Stories From The Field
Meet Seibi Lee, kathak artist & teacher and senior disciple of the legendary Pt. Chitresh Das.
What drew you to the artistic way of life, and particularly to kathak? Was there a specific turning point when you chose to devote your life to music and kathak? Did you ever consider taking a path of financial security?
My whole life has been a big back and forth, because my natural inclination is for the artistic life but my familial inclination is not. My mother has a definitely artistic side and she wanted both my brother and me to have artistic knowledge. When I was 5 years old, she put me in piano, violin and ballet lessons. In grade 10, I was able to participate in a pre-professional dance program. I went to academic school from 8:30 to 1:30 and then went for three hours of dance training 5 days a week. For me, that was heaven. However, my parents had placed me into a highly academic school and I was really struggling to balance all of it.
After high school, I went into pre-med program. Although I love the sciences, there was definitely something missing from my life. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had found a harpist for me to take a lesson with, and that experience had a strong effect on me. I thought, “I wish I had touched this instrument earlier on in my life”, because I think I could have done something with it. I started regular lessons and continued on to finish a science degree. I was accepted into the music program after graduating that same year. I decided to give myself 10 solid years to decide whether or not I could be a professional harpist. I knew that I had musical skills, but I didn’t know if I had the physical coordination to begin such a complex instrument at such at 19 years of age and make a career out of it.
The year that I graduated from my Bachelor of Music, I saw my first kathak performance. I thought to myself, “How I would love to have been a kathak dancer”. However, I was committed to and needed to concentrate on harp as my career. I took kathak class as much as I could but I was doing a lot. Since there was often a demand for harp work, I could see how it was possible to support myself as a harpist. It was a difficult life with many hours spent practicing, rehearsing and driving many miles, but the music I was learning and performing was exciting and very beautiful.
When I arrived at Chhandam in 1997, the school was poised to begin growing rapidly. I quickly became involved in doing school administration adding some amount of financial support to my music career. Teaching and school administration grew steadily and about 10 years ago, because it just got to be too much juggling both, I made the decision to stop playing gigs with the harp to concentrate all my energies in kathak.
I understand now why my parents didn’t want me to go into the arts. It can be unstable. It was very hard for my parents, especially being first generation immigrants, to get over the stigma of my being an artist. They sacrificed so much to give me this life, so I should repay that by being an engineer, an accountant, a lawyer, or a doctor. They would much prefer me to have financial stability than this lifestyle of struggle.
Can you please talk about your time as a student and what kind of work went into your training, whether of kathak, harp, or both. Did that regimen/lifestyle change in your early years as a career artist? If so, how and why?
When the organization [Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company] was a little bit younger and was going through a big growth spurt, there was so much need to build an organizational structure from the ground up. I did have to sacrifice a large amount of time and energy that I would have put into my own artist development and into teaching. There was a period of time when I literally didn’t teach for an entire year. This was very difficult for someone like me, who has a great passion for being a teacher. I do feel that I gave up a lot of that devoted attention to those two things in order to stay financially stable, which meant that I had to keep a full time separate career with the harp while continuing my work for the organization.
By now, you’ve spent years forging your own path between Western and Indian classical arts, though your primary focus is now on teaching and performing kathak. Did your path to successful careers in those fields face similar challenges, or was there anything unique to the struggle of Indian classical artists, especially in the American diasporic context?
The financial aspects of my harp life versus my kathak life were different in that my harp life was primarily gig-based and I was paid for performances; kathak was more administration and teaching.
As a harpist, I had to learn how to manage myself and develop really good administration skills: budgeting, balancing books, organizing a complicated schedule, traveling back and forth to many cities, and then also learning different music all the time. I think those skills were very helpful for me to bring to the dance. I was taking all of the things that I had figured out at one level for one person and bringing it to the next level for the organization.
In my harp life, people called me for a concert, and I went and played at the concert. The performance program, the hiring of other musicians, the rehearsal/performance venues were all arranged by someone else. But for kathak, you have to be able to make everything about the performance. We were involved in everything to do with production and staging, lights, sound, etc. These are important skills for me to have gained and I continue to carry all with me so that now, when Leela Dance Collective mounts something as huge as Son of the Wind, the skill set is there to be used.
In most fields, professionals can depend on stable incomes and benefits like health insurance and retirement savings. This is not true in the arts, and many artists live from one concert to the next without regular salary. How did you go about preserving the integrity of your artistic practice while sorting out those real-life logistics?
Everything can happen but it happens late. I really have only started to be able to do some amount of putting away money for retirement in the last couple of years. I had to be frugal. Many of the [Chhandam] dancers had family in India and could afford to travel there every year. I could not afford to travel to India every year and there was a need for me to stay and take care of the school while others were away.
As a musician, I was not able to afford my own health insurance so I did without. After many years, Chhandam was able to provide health care for some of its full time employees and I was able to have that for a couple of years — after which I was fortunate enough to be able to join my husband’s health care through his work and I continue to do so.
Support for the field of Indian classical music/dance has changed a lot over the generations: initially as a patronage system, now with donations and ticket-based performances, and now a rapid shift to technological dependence. Can you speak a little about your experience within the current state of financial support systems for Indian classical arts?
There are definitely many challenges. Organizationally, we have been lucky to receive certain grants that have helped support some of our performances and school programs. Grant writing is labor intensive and there is no guarantee that you are going to get the grant, which means you have to put in a lot of effort to possibly receive nothing. Often you are choosing between time to practice/rehearse or finding time to apply for the grant for the show. Sometimes the practical needs outweigh being able to complete the grant but sometimes if you do not apply and receive the grant, the show cannot happen.
What do you believe is our responsibility in order to improve the field for future generations?
There are so many levels to that question. Artistically, it’s important for us to not be losing sight of the tradition, while also moving the art forward. That also applies on a pedagogical level, and on an artistic development basis. Financially, what I want is for [students] to have the choice to choose this as a career. But [students] can’t make that choice if [they] do not see an example of it actually working in real life. This is why we at Leela are trying to provide the structure and be the examples of an actual successful life as an artist. That is a heavy responsibility for us.
If your purest dream could be realized, what does fair compensation for the arts look like to you? What does financial support and perhaps even financial freedom look like?
The blue sky would be that artists, musicians, and dancers could have salaries that are comparable to people in the tech industry. If you successfully complete a three month programming bootcamp and you prove to have coding skills, you can earn a starting salary that is twice as high as what I am able to make now after 30 years. Artists cannot wake up and do a bootcamp and jump into a job. When you are doing a symphony gig, you are paid for the rehearsals that you play and for the concert performance but no one pays you for the time that you are practicing. No one considers all of that time that you have spent preparing, they only see the end result – the performance.
If society could recognize what it takes to be an artist, they might offer more support in their training, so that artists do not start out at university already in debt. When you finish university as an artist, your earning power is very low. You have to spend some years developing a good reputation. Let us compare a few examples: How much does a plumber cost? $150/hour? Who would pay $150 for one music lesson? Who would pay $150 to see a dance production like Son of the Wind? Everyone pays the plumber (and they should as this is a valuable skill) but no one pays for the musicians or the dancers even though these are also valuable skills. These are the inequities that we face and society has to level the playing field a little bit for artists to be able to survive. Artists create to bring people joy, to communicate, to connect and give people a chance to experience something outside their daily lives. This is why it is important to support the arts.