Friday, 15 February 2013

Article - The NRI dancer - Divya Devaguptapu

Everywhere I go I am called an NRI – Non-Resident Indian, a word coined to describe an Indian citizen who hasn’t resided in India for over six months. According to Wikipedia, the term "non-resident" refers only to the tax status of a person who, as per Section 6 of the Income Tax Act of 1961, has not resided in India for a specified period for the purposes of the Income Tax Act. That said, the term today is (ab)used to categorize Indians living outside of India in more often than not, a derogatory sense, especially for dancers. The NRI dancer is defined as one who isn’t a serious practitioner, who has enough money to flaunt around promoting herself in Chennai, who has to pay (even if she cannot afford) exorbitant “NRI rates” of the sabhas and musicians, who is (perhaps) not “Indian” enough to be practicing the age old Indian dance form and who can never equal the essentially “Indian dancer” in her knowledge, ability and seriousness. Quite a blanket statement!

Read the article in the site


  1. Thank you for your impassioned response, Divya. Anita Ratnam's article was quite harsh about the NRI dancers during the season. Interestingly, though she lauded Mythili Prakash, let's not forget that she is an NRI.

    As a scholar and dancer myself, I repeatedly witness the utter judgement that "native" Indians often apply to our dancing, our knowledge base, our "confusion" as ABCDs, our loose morals, the way we speak our parents' mother tongues and even the way that we speak English.

    At least we make the effort to learn about our culture and challenge some of the regurgitative pedagogies, anachronistic values, and fictional mythological histories that so often accompany how classical dance in India is taught and performed. The small-mindedness, the utter gossip, the exclusive cliques, and the back-stabbing attitudes give so many dancers back in India a horrible reputation across the world. We all know how nepotistic and feckless the dance scene can be in India, and how impressed individuals are by silly titles and laurels with little attempt to learn about substance of an Indian phiringee who's already been written off as not being Indian enough. The xenophobia embedded in the Indian psyche will keep Indian dance yoked in a state of auto-orientalist colonial self-indulgence unless a sense of welcoming to all practitioners of Indian dance occurs,. Ironically, the presence of white phirungees turns many self-respecting Indian into sycophants while they simultaneously ostracize the NRI as an unintegrated foreigner who will forever be "almost, but not quite" Indian.

    1. Thank you both for your responses.
      The comment is interesting given that I had mentioned my personal opinion on the dancers curated for the Music Academy 2013 morning festival. I did not mention names but it was quite apparent that these performers diluted and dissipated all the goodwill and admiration that you women have earned through your consistent hard work. All the dancers who were programmed are already known names, some of them stars in their own firmaments in the vast land of the US of A. I mentioned Mythili Prakash who has made the exception of spending more time in India now and maintaining her mother's empire in the USA simultaneously. And Mythili is simply wonderful. She is exceptional. NRI or not.. To hitch Classical dance to the bandwagon of culture is the typical response of most NRI's. What has one to do with the other? But it is too late. Ballet is not European culture but Bharatanatyam has become Indian culture or a skewed version of it..
      I have not and did not write off all dancers based outside India. There are some who are excellent. The ones who were programmed were mostly a let down.. Take the criticism in stride. What does my opinion matter? OR is it that most of you are used to glowing reviews all the time?
      You have chosen to live outside India and practice the dance. If that finds a link to your homeland, great. More than audiences, NRI dancers have bankrolled sabhas and musicians.. for that itself you must all be lauded. But good dancing is good dancing and bad dancing is just that.. disappointing.
      Good luck and keep the faith.
      Dr Anita R Ratnam

    2. I find your response so "typical" of an elite socialite of Chennai, of one who has so much influence in the dance world but is still stuck in a small-town and colonialist frame of mind. As an academic yourself, with a degree in Sociology at that, Dr. Ratnam, I find it tremendously naive and nonliterate to think that culture can ever be extricated from dance whether it is bharata natyam or ballet or butoh. Have you ever read any scholarship on dance? On any theories of cultural production? Have you read any Ananya Chatterjea, Avanthi Meduri, or Davesh Soneji? Yes, all working in the west because a "culture" of critical dance scholarship has yet to be funded or valued in India.

