Creating Momentum for Indian Art Through Content and Performance Curation: Lavanya Raghuraman

Creating Momentum for Indian Art Through Content and Performance Curation: Lavanya Raghuraman

As part of our Art Education: Benefits and Influence series, CSP features Lavanya Raghuraman of Singapore and Stillwater, Oklahomaha who been teaching Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music in the US and in Singapore for several years now. A dancer herself, she is the granddaughter of Dr S Ramanathan who is credited with bringing South Indian music to American universities. His style of teaching was so simple yet impactful that it is said that parents accompanying children to his classes would start singing. In this interview, Lavanya talks about how the Indian Art forms can be promoted and preserved effectively outside its shores.

CSP will host an international webinar on Art Education: Benefits and Influence on April 25 at 5 pm, IST.

How can the Indian performing arts be promoted in a systematic way to non-Indian audiences?

The widespread Indian diaspora that has permeated even the farthest corners of the world has the unique advantage/responsibility to reach out to the non-Indian like never-before. Reaching out, exposure and willingness to share the art forms are key ingredients. Of these, generating exposure to the Classical arts is much more challenging due to the scholarship needed to appreciate quality performances. Hindustani music benefited from the Beatles-Ravisankar collaboration. Such inflection points for South Indian music are hard to find.

My approach is more traditional and community oriented, where exposure is generated through academic workshops at Universities and cultural performances at community art festivals. Not only does this provide exposure at the grassroots, but also offers valuable performance opportunities for students. In this context, support by the Asian diaspora has been a key enabler as an audience that embraces the art form and provides creative fuel to the artist. This in turn attracts wide support from western audiences.

More often than not, what aspect attracts the virgin non-Indian audiences in Indian Fine Arts Performance is hard to gauge. Therefore, tailoring the content and redesigning the style of instruction are aspects worth considering.

Tailoring the Content:

We may naively think the dragon head on a Veena might have impressed the non-Indian audiences, whereas they may surprise you with a question as to why you do not have sympathetic strings on the instrument! Audiences can be heterogenous with respect to their expectations, preferences, and response levels. Understanding the pulse of the audience and presenting the art in an attractive way is a constant challenge faced by every artiste. As such, it is important to cultivate well-informed audiences that will appreciate and support the artistic ventures and ultimately promote Indian performing arts. Nevertheless, the challenge with Indian Classical performing arts while tailoring to Western audiences is to minimize dilution. “Regardless of the type of audience, never mediocritize your material“. Your limitations will be spotted immediately the moment you ostrich yourself with a prejudice that they may not understand.

Instruction Style:

People, irrespective of any nationality, love challenges but may not respond to the same instruction style as others. Adapting the teaching methods is a key aspect. At the same time exposing a non-Indian student to performances helps fine-tune his/her skills to reach a commendable level. This critical stage will be when they realize such pursuit may make a career choice. It is at this point the Indian arts community should support through performance opportunities and encourage involvement.

You have conducted many workshops and courses. Is it possible to create a modern pedagogy which can transmit the tradition seamlessly to interested non-Indians without dilution?

Here, I would draw upon the example of what Yoga has provided to the Western world. A large variety of Yogic styles have made their way to the West and in spite of the varying sources of origin we see the form being practiced and taught extensively by non-Indians. This is made possible because of an understanding of the core elements of the practice. This needs to be replicated in the case of Indian arts.

The success of any modern Pedagogy will be in the clear and concise documentation of the history, technique and standardization of its core elements. Important treatises such as the Sangeeta Ratnakara and Natyashastra need to be translated for easy access to the masses. Given the extensive use of jargon and technicalities, current translations are of little use to the layman. A good translation of such a treatise is required for people to build a core understanding of Indian Music and Dance.

When I introduce music and dance in my workshops, I calibrate the degree and dosage to the students’ ability while emphasizing the core. Therefore, simplifying instruction to its essentials without dilution is the key here.

Is there training in choreography for dance for changing audiences? Are new themes and ways of presentation being explored to appeal to new viewers?

Presently, there isn’t a specific training in choreography, but it is a promising field.
Of late, it is heartening to see many secular themes being presented in the diaspora. I think it is important to challenge the audiences and keep them on their toes.

When I create, I am deeply connected to what is happening around me at that point in time. In order to grow, it is very important for an artiste to observe our surroundings – people, nature, sounds – everything carries a message. Every piece of daily news that affects me impacts my art and is reflected in what I create.

