Binesh believes that artists must be left free to create what they want. "Not tortured into conformity by society’s expectations. But I know people are not at ease watching a male dancer do ‘Aduvum solluval’ or ‘Mohamana’."
When Binesh Mahadevan danced at the Nartaka festival in 2007, he had a special guest in the hall: Sridevi, his fiancée. It was difficult to find a family ready to accept a male dancer as a son-in-law, despite his B.A (Economics) and M.A (English ). ‘Office job? Regular salary?’ was the inevitable query, though he had established himself as a soloist with his Akshaya dance school.
After the show, Binesh asked Sridevi, “Do you still want to marry me?” She replied with a smile, “I will help you in every way. Only, don’t ask me to dance!” Now, Sridevi manages his programmes, tours, edits his music on the laptop, chaperons his students with care, leaving her husband free to pursue his art.
For his Keralite postmaster father and Mohiniyattom artiste mother, taking four-year-old Binesh to Saraswatigana Nilayam, Triplicane, seemed a natural thing to do. Pandanallur-trained gurus K. Lalita and Ranganayaki Jayaraman drilled him in adavus first. “Don’t give up, you’re good!” approved Chitra Visweswaran, chief guest at his arangetram in 1989. Another shot in the arm came when Padma Subrahmanyam invited him to work in her TV serial on the Natyasastra. Learning this new style was a challenge. Later, exposure to Rhadha’s choreography widened his perspective. Binesh began to get calls to work with other dancers and ensembles. Before he knew it, he had turned professional.
Popular in school
Was he teased in school and college for being a dancer? “On the contrary, I was popular because I was a dancer; I was even put in charge of annual and sports day shows. My friends unfailingly attended my dance recitals.”
As an undergraduate in Thiruvananthapuram, he taught at the Noopura Dance Academy as a guest artist, and performed with the company’s troupe. He learnt Mohiniyattom, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Ottamtullal, not to perform, but to add to his arsenal as teacher.
“My father told me long ago not to act like a girl just because I was learning Bharatanatyam. Be normal, he said. I had no confusions about my role or life. People say I’m expressive even when I talk, but I’ve not lost my individuality or manliness.” V.P. Dhananjayan has remained a role model, in conducting himself with dignity on and off the stage.
Binesh trains his male disciples like his own teacher did, finding a repertoire suitable for them to perform. “Last year, I chose the theme of Muruga and Valli and created a dance drama for the arangetram of a boy and a girl. Audiences today have little patience. I work hard to find items to engage their attention.”
He chuckles over a boyhood experience. “Once at a Mohiniyattom competition in Kerala, I found myself the lone wearer of panchakachcham. The other male contestants wore saris and kondai! I didn’t win, but got mentioned in the papers as the only ‘mohanan’ among the mohinis.”
Binesh believes that artists must be left free to create what they want. “Not tortured into conformity by society’s expectations. But I know people are not at ease watching a male dancer do ‘Aduvum solluval’ or ‘Mohamana’.” Therefore, though at home with Sita or Yasoda, Binesh himself does not perform nayika-centred compositions. He often makes his senior girl students demonstrate such songs to newcomers in his class, a two-way gain, as the seniors hone their skills in the process.
How did he launch a school while barely 16? “In Koyambedu where I live, many parents asked me to start classes as they could not send their children to Mylapore and Adyar. In 2000, I had a ‘budget’ arangetram for five students. Now I have 80 students. My parents’ presence makes everyone feel safe in our house. Only in class am I a strict teacher. After that, I joke and play games with my students.” Binesh finds teaching helps him to improvise better while it also keeps him rooted in tradition. He knows that without the dance school, he will have to opt for a 9 to 5 job and dancing will become a hobby.
“Things are better now, but we have a long way to go. Parents are not free of fears about dancing making their sons effeminate. Sabhas and audiences must encourage male dancers more. We must have more venues for dancing in places such as Virudunagar, Korattur and Koyambedu. No, I don’t really see any of this happening soon,” he shrugs.
His best moments in Bharatanatyam? Binesh laughs as he recounts the first. “In ‘Lalita Prabhavam’, I played many roles demanding super-fast costume changes. As Bhandasura, I suddenly found my moustache drooping. Pretending to twirl it as the demon’s abhinaya, I kept pressing it back. At one point I simply tore it off and flung it in fiendish fury! A moment’s silence exploded into thunderous applause. My teacher greatly appreciated my presence of mind!”
Abiding satisfaction came with his seven years of teaching of children with Down Syndrome and devising new techniques to optimise their efforts. He was even able to conduct a proper arangetram for one of them, whom he continues to teach.