      Your thoughts on ballet reflect a colonial disposition that unmarks ballet as white/European by positioning it as a universal unlinked to culture. Ballet will always be associated with Europe whether it's performed in Taiwan, Bangalore or Timbuktu. One "culture" may make ballet its own, but ballet's prestige, "nobility" and prominence derives from the esteem Europeans demand of it and by which its pedagogy has been shaped and institutionalised. Do yourself a favour and the readers of your blog a favor too, (don't worry non-NRI's will benefit too!) and pick up KEALIINOHOMOKU's seminal article, "An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as an Ethnic Dance."

      And to suggest that we NRI's receive glowing reviews all the time is presumptuous and short-sighted. You have no sense of where we dance, how often we dance, or even if we perform still. We deal with Orientalist attitudes towards our dancing when programmed as World Dance or Ethnic Dance, and we are repeatedly patronised as anachronistic resuscitators of an Eastern classicism ornamented by facial expressions, mudras and colourful silks.

      Finally, to think again that we have "chosen" to live in the West is insulting. Many of us were born to parents who found little opportunity in India in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when private enterprise was squelched by the central government and multinational investment was rejected. Post 1991 Indian is very different than post 1965, Dr. Ratnam. We didn't choose to be born there, but some of us do choose to stay there especially when we know that nationalist/colonialist attitudes like yours are carelessly flung at us when we come back to the "motherland."

  2. Divya, I am glad you had the conviction to write this.

    You make an impassioned case. And true to your wont, make a case for the larger good of art than any personal agenda from what I can read. The article was tough in tone, full of passion, though for some people it could read as a bit being defensive, from a random people perspective. But it did not to me.

    You have also made an excellent observation on the struggles of an NRI dancer or let’s say a serious art pursuer and how much more effort and grit it takes, given US lifestyles.
    That is one of the finest paras in an article where essentially you are rallying against mass branding. You are imploring shrotas to listen, hear or watch any performance without bias and judge for the pure articulation of art than a predisposed opinion which is another lovely point you make: and it is indeed a fundamental point. But then art is in essence about fundamentals. To quote you, everyone brings something to the stage: this is what I read it as: watch, listen and hear everyone and from everyone you will learn, something. Sometimes what to do other times what not to do. But if you do listen or watch purely for the art you will always be learning something which in a sense is the goal.

    The example of Bharat Ratna Ravi Shankar I thought was a little out of place in context and material. Your article objective and His case are different.

    Overall, your article reads of an honest appeal, though given mass consumerism I wonder how many will see the true and brazen point you are making. This article may well be perceived in two distinct ways by the readers: either as an impassioned plea against collectively cosmosing of NRI dancers or as a bearding of Dr. Ratnam because she put you in that very bracket. I suspect most will read it as the latter than former, and that’s a shame.

    But then when does public opinion matter? One should always function in life on the pure strength and courage of one’s convictions and that in itself is a rare quality: NRI or not.

    Non Ratnam-ed Indian

    Dr Ratnam – I find your original article and your response offensive especially when you alluded to “bankrolling the sabhas” – that is a judgmental statement and lacking in basic aesthetic. The choice of words and the implication is demeaning. It tells me you believe all NRI artistes perform only because we have showed the sabhas a few green bills and we are not merited on the strength of our own hard work.

  3. Divya Devaguptapu19 February 2013 at 13:16

    Thank you Dr. Anita Ratnam for your caustic comments.

    The Music Academy issue was only a final trigger for what has been brewing for a while. This isn’t the first time you have made comments on an NRI dancer. None of the dancers featured in the festival are my acquaintances, let alone friends. I am only choosing to speak on all our behalves and I wonder why no one has done so till now.

    Since when has spending more time in India equaled to being a better artiste? Every year hundreds of foreign students come to Kalakshetra and other institutions in India to learn Bharatanatyam. They spend 6 months or more, and that makes them more Indian and exceptional artistes? What about the fact that most NRI dancers have been born and raised in India and have moved abroad (for whatever reasons) only recently? Somehow we’re not “Indian” enough or “good” dancers anymore? I am one of those whose moved to Chennai only for dance and who also moved out of Chennai because of dance. My story is in this article:

    I can’t agree more with the first comment on “small-mindedness..” of many dancers in Chennai. As much as I love the city and want to spend more time there, there is a part of me that doesn’t. I personally have been able to work better outside of Chennai because I am away from all this negative energy and can focus all my thoughts and energies on what matters most, dance.

