The problem

I sang of learning and there was nothing
I spoke of culture and there was nothing
I said he was god, but he was nothing
I called him a tiger, that good-for-nothing
I mentioned his muscles, which were nothing
I praised his charity, and he gave me
s all my fault: words about nothing get me nothing


THE legendary tamasha performer Vithabhai Bhau Mang tells this story in a documentary shot shortly before her death in 2002: Despite being nine months pregnant, she was compelled to perform, as only her name would sell tickets. During the show, after having danced vigorously in the lavani style, she felt the onset of labour. Instructing her daughters to keep singing, she went to the green room, delivered the baby all by herself, cutting the umbilical cord with a sharp stone, and came back on stage to complete the performance.

Brahma Prakash, in his insightful and necessary book Cultural Labour uses this story to viscerally make the point that we need to attend to the labouring side of artistic and cultural practices which too often are ignored in the discourse on aesthetics, neglecting the point that labour is inherently part of any creative and cultural practice. Vithabhai Bhau Mang, forced from one kind of labour into the other, exemplifies the
precarity of the artist
s position, at the mercy of conflicting forces economic, caste related, audience tastes, ones physical body.

Prakash also draws our attention to the two origin stories for the dramatic arts that bookend the Natya Shastra. At the beginning, the first dramatic performance makes theatre out of the churning of the ocean for amrita, winning praise, and accolades from the gods, but so incensing the demons that they storm the stage and stop the play. They are furious because the actors have shown demons in a bad light.

At the very end of the book, it is the powerful sages who complain that they have been misrepresented, made objects of ridicule to be laughed at by the audience. The sages are so offended that actors are kicked out of heaven and forced to live on earth as the lowest caste. The lesson? Be careful whom you make the butt of your jokes. Artists find themselves in an ambivalent position: if they exercise their power the ability to reflect back to society the harsh and humorous realities of the human condition they risk having that power taken away.

All three stories hinge on the dynamic relationship between performer and audience. Gods, demons, rishis, kings, patrons, customers, rasikas, audiences of all kinds, have the power to command that artists themselves may not be in a position to resist. The transactional nature of performance is often disguised, the revenue from tickets providing only a small percentage of the cost of running a huge artistic institution such as a ballet company, an opera house, an orchestra, a dance festival. Governments and wealthy donors keep such art forms and events going for their own reasons, which are not always clearly spelled out.

At one end of the spectrum are the objects of popular culture movies, books, music, supported by millions each paying a small amount of money. At the other end of the spectrum are the arts that do not interest the public in sufficient numbers but have the kind of prestige value that attracts the largess of wealthy patrons, private companies and governments.

No matter what the art forms, one must not offend ones patron. But neither is it possible to simply play it safe. Tame and reliable are not good adjectives for art. The performance that was successful last time cant just be repeated. Bored patrons are just as likely to withdraw support as those asked to pay for their own unflattering portraits. The patron wants to be continually surprised, seduced, awed, made to laugh, feel the thrill that comes from the transgressive.

The word patronage, with both positive and negative connotations, conveys the financial support for the arts that comes from the powerful, whether it be kings, temples, or governments while at the same time hinting at the condescension inherent in the unequal power relationship: the patron bestows, the artist can beg, plead, ask for, but not command. Certain castes perform, certain castes support the performance. The manner and kind of support that societies render to artists affects the art forms themselves. Performers must be careful with material that shows their patrons, their caste, or their family lineage in an unfavourable light; they must cater to their patrons sense of taste. Issues of representation and identity are as much a source of conflict between artists and patrons now as in the time of the Natya Shastra, with support being withdrawn when some perceived line is crossed.

In pre-Independence India, the support that can be documented came from kings and wealthy merchants and from powerful and hegemonic religious institutions. Kings even wrote plays and directed the manner in which they should be performed, creating the new art form of kathakali, as one example. Now that the government and private companies have taken on that role, art forms and artists have responded, by classicizing and institutionalizing, fabricating lineages for their art forms just as itinerant storytellers insert flattering genealogies of their patrons into mythic tales. In renouncing the patronage of kings and courting the patronage of governments, institutions and academia, the designated classical art forms like bharata natyam and odissi have traded an autocrat who monitors appearances for a bureaucrat who monitors your soul as David Hickey argues in The Invisible Dragon, his collection of essays defending beauty.

The drive within various arts communities to gain the classical label comes from the recognition of economic and social realities: there is a difference in fees commanded by classical and folk artists, prices of a work of art and a work of craft, respect owed to an artist and artisan. Moreover, it is only through the mediation of institutions and academics that the full power and beauty of classical arts is (supposedly) accessed. The rasika of the Natya Shastra and the connoisseur of art and art critic today share education, refinement, leisure, and it goes without saying, the caste, family background and wealth that supports all of the above.

The art forms that survive outside institutional and academic domains, the so-called folk arts arent nearly as well studied or documented, and the academic writing about them is often both meager and inaccurate, as Prakash documents. Yet it is from these traditions that the powerful, subversive forces in the arts are activated towards political ends. The political power of art forms that have broad appeal, their ability to inspire passion in both artist and viewer, and especially their facility for manipulating and transgressing the rules of oppression, make them useful instruments for societal change.

Folk artists perform for a community of their peers, and subsequently have more freedom to improvise, take risks, say and do what the canon, the institution, the academy, finds dangerous or offensive. But that freedom may be traded for recognition, awards, and money, such that the art form means less, but to a lot more people. Bharata natyam illustrates just such a trajectory. Before the line between dance and sex work had been drawn, when dance was part of temple ritual and salon performances by a caste-based, hereditary, and relatively small community of artists, even bodily fluids could be part of the exchange. Now that dancers can dance without implicating themselves in transactions of physical intimacy bharata natyam has become a performance style practiced, with varying degrees of intensity and expertise, all over the world.

The tension that exists as art forms struggle to classicize can be understood as the audiences desire for, again to quote Hickey, the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of  authenticity the genuine rhinestone, finally, or the imitation pearl. As bharata natyam further illustrates, questions of tradition and authenticity, which were not a concern when the form was confined to one community, become contested and fraught values when anyone, anywhere can dance it. The recent marketing of modern performances as sadir or dasiattam names of the dance style associated with hereditary dancers, makes clear that for todays audience, such explicit markers that signal tradition and authenticity are valued. Moreover, this is the paradox: an explicit marker is required since nothing in the dancing itself will distinguish it to a lay audience from any other bharata natyam performance.

The story from the Natya Shastra, of artists kicked out of the divine realm and made to labour as the lowest caste, recognizes and attempts to account for a real struggle, the subtle power of the artist pitted against those who wield more direct power in society. This issue of Seminar will look at the system of desires and needs that weaves artist and patron together, at the points of production and consumption, as the role of patron extends beyond financial support to artistic input and decision-making, directing the social value, meaning and purpose of the performance, and finally taking on the role of ideal audience alive to the most subtle and nuanced artistic qualities of the performance. Patron and artist cant be reduced to buyer and seller in their mutual yearning for beauty, transcendence, that elusive something we find in art. The artist in thrall to the patron, the patron enthralled by the artist, both are held captive.


*Gitanjali Kolanad is the author of, among others, Girl Made of Gold, Juggernaut, 2020.