Purush turned the spotlight on issues and problems faced by the dancer.
Two decades ago, in April 1994, India’s premier institution, Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, hosted a five-day event turning the spotlight on the male dancer - PURUSH. Discussions and performances by living legends such as Birju Maharaj, V.P. Dhananjayan, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Kalamandalam Gopi, Vedantam Satyanarayan Sharma, Guru Ramlal and Astad Deboo, highlighted the importance of the male aspects of dance.
This year, the attention once again was cast on the male dancer, with ‘Purush, the Global Dancing Male,’ presented by Kartik Fine Arts in association with Arangam Trust as part of the Natya Darshan Conference/Performance Conclave curated by Dr. Anita Ratnam and co-curated by Prof. Hari Krishnan.
The conference began on a dynamic note with a performance by the young Bharatanatyam dancer, Pavitra Bhat. Emerging with an anjali mudra, he depicted in quicksilver changes of gestures, the procession of the Lord beginning with the playing of nagaswaram to the final image of the Lord in the palanquin in Mallari, followed by the description of the various attributes of Siva in Shambhu natanam, setting the tone for the three-day event.
The event had a galaxy of speakers consisting of scholars, writers and performers. Panel discussions centred on the problems and issues that assail the performing male dancer. The performances in the evenings opened up avenues for emerging dancers to unleash their creative ideas, alongside the performances by celebrity dancers.
Inaugurating the conference, chairman of Kartik Fine Arts, L. Sabaretnam, spoke of Anita’s commitment in putting together conferences on varied themes. The keynote address by Leela Venkataraman was titled ‘The shrinking space of the male dancer.’ Interestingly, she drew attention to the irony of the fact that while women feel marginalised in the day-to-day life in a patriarchal society, it is the men who feel marginalised in the world of dance!
Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, mythologist, drew an interesting comparison between Nataraja and Natwar as the embodiment of two types of dancing – Darshan and Darshak. Siva’s dancing is a personalised expression of the joy of movement performed for one’s own pleasure - an ascetic’s dance, while Vishnu’s dancing is focussed on showcasing the art to the spectators, a householder’s dance.
Dr. Ann R. David and Dr. Sandra Chatterjee spoke about the Indian male dancer in a global context with special reference to the contributions of Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar, with the Western world’s gaze on them as ‘Oriental Romantists.’ The second day ushered in a galaxy of ten gurus (aptly titled Guru Dalshina), where Udipi Lakshminarayan, K. Kalyanasundaram, Adyar K. Lakshman, B. Herambanathan, C.V. Chandrasekhar, V.P. Dhananjeyan, C.K. Balagopalan, A. Janardanan, M.V. Narasimhachari, Ramli Ibrahim, and also critic, Dr. Sunil Kothari were felicitated for their contribution. Lakshmi Viswanathan, in her inimitable style, drew colourful pictures about their personalities even as she felicitated the gurus. Ashish Mohan Khokar screened a film, ‘The Male Moves,’ showing little clippings of pioneers of male dancers - Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, Nala Najan and Bhaskar Roy Choudhury along with lengthy segments featuring Birju Maharaj and Ramli Ibrahim. There was no common thread to link the various clippings, which remained at best, a documentation of their dancing. This was followed by a panel discussion on the topic, ‘Bharatanatyam and the male body: techniques and questions of embodiment,’ featuring B. Herambhanathan. Dr. B.M. Sundaram and Prof. C.V.Chandrasekhar highlighted the technique and traditions of their respective styles of dance - Thanjavur, Vazhuvoor and Kalakshetra.
The third and final day began on a pleasant note with a musical journey by Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan. Celebrating the seventh year of partnership, the duo, in their signature style, performed a set of padams, with a creative extension coming in the form of dancer Kiran Rajgopal’s abhinaya to the rendering of the classic composition ‘Sakhi Prana.’
It was heartening to see the Lifetime Achievement Award being given to the doyen, Pt. Birju Maharaj. But it was sad that only a handful of dancers joined the audience, as also on the previous day, when the gurus were felicitated.
The concluding session on Contemporary Indian Dance and the Male Dancer showcased some of the work done by dancers who have settled abroad trying to create a space to develop their cross-cultural work. The brilliant work done by Suraj Subramanian, Jay Pather and Ramli Ibrahim highlighted the ability to excel in their creative endeavours.
It was interesting to see the popular ‘bulb art’ seen during traditional festivals ,especially in Tamil Nadu, moving into a contemporary concert arena in this festival, lighting up an image of Nataraja morphed with a photograph of Ted Shawn, designed by Rex.
The Conference made an impact by way of setting high standards of excellence in terms of aesthetic presentation and managerial skills, as also in bringing a global perspective to the subject. The conference addressed several issues of interest, ranging from the male dancing body, gender stereotyping, sexuality and sensuality of the male body and Article 377. All these issues were of interest to a small group of writers, scholars and performers, who come every winter to discuss, analyse and debate on a specific topic, and leave only to return the following winter to debate seriously with yet another topic. The struggling young dancer is still in the dark with his basic problems - of finding a platform to perform, and his survival as a professional, being unaddressed. With the attention on the general (global), the indigenous, therefore seemed unaffected, and conspicuous by their absence. It was ironical that in a conference that was focussed on Purush, the women outnumbered the men in the audience!