My productions Alchemy of Opposites , Neythal the Continental Shelf , Retracing the Path (Margam) - each of them mirror my experience of society at that point in time and as a result, my audiences also relate to these . That said, I have always ensured that any innovation is kept within the boundaries of the Bharatanatyam grammar without compromising its structural integrity.

How can Indian aesthetics become a part of Western academic programmes?

Standardization of information is important. For instance, a panel of scholars may be centrally assembled to create the syllabus and contents for the courses on Indian Music and Dance. Universities need to incorporate this material into their courses. That said, I also think that the inclusion will be like offering a ‘Genie lamp’! The moment such a subject is given a prime place in academia and exposed to the best students, it can revitalize the art.

While most other traditions have developed programmes to study Art and Performance history, there are few resources on Indian dance or music history and they are not written from an Indic perspective. How can a good Indian Art/Performing Art history syllabus help in increasing Indian softpower?

It is a pity that even in India, no history book in the curriculum does justice to its history. Saraswati, the Indian Goddess of Learning holds the Veena. But the history of India has been sadly silent about it. Indian Music is relegated to the third place in curriculum over several centuries even in India. Such an awareness of cultural history to be propagated all around the world in a concerted manner is the need of the hour.

The Artiste-community should come up with such an initiative. Evolution of Music in India over the centuries should be approached in an objective manner without distorting history nor ascribing a different political slant to it. There should be a proper balance of North and South Indian aspects, the points of convergence and divergence clearly spelt out. The influence of the rulers which caused such divergence of styles should be stated.

In my observation of Music and Dance, it has been difficult to equate them to the typical academic degree requirements as one would with the STEM subjects. Typically, a child starts learning at the age of 5 and presents her solo debut at age 16 and there are numerous graduates from reputed music and dance schools. What happens to these students afterwards? In spite of having learnt Indian Art and Performance history, these students cannot leverage the soft power of their art much further without proper certification or accreditation.

Music and dance schools need to tie up with academic institutions to create their resources / teaching material where graduates are eventually given a recognized degree or certification that allows them to enhance Indian cultural softpower as proud global ambassadors. The corporate sector also has a duty to promote, fund and support such initiatives instead of limiting themselves to sponsoring a few concerts here and there. Supporting the right academic and corporate institutions with sufficient funding can increase Indian softpower multifold.

Do you see a lot of foreigners engaging with Indian dance and music? What is it that draws them to it?

Yes certainly. There is a growing understanding of the arts. Non-Indians are keen to learn arts that originated in India instead of how Indian systems have adopted Western music/ musical instruments. While the layman might know of Beatles and Ravishankar, not many people know that my grandfather Dr S Ramanathan was one of the pioneers to bring Carnatic Music to American Universities in the 1960s. Similar academic exchanges have occurred in the realm of Dance. With respect to Dance, there is more attraction as it is a visual as well as aural experience that quickly draws the attention.

In fact, social media in the current age is also drawing the younger generation to the arts. Of course, one needs to be wary of watered-down and inauthentic videos in the web, but they contribute to awareness and exposure.

You come from an illustrious tradition of music and dance. While North India has preserved tradition through the Gharana system, South India is slowly moving away from the paddathi or sampradaya framework. How do you think South Indian dance and music will change in the light of this?

Carnatic music has been maintaining the purity of a Parampara (lineage) and lays special emphasis on maintaining a Patantara (pedagogy). There is an abundance of lyric-based compositions (Kritis) in Carnatic music as against the lack of primacy accorded to the Bandhish in Hindusthani. A Bandhish of a Khyal is just akin to a Pallavi line of a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi.

While a Hindusthani music presentation focuses on 3-4 ragas with perhaps two of them elaborated in depth, a Carnatic music concert includes ten or more compositions. Although the concert in itself features a main Raga for a significant duration, the central piece remains the Kriti (composition) with its Sangatis (progression of embellishments of each line) based on the Patantaram of the artiste.

In this sense, the Patantaram represents the Gharana. If the Kriti does not adhere to the Patantaram, the concert may not be appealing, no matter how elaborate the Alapana, Niraval or Swaram. The Kriti’s proper Patantaram adherence is a pre-requisite for the approval of the audience and the critics alike. If you were to retune differently from your great gurus, then you were extraditioned at once. Therefore, Gharana adherence exists very much in South India through the Patantarams, especially in the Sangatis of the Kritis.