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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 32, Dated August 14, 2010

Tough Guys Can Dance

From being a stage populated by larger-than-life patriarchs, classical dance seems to be giving way to female dominion. NISHITA JHA finds out why


WEARING ghunghroos might not be an ideal way to get noticed for the metro male. But for a relatively small group of young male dancers determined to pursue their dream, the bells around their ankles have become a form of liberation. Revanta Sarabhai, 25, son of danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, would appear to have a charmed life to most struggling dancers. Born at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts (founded by his grandmother Mrinalini Sarabhai), when Revanta decided he wanted to dance, no one reacted with shock or threatened to disown him. While classmates at school were initially surprised, the reputation of being an ‘allrounder’ only added to his popularity. Revanta chose the feminine rasyas of Kuchipudi over the geometric language of Bharatanatyam at first (which he now describes as ‘more suited to a man’), because he wanted to be near his favourite teacher at the Academy. A few years later, he switched to Bharatanatyam. “I know my name is the main reason people take me seriously. There are several accomplished male dancers with no viable options, except to become background dancers in a troupe or teach. I still have to work hard to prove that I’m worth it, but at least I know I can dance for a living if I want to,” he says.

Not so long ago, male dancers dominated Indian classical dance forms. Several years later, the trend has been reversed. While the commitment required to train for a solo is equally arduous for both men and women, dance critic and writer Ashish Khokar attributes the dwindling numbers of male students to a lack of patronage. “Sponsors want beautiful girls to look at, and force male dancers to find partners.” While some traditions have undergone a complete change, like Kuchipudi (performed only by men 50 years ago, now dominated by women), others like Kathakali, have not. “Most cities have only a few male solo dancers left. Delhi has two, Chennai has three, Bengaluru has seven and Odisha has the most, because Odissi has a tradition of gotipuas (young boys),” Khokhar adds. While Shiamak Davar and Ashley Lobo’s contemporary western forms are still acceptable to the average metro male, Kathak and Bharatanatyam dancers are considered symbolically neutered. Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj has already faced the bias. “One of my boys went on a dance reality show and was told by Saroj Khan, ‘Your Kathak is great, but if you want to go ahead, you will have to learn salsa, breakdance, Bollywood dancing…’ How dare they even compare monkey-aerobics to dance?” he thunders. Originally performed by men, Kathak is distinct from other Indian classical dances for its straight-legged posture. Ever since it became acceptable for young girls to learn the form, men chose to be gurus and mentor them. “Social barriers then had made it hard for women to come out. They had to fight to dance. Now the men seem to have gone into hiding out of sharam,” says dancer Shovana Narayan. “Dance transcends gender. When Maharaj (Birju) plays a woman on stage, he is more womanly than you or I, but the moment he walks off it, he is as male as Lord Shankar himself,” she adds.

“Women had to fight to dance. Now the men seem to have gone into hiding out of shame”

THIRTY-FOUR-YEAR-old Nilomoni Borah, a Kathak dancer from Assam, was trained under a guru in Lucknow for 11 years before he came to Delhi to teach. While his guru Munna Shukla had trained several boys (most of whom went on to become professional dancers), Borah was shocked to find that the school he taught in now refused to let boys learn Kathak. After pleading with the authorities to amend the rule, Borah found most boys unwilling to learn, because they were afraid of being teased by their peers. “Even when a 15-year-old boy finally came to join, I had to refuse him because the girls would feel uncomfortable. At that age, it is hard to keep a boy’s mind focussed. You have to train them from a very young age to ensure that they are not distracted,” he says. Borah himself faced strong opposition from his family of businessmen when he confessed his love for dance. One of the things he was warned about was that no woman would marry a nachaniya. “I ran away from home and found a guru," he says.

For Dr Seshadri Iyengar, 40, a homeopath who gave up his consultancy to become a full-time Bharatanatyam dancer, the stigma exists only if one chooses to let it bind one’s passion. “Nataraja dances, Shiva does the tandava, Krishna dances on the six-headed serpent, even Brahma has been known to dance. How can there be anything wrong about a man wearing ghungroo?” Bharatanatyam exponent Yamini Krishnamurthy differs slightly in her view, “Bharata had a thousand sons, but dissatisfied with their dancing, he created apsaras. The female form is meant for dance. But as rakshasas (demons) , viras (warriors), rajas (kings) and devas (gods), men are equally important.” Krishnamurthy’s school for dance has only seen two boys in the past 10 years, both of whom are now teaching dance elsewhere. For her choreography, she has to source male dancers from schools in Chennai.

While fewer young men may be opting for classical dance, the ones who do take the plunge are ready to battle it out. Iyengar, who belonged to a non-dance family confesses that his father was ‘indifferent’ to his passion until he began to win accolades. Birju Maharaj actually prefers male students (although his classes haven’t had a new male student in more than five years) because he feels women are easily deviated by issues like marriage and pregnancy. “I don’t want a crowd of followers. Even one shagird who is truly devoted is worth thousands, and I will wait for him,” he concludes. One hopes it is not with bated breath.


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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 32, Dated August 14, 2010

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