Tulsi Badrinath’s new book Master of Arts — A life in dance is a narrative on the world of Bharatanatyam

Learning dance from V.P. Dhananjayan since the age of eight, Tulsi Badrinath grew up seeing young male dancers in her classes. It never seemed unusual to her that a man should be a Bharatanatyam dancer.

“Because Dhananjayan was a male dancer himself, boys who wanted to dance flocked to Bharata Kalanjali,” says Tulsi, the Chennai-based dancer and author of two novels long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, the accomplished Man of a Thousand Chances and Meeting Lives. “But that wasn’t the case in many other dance schools.”

It was only later that she gradually became aware of the prejudice and challenges that these men faced. “There is this sense of ‘who wants to see a man dance’ that is particular to Bharatanatyam, more than other Indian dances,” she says.

So when her publisher wanted ideas for her third book — non-fiction, this time — she immediately suggested a narrative on the world of Bharatanatyam, especially on the difficulties faced by male dancers. It was natural for her to include the story of her guru of 40 years, Dhananjayan — one of the earliest male Bharatanatyam dancers who rose to prominence against all odds, battling poverty and prejudice. And tying it all together was Tulsi’s own journey in dance, from the wide-eyed eight-year-old who was inducted into a world of myth and colour, to the disillusioned youngster who grew frustrated with a biased system, to, finally, the contented dancer who found her own path.

The result is her new book, Master of Arts — A life in dance, out in stores this month. With a brief but well-put together history of the dance form, discussions on its evolution, and frank conversations on its present and future with other dancers, the book takes a clear-eyed look at a world not many people have access to.

“There is a wealth of oral histories — from old-timers who have been part of this world since the 1930s and 40s — that isn’t documented,” she comments. “What you read in book and what you hear from gurus in dance class is different. And I wanted to try and capture those stories in print.”

But the book is also deeply personal to her, and for that reason, wasn’t always easy to write. “To be able to describe things that hurt you in the past with the right amount of distance was a challenge,” she says. It was also tricky to strike the right balance in writing about her guru. “There’s always a deep admiration for one’s guru, for the insights he offers, and for the teacher he is. But the book isn’t only about his strengths and successes — I’ve also written about what he calls his biggest failure, the opening of the Bhaskara School of Arts in Kerala.”

A similar honesty shines through in the stories of the six male dancers featured in the book, men of different religions, hailing from different parts of the country, united by their love of this art form, and their passion to keep going in face of obstacles of all kinds — lack of remuneration and opportunities, prejudice against their background, and suspicion about their sexuality. “I looked for men who illuminated different aspects of the story of the male dancer,” she says.

More than anything else, for Tulsi, who still continues to learn dance today, and who gave up a lucrative bank job to pursue her twin loves of dance and writing, this book is a tribute to Bharatanatyam. “How wonderful that I was born at a time when I could learn this art form, and that a part of me which might have otherwise stayed latent was developed,” she says. “Translating poetry through the movement of your body is magical, and I hope that sense of wonder I feel comes through in this book.”