My Struggle To Get Ballet Recognised In India

My Struggle To Get Ballet Recognised In India
Meghna Bhalla

I realised very early in my childhood that ballet and ballerinas were looked at with some skepticism and yet I, was drawn to it like a magnet. The tutu might have had something to do with it, since as a dance garb it was so different from the traditional Indian ones people are accustomed to seeing on Bharat Natyam, Odissi or Kathak dancers. The fact that it is accompanied with highly classical music - again something many young people are not exposed to - made it stranger still. For me the combination of that ethereal music and divine dance brought immeasurable joy and satisfaction.

From research I gather that in India, up to 3 decades back, ballet and other Western dance forms were mainly pursuits of certain segments of society, pursued for reasons like development of grace and form for better marriage prospects, by children of high society so that they may develop a certain elegance and, to put it plainly, as an indulgence for themselves and to be preened in social gatherings.

It is a popular misconception that ballerinas are petite, delicate and fragile beings. Ballet dancers in general, need immense strength both physically as well as emotionally, to be able to handle the rigours of the training. What eventually transpires on stage, the light, airy and graceful movements, are the culmination of more than a decade of discipline.

There is another misconception. It is often perceived that ballet is ONLY for girls and that boys who learn ballet must be effeminate or ‘gay’. This is not true. Ballet training develops muscles - the strongest kind and though some movements even for men may be slightly feminine, the dance has strong form and the men dancing it must possess great strength. It is because of this fallacy that men in India don’t take it up, leaving our ballet schools with only women students. I recall our ballet school enrolling one boy, who soon threatened to leave as his friends in school were bullying him no end. Fifteen years later I see more men enrolling so there is a change in the gender balance now. This is a good sign as now there are possibilities to mount productions requiring male and female dancers.

Most people don’t know that most western dance forms evolved from ballet. It is held in such high regard that dance schools worldwide encourage its importance by training students in ballet before they venture into more commercial forms of dance like contemporary or jazz. This is because besides its sheer aesthetic beauty, it also has its usefulness. It defines the foundational techniques used in other dance forms. Ballet offers a strong base technique, builds core body strength, aligns the body giving it poise and control which can later be broken down and used in other dance forms. The average and usually untrained Indian dancer doesn’t understand that they need to have form before they break that form. All these are most necessary for any dancer. All these are most useful techniques for any dancer.

Classical Ballet has its origins in the 15th Century. That it has endured this long, speaks for itself. Even though it has branched out in to various modern dance forms like contemporary, lyrical, neo classical, dance theatre and so on, ballet in its purest form has stood the test of time. The audience loyalty for ballet continues and opera houses worldwide are always full for staged ballet performances.

However classical ballet, whether performing or studying, is still in a nascent stage in India. This is due to poor exposure of the art form in general. Ballet companies don’t come to India as we lack proper infra structure. We don’t have orchestras that could perform for ballet companies. We don’t have employment opportunities for professional musicians and dancers trained in western disciplines of art forms. The opportunities are few and far between and jobs in these arenas are more often than not, part- time ones offering low economic returns, putting people off from making these jobs and only indulging in them as hobbies. If you teach these (with or without a proper qualification to do so), you could still hope to make some money but there is very little to be earned from performing. This in turn puts parents off from encouraging their offspring to take up employment in this industry. If we are to excel at anything, we would need to devote all our time to it in order to reach international standards. As we don’t have adequate facilities to pursue it here in India, we have to work doubly hard to excel at it.

I will say that times are slowly changing and there is a gradual shift toward recognising the arts as futuristic careers. This change has come about largely due to exposure to television shows revolving around western singing and dancing. Shows like “Dance India dance”, “The Voice”, “The Stage” etc have drawn audiences to television and the popularity of these western art forms are slowly gaining momentum. But this is still only in major metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore.

The internet and you tube in particular have also brought the world closer by sharing various art disciplines on world-wide platforms. It is heartening to see people from remote areas in India work on their technique and learn from dance videos online, especially from you tube. Earlier generations didn’t have this advantage.

In dance, your body is your instrument, and the more time you lose the more out of tune that instrument gets. Unfortunately, most children in India are not encouraged to pursue dance full time from the early age that they are required to, in order to reach their full potential. In trying to juggle their education along with their training they lose out on the most important years of training. in some western countries, children who are keen to pursue any art form professionally or seriously, are sent to conservatoires of music or dance where academic education is very basic. This allows them to hone their artistic skills to the fullest extent possible and apply to world – class companies like the Royal Ballet.

One such example is Amir Shah, whose family lives in the slums of Dharavi, but still encouraged their 11 year old son to shift to night school so he could pursue his ballet training full time during the day. In just 3 years Amir has been accepted to one of the top ballet companies in the world, “the American Ballet Theatre”.

Despite a fair amount of word of mouth publicity, ballet is still alien to most people here. when someone asks me what style of dance i pursue and i tell them ballet, they often misinterpret it as belly dancing and start moving their hips and wink at me. They also ask me if i can balance on my toes. What bothers me about this is that there is so much more to this ethereal art form.

I believe that ballet could be huge in India. We have millions of children, schools to tap into and an incredibly motivated people. We just need certain openness. Ballet needs to be pursued seriously and with immense dedication to make the grade. After teaching here, I’ve come to realise we have lots of young children with immense potential to take up full time careers in dance and ballet. all they need is support and infrastructure.

It is my dream to have an Indian ballet company that could train and perform full time. Sadly western arts don’t have government support. This would make it a near impossible venture. for this company to be sustainable and successful, it should be able to pay its artists and others involved in it which would give people in India a reason to make ballet a full time career. I am on the eve of my departure to the Royal Academy of Dance, U.K, to qualify as a ballet teacher - a small step toward my dream.

On my return I would also like to make ballet a part of school curriculum - not just international schools but all schools. Abroad at almost every street corner there are ballet schools for little children.

Ballet may not be a part of Indian culture but it has so much to offer in terms of educational value. It teaches discipline, helps young children to develop co-ordination and motor skills, helps in posture alignment, and develops musicality and creativity, and much more.

With the current trend of the boom in the dance industry in India, all it would now take for ballet to get the widespread exposure it deserves is for big business houses to come forward with generous funding. Government support wouldn’t hurt either but it may be asking for too much. Private support is an entirely different matter and so I urge any and all of you reading this, to spread the good word and enroll someone for ballet lessons today!

Image credits: Meghna Bhalla