    Please do read my article again, without getting defensive and with an open mind. Why are we artistes always criticizing another’s work? Are we that insecure? I don’t know of any other artiste that publicly lambasts her peers. You are perhaps the only one who openly criticizes any and every artiste around and I have always wondered why? It may sound rather “cool” to many that you are so candid in your criticism, however, I really wish all the energy spent in criticizing and garnering so many enemies can be better spent in actually building camaraderie. There is so much that we can do if we all got together and did more for the art than just investing in our own personal agendas. We all look up to senior and well-established artistes like you all to help pave the way. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Dancers in Chennai are organizing festivals and seek “donations” from the performers. Now, if the dancers are themselves into this “business”, why not the sabhas? What can we all do to stop this and find a better approach to organizing festivals and giving every deserving, serious professional of dance an equal opportunity?

    “…NRI dancers have bankrolled sabhas and musicians”. Yet another blanket statement! Being a senior artiste comes with a lot of responsibility. The responsibility of being an inspiration to upcoming artistes, of sharing with them your experience and know-how and of being a source of support and encouragement to pave the way for them. Statements like these and several others earlier that you have made unfortunately speak very poorly. Which was my final statement in the article – dance and let dance!

    Inherent artistry, opportunity and performance, are three totally different aspects. Every hard-working, serious and committed dancer deserves an opportunity. Artistry cannot be judged with just a performance. I am guilty of doing this myself and have learnt a lesson. Every artiste has good and bad days and who else but us fellow dancers can understand this better. One bad performance does not mean a bad artiste.

    As for your opinion, I personally don’t care, since I have always found your “opinions” rather prejudiced and biased. But, this article is really to bring to light some of the realities and shed the misconceptions about NRI Dancers for those in your camp and those who do care about your opinion. Some of this is also criticism for you, and please do take it in stride!

    As for me, I am glad to be a global citizen with an Indian passport!

  4. Hello,
    I am happy that this topic is finally being discussed - this blanket "NRI" label is so misleading- as mentioned , what is an NRI - someone who just moved to India, someone who was born abroad? Someone who has not paid Indian taxes in more than 6 months? (if that is the definition, then I suspect MANY in India would be termed "NRI."

    Back to the point - dance should be judged as dance, good or bad, and personally I find many senior dancers who criticize NRIs should reflect on their own dance- have they kept up? Are they overweight? Can they sit in araimandi still? Yes, maybe many of the dancers who performed at Academy were not up to par, but is it simply because they are NRI, or they were not good dancers?

    And contrary to popular belief, money does not grow on trees abroad, so when YOUNG dancers and teachers yearn to travel to the USA in hopes of making big bucks - when all they have behind them is the goodwill of a few friends abroad, they should also question whether their work is really up to international standards and worthy of the high price tags they charge. Shall I even mention so-called Indian "modern dancers" from India?

    The world is getting smaller and as fashion, media and art converge, so too does dance and dance standards. Soon hopefully "NRI" will be an outdated, old-fashioned term reserved for those who want to cling to some distant past of an "us versus them" mentality.

  5. Ultimately everything comes down to ones artistry and whenI watched Deveya's dance in Chennai I was qite disappointed as it did not meet the test of Chennai standards. If there are judges in Chennai I also feel that it is the responsibility of the dancer to get over the barriers of this critical eye by merit or else it becomes mere sensationalism and one of creating a politic to gain attention. Also the comparison the Ravi Shanker is fantastic, he was a global citizen as are many other artists settled abroad but travel to India and are still just as Indian as they are when they left and return. That is accomplished by merit and not politics.

  6. I just stumbled on this blog and found this article to be interesting. I saw Divya's dance at NGS Chennai and sadly it wasn't up to snuff! There are so many dancers at this standard that it seems contrived that she is hell bent on making a big issue of a small matter. Sorry if I am harsh but if merit has to dictate, than please rise to it and all this pettiness will vanish into something more substantive!