
No wonder then that Mani transformed his 24-sq-ft tailoring shack "Shantha Tailors" into a glitzy store. He started out single-handedly tailoring costumes for dancers in 1967 and now has 15 men under him. "I would watch dancers from outside Chennai come to the city and struggle to get their kit together. They would come to my shop to get their costumes, then go to the other end of the city to find selangais (ankle bells), " he says explaining the USP of his store.
Mani caught on to the advantages of feeding the ever-hungry NRI market for Bharatanatyam accessories in 1990. His sons started the online order facility but that did not reduce the crush at the store. After all, nothing can beat the satisfaction of a real dress trial. For customers in a rush he could, even during the season, put together a costume at a premium price.
But no amount of money or pleading can get you the services of good dance musicians. Take the case of one of the most sought after Bharatanatyam singers, Radha Badri. She has been booked for about 20 programmes this season.
"You can't blame the dancers. This festival is big and they want to give it their best. But I end up saying no to many good dancers because of the rush. If I don't sing for Shobhana she uses taped music, " says a helpless Badri.
There was a time when leading Bharatanatyam dancers had their own team of musicians. Today it is next to impossible to retain accompanists given the incredible opportunities available to freelancers. "There is such a shortage of good accompanists that our dates are booked months in advance. My schedule was full by June. Some dancers book their musicians for the next season right after their last performance, " says mridangam player Nellai Kannan.
THE NRI FACTOR
If local artistes are to be believed, this talent crunch is created by the NRI dancers who descend on the city to collect the prestige points of having performed for Chennai connoisseurs. A generous expat dancer could easily pay upto Rs 10, 000 for a single session of mridangam accompaniment. Compare that to the Rs 3, 000 that even the top local prima donnas cough up.
They may have performed in Cleveland and Cairo, but being on a stage in Chennai is what every Bharatanatyam performer dreams of. NRIs who have learnt their art in the US or the UK look forward to performing here.
Hamsadhwani is the only sabha that holds an exclusive NRI Festival every year. "The quality may not be great, but we commend their love for the art, " says R Sundar, secretary of the sabha, candidly. Most NRIs become "patron members" of Hamsadhwani for Rs 10, 000 and can perform as often as they want.
With entry into other sabhas being hard, there are rumours of money changing hands to ensure a slot. "The rate for NRIs is between $300 and $500 for a slot at a reputed sabha, " says an established dancer on condition of anonymity. The big organisers are sniffy about the talent they showcase. Getting a slot at an elite venue like Brahma Gana Sabha for the December season is a really long-drawn process. Its secretary, S Ravichandran, points out that less than 10 per cent of its performers are NRIs.
It is a feast for the senses, but the season overkill is now beginning to irk art lovers. Three shows a day at 100 venues with the same pool of artistes tearing across the city: how much culture can one take even if it is accompanied by vada sambar and coffee?
With inputs from Shalini Umachandran
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