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Talent, not tokenism ( hindu.)

Despite an abundance of artists in the performing arts space in India, celebrities occupy that slot at international events

What have we reduced International Women’s Day to? It’s nothing short of a jamboree. Events aplenty are organised around March 8 to demonstrate our admiration for ‘womanhood’, which clearly most of us don’t seem to understand. Otherwise, how on earth could anybody choose to screen Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill as the most befitting representation, like a performance space in my city did? Art exhibitions are the easiest to organise. Invite seven women artists, hang their paintings on the wall, and bingo! You have a show! So what if the art on display is divergent to the extent of endangering dialogue amongst/with the paintings on display?

An obsession with celebrities

To add to this, my social media feed went berserk with the news of director, author and now dancer Aishwaryaa R. Dhanush being invited to perform a Bharatanatyam recital at the United Nations on March 8 to celebrate womanhood. And what did she do to merit this distinction? Just a casual conversation with the Permanent Representative of India at the UN. She is reported to have said that the event had “gotten her back to serious dancing.” How lovely! That our Permanent Representatives at the UN are great culture experts who never miss an opportunity to lecture about India’s great art and heritage is perhaps a trite cliché, and rightly so. While this doesn’t surprise me any more, I find our ever-increasing obsession with celebritydom sickening. It is an endorsement of mediocrity. The performing arts space in our country has always been a tightly contested one with a plethora of dancers, musicians, painters vying for acclaim and critical attention. There is no visible dearth of dance talent. Yet we couldn’t find a better fit than Aishwaryaa?

India has fresh talent in abundance and their cutting-edge work, often a seamless confluence of tradition with modernity, is most inspiring. Think of Navtej Johar’s introspective dance idiom, for instance. Then there are the masters with an entire lifetime of teaching, performing and propagating a dance form and its aesthetics even in comparatively small cities. While celebrities invariably linked with cinema are projected as national ambassadors, the truly worthy are ignored. In August 2016, A.R. Rahman was invited to perform at the UN to mark India’s 70th Independence Day to pay homage to M.S. Subbulakshmi. I am an admirer of Rahman’s film music, but what explains his selection for the UN performance? Was it so difficult to find a Carnatic musician? The concert was first offered to Anoushka Shankar, who politely declined, citing her inability to do justice to the scope of the event.

Does our zeitgeist for nationalism include the classical performing arts at all or is it just empty sloganeering? At least let’s not reduce the arts to mere tokenism.

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