The identity and place of male dancers in the classical firmament, came under scrutiny at ‘Purush’

In what turned out to be, arguably one of the richest, most meticulously crafted dance events in recent years, “Purush - Celebrating the Global Dancing Male”, mounted by Kartik Fine Arts in association with Arangham Trust (at three different venues -- Alliance Francaise, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the Nageswara Rao Park), treated one to a wide range of male performances, traditional and contemporary.

The irony was not missed, that in the heart of Mylapore and Adyar, where tradition, imbedded in cultural memory from a long past, comprises entrenched ideas of male and female roles in art, Purush focussed on issues of the Male as a dancing body, normative boundaries of gender stereotyping, male impersonating female, cross gender performances, shrinking performance space and what have you – with the fond hope of changing fixed notions about gender roles and all, against the backdrop of the recent Article 377!

Challenging the bi-gender compartmentalisation and notions of what is normal through a clever ‘tongue-in-cheek’ stree vesham ‘Uma’ (visualised by Hari Krishnan), shifting smoothly between traditional and contemporary frames, had the versatile N. Srikanth as ‘Uma’ moving from the sacred to the banal and profane with silken ease. The entire aesthetic canvas with black clad musicians and a heroine also in black, was astutely woven round singing switchovers from Subhiksha Rangarajan to Vaaraki Wijayaraj, with voice narration by a transgender participant Apsara Reddy, nattuvangam by Harikrishnan, flute by Sruti Sagar and mridangam by Nagaraj. Snippets of a varnam saw Srikanth in fleeting contrasting stereotypical images of the temple Goddess, the hoyden, the devadasi and the screen diva.

The more traditional stree vesham saw Kalakrishna in ‘Nava Janardhana Parijatam,’ the lasya ritual mode of the Pendela Satyabhama devadasi fold of Pitthapuram, portraying Satyabhama in different moods through lyrics such as ‘Dadi Madana Ravaiyya’, ‘Emani Chintasetu Vidhi’ and ‘Pancha Bana.’ In the delightfully folksy/classical blend, Kalakrishna’s understated abhinaya showed mellowness of experience.

Margam featured A. Lakshmanaswamy. Rendering ‘Suma Sayaka,’ the varnam in Karnataka Kapi, and the Sarangapani padam ‘Chitike Vesite’ in Kalyani, the male dancer revealed a versatile ability to interpret both the female and male perspectives of sringara.

Pre-conceived notions of Odissi sitting so sensually on the female body crashed after watching the superbly coordinated proficiency of the Rukdraksha group with their fluid torsos and tribhangi deflections presenting guru Bichitrananda Swain’s brilliant ‘Tala Madhurya,’ with Mardala nritta patterns of Dhaneswar Swain woven into a repetitive instrumental music Champu refrain ‘Bandhibo Kehi Re.’ ‘Karna,’ a one man ballet designed by Bichitrananda and performed by Lingaraj Pradhan, was a hit.

In ‘Dravya Kaya’, Navtej Singh Johar and Sudeep Kumar Puthiyaparambath came together for a homage to Rukmini Devi and Chandralekha, through a contemporary production drawing on plural physical vocabularies such as Bharatanatyam, Yoga and Kalari.

Amazingly charged in the vivacity of narrating story of ‘Kalyana Saugandhikam’ was the highly talented Ottanthullal performer Kalamandalam Suresh Kaliyath. Like the Therukoothu of Purisai Duraisami Kannappa Thambiran Parampara Therukoothu Manram, in Tudumbu and Draupadi Vastrapaharanam at Nageswara Rao Park, Ottanthullal too was a perfect example of how connected with the people these art forms were, communicating at all levels with an immediacy formal art forms cannot match.

Epitomising male grace and restrained aesthetics was the Manipuri by Sinam Basu Singh.

The contrasting all-male Perini Siva Tandavam of the Telugu regions was a sad spectacle of out-of-breath, too heavy males, panting and puffing through the nritta – a far cry from the days when Nataraj Ramakrishna presented his recreated form (through textbooks and Ramappa temple sculptures), through taut- bodied, wiry, energetic males.

Contemporary Bharatanatyam versions composed for male energy in Bharatanatyam saw an impressive young Parwanath S. Upadhyaye in a spirited presentation, with immaculate body geometry, of ‘Purushaardham’.

Perfectly profiled movement with excellent technique also characterised Praveen Kumar’s virtuosity in ‘Shankar Rudra Roop Dikhao’ in Raga Shankar conceived and choreographed by his Guru Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar. Also arresting in the Bharatanatyam vigour and excellent movement profile was Pavitra Bhat. Similarly, the young male Kathak vigour was evident in Anuj Misra’s virtuosity – though he could lessen the chakkar wizardry.

The old world face of Thanjavur Bharatanatyam nurtured within sheltered confines away from urban cacophony, was in the pallavi snippet of the Anandabhairavi swarajati “Sakhiye Nee Inda Velayil’ by H. Hariharan, the reposeful pace and the simplicity of the jatis, its aesthetics lying in the accenting of the recitation with the cymbal playing by Guru Herambanathan, catching the old world charm. For scholar B.M. Sundaram, “The dance may take on different flavours according to gurus. But banis and paramparas are all ultimately traced to one Thanjavur source. Contemporary male art was represented in Astad Deboo’s superb Dance Expressions, the control over the body in the slow movements unbelievable.

The global perspective of male dancing had representatives in dancers settled abroad as part of a diaspora, creating space for their own work with cross cultural influences such as Sooraj Subramaniam, settled in Western Australia, and Jay Pather, Associate Professor, at the University of Cape Town. If one uses his joint Odissi/ Bharatanatyam/Ballet/Contemporary Dance in new expressions, Jay does site choreography, for works presented in public spaces such as museums and parks.

Malaysian Ramli Ibrahim, well versed in ballet, Odissi and Bharatanatyam, searches for ‘Asian modernity’ drawing on his mixed background. Snippets of visuals showed how the respective works, very different, carry an undertone of search for one’s identity, living and interacting in a global world of a cultural salad bowl.

Dr. Ann R. David, in a brief historical approach, looked at how India’s gendered repertoire is presented today, by contrasting Ram Gopal’s ‘androgynous presence on stage’ with what Mavin Khoo does, freeing himself from all the gender stereotyping. How Uday Shankar was perceived in the West was touched upon by Dr. Sandra Chatterjee.

The high moments were too many -the uplifting Padams on the Piano by Anil Srinivasan with vocalist Sikkil S. Gurucharan, the delightful theatre acts of Adishakti with Nimmy Raphel in ‘Nidravathwam’ donning the roles of both Kumbhakarana and Lakshmanan making gender a non-issue, the imaginative visual designer Rex whose stage setting projected a brilliantly lit frame morphing one half of the photograph of the Natarja bronze icon with another half of Ted Shawn’s Cosmic Dance of Shiva, the excellent team of artistic director Anita Ratnam and not the least, a memorable summing up by Rustom Bharucha – this was an event (changing entrenched ideas is too ambitious) – nudging all towards developing a more open mind and generous attitude towards varied art expressions.