A lovingly detailed, if breathless, ode to Bharatanatyam exponent Dhananjayan. Akhila Krishnamurthy
It has probably got to do with the fact that Chennai-based Tulsi Badrinath, author of Master of Arts: A Life in Dance, is also a dancer. In many ways, the cover — a mirror with V.P. Dhananjayan looking into a reflection of his son, Satyajit, lining his eyes with kohl — is its central imagery; a peek into the past from the present; an introspective commentary on a world that was, and that is; a narrative that attempts to string together stories that have common links in terms of incidents, issues, concerns or identities. In a sense, the cover is also indicative of what the book sets itself out to be: a “narrative about male dancers and the world of Indian classical dance”.
Only, male dancers are mere mention, occurrences, incidences, flitting in and out of chapters, sharing stories and struggles of the world of a male dancer in classical dance in Chennai, and India. The book’s real preoccupation — obsession even — is its hero, V.P. Dhananjayan, the ‘Sir’, who emerges in all his fierceness, finery, fieriness, and frankness, through every chapter.
The book’s rhythm — alternating between Dhananjayan’s story from the time he as a “14-year-old, penniless and unproven, boarded a train at Payyanur for Madras in 1953” and the author’s own induction into dance as an eight-year-old into Bharata Kalanjali, a school of dance founded by the Dhananjayans — allows its readers a comfortable introduction into the world of Dhananjayan and his dance. If one chapter is about Dhananjayan’s fascinating journey in dance, the next is the author’s fascination for her guru and his dance. Often, Dhananjayan’s principled, overpowering voice overshadows that of the author.
Fortunately, his six-decade-long career dazzles with facts that make for a fascinating read. For example, chapter 15 that details Dhananjayan’s walk-out from his alma mater, Kalakshetra, is particularly gripping. “Yes, you are telling a lie,” retorts a young and unafraid Dhananjayan to Rukmini Devi following a misunderstanding between him and a mridangam player. In a conversation with the author, recalling this life-changing episode, he tells her, “I was branded as the outspoken troublemaker.”
Humour is also integral to the fabric of the book, especially in chapters where Tulsi recounts, with exacting detail, sessions with Dhananjayan.
Almost more than half-way through, an atmosphere of gloom takes over. Central to this is the birth and death of Bhaskara, Dhananjayan’s pet dance school project on a mountain near his hometown (in Kerala). Dancing alongside this grim tale are other nuggets from the lives of male dancers, many challenging, some tragic — like the death of Rajesh Kumar, one of Bharata Kalanjali’s best male dancers; the murder of another dancer Ravi, in his home in Chennai. These coupled with the inherent challenges of being a ‘male dancer’ and its resultant lack of opportunities dance tug at your heart.
It is the denouement though that is best described. Tulsi describes Dhananjayan as Thyagaraja, with four male dancers looking on. She is one among the audience; an ardent devotee of his dance. The morning after his performance as Thyagaraja, “grey hair freshly shampooed, he enters class at BK dressed in a simple white veshti and cotton jubba… Not knowing how to tell him just how superb he was, we burst into spontaneous clapping. This is my continual good fortune; that the lord of dance whom I beheld yesterday is my guru”.
In an earlier chapter, a Muslim male dancer, Shafeek, fretting over a very revealing dance tour in the UK, makes an interesting observation: ‘If you have money, you can dance.’ It’s a point to ponder over. But Master of Arts is not really about that; it’s simply a glorious ode to a guru; an obeisance to a teacher; a song by a sishya for her Sir!