"This is the most difficult question you can possibly ask me. So much riding on it," he admits. How does Aniruddha Knight manage to survive as the first male dancer in a family of women artists, from the 18th century Papammal in the Thanjavur court to illustrious grandmother T. Balasaraswati? Nor has he created a special `masculine' repertoire for himself. He showcases varnam, padam or javali from his priceless legacy, each shaped by the female psyche, reflecting a woman's experience.
"Frankly, even my family was afraid of this. My mother used to say that no one should fault me even if I did `Mohamana.' People assume that a male has to be necessarily effeminate to do such songs. But to play only Rama or Krishna is to duck the issue." Aniruddha's aim is to keep the values of his tradition intact while being his own man.
Grace and emotion
Reluctant to use the word `transgender,' he agrees that as a Bharatanatyam dancer he does move through worlds of femininity. "With music, I'm in a realm of pure grace, true emotion and sheer beauty. I must feel my art through music." No, he has never felt out of place or inadequate in intimate `feminine' moments.
"The adavus have a keenedged grace, but nothing obviously feminine. I've learnt to retain that quality in my style." He continues, "I saw my moth- er, not as a woman, but as an artist. Nor was I thinking of gender when I watched Pt. Birju Maharaj."
Does Aniruddha sometimes find his legacy a burden? "If I said no, I'd be lying although living up to such standards seems impossible. Nor can I think of being anything but a dancer. To be educated in this style, to be born in this family! Purva janma punyam."
His childhood was an endless round of dancing. "I was Balamma's entertainment in her last years." She made a game of teaching mudras to the toddler, while her brothers T. Viswanathan and T. Ranganathan played the flute and the mridangam. Formal lessons began at age six with mother Lakshmi. Home schooling enabled him to accompany her everywhere. tours, classes, workshops and public shows. "You can learn manodharma only when you see how an artist plans, prepares, and handles performances." Soon, Aniruddha began to dance with his mother, and sing for her shows.
The boy's best training came during the last phase of Lakshmi's life. Two days before her death, wheelchairbound she taught him `Tamara saksha.' The sishya was awed by the shifting nuances in her abhinaya. "Awed, scared, I wondered - can I do this? The fact that I was taught at all was acceptance enough to go on."
Aniruddha spends half the year in the U.S., where, after his debut at the Jacob Pillow Festival (1997), he has been performing regularly, and now heads the Balasaraswati School of Music and Dance. Last year, he was chosen for the prestigious National Dance Project Grant for a four-month tour across the U.S. "The grant recognised Bharatanatyam as a mainstream contemporary art form in the U.S. I had argued that tradition is not a museum exhibit, but changes according to current needs!" he laughs.
When he accepts residencies and master classes, as at the University of Illinois (Urbana- Champaign), he explains: "In Balamma's style, we improvise with total involvement in the music. I show the literal first, then the connotations and interpretations. This is not a fixed formula. It evolves in the living present." Singing the exquisite Kalyani padam `Vemaru,' Aniruddha proves how deep music airlifts the mundane into the divine. "The song shapes it all. You have only to follow it."
One day, Aniruddha hopes to share his wealth with sishyas on both sides of the Atlantic. But why is he little known on the Chennai performance circuit? Here, ensemble work assures visibility to many male dancers.
"Tell me, can my style blend with any other?" Then he adds seriously, "I have to talk about this. Balamma herself had to be applauded in Japan and America before she was recognised in her hometown. No use saying I'm Balamma's grandson. The times are different. I must change with the times. It's not wrong to seek opportunities, except that I haven't done it so far. I'm sad that people here are not giving themselves the chance to get exposure to this school. No, it is not entertainment. It is not a `nice,' `likeable' style. It demands that you meet it halfway. Then it transforms you."