PERSPECTIVE 'It's tough to be a male dancer,' says Bharatanatyam exponent J. Suryanarayana Murthy.

In his native village in Andhra Pradesh, every male child's ears and nose would be pierced at birth. Parents hoped their boys would partake in the all-male ritual dance drama in a style named Kuchipudi after the village. After the harvest, clan members went on monthly rounds to other villages, collecting donations for this annual festival on Chitra Pournami, before the deities Ramalingaswami and Balatripurasundari.

Father J. Krishnamurti provided mridangam accompaniment to the legendary dancer Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma. Though son J. Suryanarayana Murthy had started playing small roles in Kuchipudi drama, the father took him to Kalakshetra, Madras, where relatives Bhagavatulu Seetharama Sarma and Venkatachalapati, a dancer, could keep an eye on him. Sarma said, "Pay the fee, I'll take care of his food and clothes."

To the child, the new world seemed unreal. "Like the Ambulimama (children's weekly) stories I had read in the village library! I saw a goddess getting out of the car and walking in regally. They told me she was Rukmini Devi, and this was her school." It was exhilarating when vidwan M.D. Ramanathan patted the boy's shoulder and predicted, "You will become famous like Uday Shankar!" For two years, young Murthy lived in this idyllic haunt, learning Abhinayadarpanam by heart, and practising furiously.

Spreading wing

Next, when he joined V.P. Dhananjayan's school, not only did the guru waive the tuition fee, but paid the sishya to take evening classes. "He knew I'd no money. What helped me more was the trust I saw in his eyes," Murthy recalls with tearful gratitude. Even the scolding felt good, "because they were just." Gurus Shanta and Dhananjayan gave the boy good roles in their productions and centre-staged him in the ballet 'Ghanashyam', directed by sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. The disciple travelled to many countries with their troupe. When Murthy boarded the aircraft for the first time, the guru smiled, "See! From a Kuchipudi agraharam to this!"

Many others encouraged him. "Once Sudharani (Raghupathy) Akka had me play Naradar in her production. She made her students watch my sarukkal adavu (thanks to my guru's training!). Naturally I wanted to do better than ever. You know, it's tough to be a male dancer. People have strange notions about us. We have to be doubly careful about establishing our masculinity, on and off the stage. But I had great role models."

Realising the value of academic enrichment, Suryanarayana Murthy studied Vaishnavism (B.A), History (M.A) and 'Devadasis and Bharatanatyam in Tamil Nadu' (M.Phil). He hopes to pursue doctoral studies too. Three years at the Central College of Music gave him grounding in vocal music and mridangam. He managed to do a course in Indian Arts at the Nalanda University and Indian culture at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. He also became a top grade artist on television. Foreign tours started offering opportunities for solo shows and lec-dems.

Learning Thevaram

A life-changing experience for the Telugu dancer was studying Tamil Thevaram with a fellowship from the Ministry of Culture. "I was lucky to learn from Dr. Nagaswamy for four years. He made me fall in love with Appar. We went to villages by bus, train and car and heard Thevaram at temples. Later I performed all night at those temples, ate prasadam, slept on some tinnai, and returned by the morning bus." Murthy went with his mentor to Europe and the Americas {ndash} demonstrating at the scholar's lectures in centres as prestigious as the Uppsala University, Sweden, or the Museum in Montreal. These lec-dems were packed with students and the intelligentsia.

Murthy hates the idea of assembling disparate fragments as new choreography. "I don't want to torture tradition in the name of contemporary something or the other. I want to create what lingers in the mind, not what is pleasing for the moment."

His father's and his own dream were fulfilled when, after an eight-year break, he rejoined Kalakshetra in 1999 to complete his diploma (a record in itself!) Subsequently, he became a teacher there. "The atmosphere is divine, unique. I still feel as awed by it as I was when I came here as a boy." His wife is from his own village. Their two sons are committed to excelling in studies, "They don't even want to hear the word 'dance'. This may change. Anyway, I have keen students."

Does he ever want to return to the Kuchipudi genre? "The only thing Rukmini Devi said to me directly was, "Don't run here and there. Find yourself and make yourself a master of it." I follow that advice. I also see it as a blessing."