It was easy for Keerthana Ravi to be just another dancer in the monstrous metropolis that Mumbai is - a city with no dearth of talent. But perhaps it is a sign of the times we live in that she refused to be another face in the crowd; instead, she mobilised that very crowd to stand out.
Originally from Bengaluru, Keerthana moved to Mumbai after marriage. Trained in bharatanatyam under late Guru Padmini Ramachandran, the young dancer was the brain behind India's first ever crowd-funded classical dance festival. Hers was a pioneering effort in every sense of the word - an 'adventure' that managed to bring artistes and audiences together seamlessly.
For Keerthana, dance was second nature, much before this life-changing event. "I began attending ballet classes at the age of three... this was for a short while. My earliest memory of dance was the time my cousins came down from Andhra during summer vacations and practised kuchipudi - I used to stand behind them and imitate their moves," she recalls. Soon after, she pestered her mother to put her into classical dance classes, and that's how it all began.
Learn the ropes
Learning under the prodigiously talented Padmini Ramachandran made all the difference, believes Keerthana. "My guru was a strict disciplinarian, but she also made sure we felt completely at home in the dance classes," she recalls. Despite sitting for hours watching the seniors in the class dance, Keerthana says she never felt bored - dance by then had become an extension of her very self.
Guru Padmini ensured that the choreography was tailored according to each student's talent and ability, and this, Keerthana believes, went a long way in making the classes interesting and engaging. "Her passion was infectious; she would insist that we emote with our eyes and communicate our thoughts and feelings to every member of the audience with our body movements. This is the training that has stood me in good stead till today," she says.
Perhaps it is this immersive teaching and passion that prompted Keerthana to seek opportunities to perform and further hone her art in Mumbai. But this is where she encountered unexpected roadblocks. Mumbai, she found to her chagrin, had too many dancers and too little patronage for the classical arts. Festival organisers were rude and uncooperative; platforms to perform hard to find. "I was hunting for sponsors to organise my dream - a classical dance festival, EVAM. But I faced rejection everywhere I went - brands were unwilling to invest in the arts."
Source of stability
This was two years ago, when crowdfunding was still an alien concept for many. But Keerthana thought it better to convince people who are interested than chase brands who were not. And so she went the whole hog. "I made a short promotional video and used Facebook to heavily promote it. I used every means of communication I could - internet, SMS, telephone calls to friends and strangers... the works. It was exciting and rewarding to see many friends, colleagues, dancers, musicians and random strangers come forward to fund the festival," she narrates. Happily, the festival turned into a sort of movement where many funders began taking ownership; they were as eager as Keerthana for the festival to reach its 'funds target', and cheered her at every step.
Her faith in the festival and her aggressive campaigning efforts paid off. She was able to generate nearly Rs 2.5 lakh in a month and made the festival happen. Today, two years down the line, EVAM is a significant part of the Mumbai classical dance calendar. This year, the festival was presented by the Rasabodhi Arts Foundation, premiered in the last week of February.
It boasts of some prestigious names and includes performances by Ashley Lobo's troupe, Meenakshi Srinivasan, Sanjukta Wagh and others. Though it did receive corporate sponsorship this year, with less than 10 days to go for the festival, a few sponsors dropped out and Keerthana again had to reach out to her faithful crowd. "I sent out WhatsApp messages and used social media extensively, and we reached our fund target within two days!"
Keerthana believes dancers cannot be elitist and "unwilling to explore, learn and relearn" and hope to attract an audience in this age of short attention spans and digital media. "Classical dancers have to nurture their audience; perhaps the form need not change, but the content and presentation certainly can," she says.
Explaining her concept, she says this does not necessarily mean classical dancers have to depict political events like demonetisation, for instance. "Every art and medium has its own place and this must be respected. A good example of rejigging content can be seen in Coke Studio. Unique collaborations, merging of genres and utilising our rich mythology, literature and poetry will help attract younger audiences," she feels.
In fact, this is her biggest dream, she says. "My greatest wish is to make bharatanatyam recital a preferred weekend activity - just as stimulating and exciting as going to a play or watching a movie." Well, amen to that!