The music starts and the performance begins. You dance in front of squealing children throwing tantrums and distracted adults. They look upon you with occasional smiles, but their eyes betray their honest sentiments. It is not awe and wonder but confusion and pity in their eyes. And a little bit of ridicule.
This is the sad reality of traditional dances and practices today. Artists are forced to juggle tourism with their art form. While tourism helps their art to be witnessed by thousands of people and gives them meagre salaries to ward of starvation, it is still a double-edged sword. Most tourists come to see a taste of culture. They are hardly interested in an authentic performance. An amateur in a dress would do just fine.
Spiritual performances now play three times in front of an audience with attention spans as small as their understanding. Performances that would take place in ornate temples now witness themselves in restaurants and swimming pools. The chlorine yellow water puddles reflecting the stars and the dance of the Gods.
The performance plays three times a day in front of an impassive audience. In polyester costumes for minimum wage. Sometimes eight-hour performances of religious tales are shortened to ten-minute shows. Requesting artists who have devoted their lives to the dance form, to reduce the size of their tales is akin to asking a parent to cut their child to fit into a box.
Traditional dancers of Hula and Kathakali are witness to perhaps what will be the final death of their art. Traditional art forms such as Hula and Kathakali have faced the swords of colonialism and barely escaped. But the battle sounds echo in their ears as they see their art form die to toxic tourism.
Tourism often reduces local cultures to money minting pieces. They sell Hula dolls, Kathakali masks and other local art pieces, that are neither meant for sale nor culturally accurate.
These artists are subject to an internal struggle of turmoil. With traditional practices slowly dying away and limited employment opportunities, most artists are starving. Tourist companies give them the ability to sustain themselves and ward off starvation. But the price is high. Artists are also forced to sell their dignity as well as the true sentiments behind their craft. Their stories are corrupted, identities encashed and their skills misrepresented.
This is the carnage that colonialism and ‘modern utility’ has brought upon us. Colonialism was a war whose effects can be felt years later. It was a war that made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves (notice how western traditional dance forms like ballet continue to thrive).
Modern Utility has a lot left to destroy, this is only the beginning. Only objects that bring us tangible benefits are allowed to exist unharmed. In this new utilitarian era, we will see a lot of death, but perhaps the first one will be the stagnation of art for art’s sake.