The gender conundrum

Once a common practice, these days young male dancers are increasingly shying away from depicting shringara rasa on stage. Seasoned exponents give their understanding of fluidity of gender roles in Indian classical dance tradition.

July 01, 2016 02:16 pm | Updated 02:16 pm IST

Parshwanath Upadhye

Parshwanath Upadhye

If there is a Shiva, there is a reciprocating Shakti; if there is Purusha, there is a reciprocating Prakriti; if there is a potent Nayaka, there is definitely a tender yet blazing Nayika. Since time immemorial the dual nature of our existence has been celebrated by the world. The fact that one cannot survive without the other has been time and again mentioned in shastras including the fifth shastra, which the world know as the ‘Natyashastra’. Then why are the male artists of current generation shying away from depicting the female characters which great gurus of all Indian dance traditions have been known to develop and portray in the most sensuous and appealing manner!

Why today the male artists, who are already in a minority, aggressively depicting the hyper masculine characters of Shiva or Krishna or Balaram? Why today most male dancers are finding solace in showcasing technical virtuosity by being more acrobatic than being bhava pradhan? Where is the shringara rasa lost amidst the overpowering bhakti, veera, and raudra rasas which seem to have found themselves to be the last resort for the nartakas?

Addressing these issues, Kuchipudi guru Padma Bhushan Raja Reddy explains, “Although Indian classical dances are made up of tandava and laasya elements, most of the padams, javalis, ashtapadis are nayika shringar-based pieces. So if a male dancer is attempting one of these pieces, he has to immerse himself into the character and then come out on stage. For example, when Kelu babu (Kelucharan Mohapatra) used to do his ashtapadis with minimal make up on his face, we only saw Radha. When I go on stage it is not just Raja Reddy but Satyabhama or Rukmini which I should play. How many young dancers are willing to get this deep an understanding?”

Reddy says the days have also gone when we had discerning rasikas who used to understand the minute nuances. “Time limitation which this generation is facing also is deterring them from attempting such profound pieces. So I cannot blame the male dancers but it is my serious advice that the young artistes should showcase a perfect amalgamation of tandava and laasya.” He cautions the aspiring dancers that an extensive knowledge of the text, the subtext, the type of nayika whether it’s khandita, vipralambha, abhisarika, and so on has to be minutely understood to delve into such heavy pieces. Smiling with a twinkle in his eye, Reddy says, “Without Parvati, Shiva is zero!”

Another Bharatanatyam guru Padma Shri Geeta Chandran speaks with a lot of zeal on these issues. “Good dance is good dance. Period! I don’t even like the term male dancer. The dancer is either moving in his or her rendition or is not. A female can fail terribly at portraying female roles so there is actually no gender bias here.” Chandran says that these impositions on male dancers, having to depict these alpha male characters, are from the outsiders, for example organisers, who have no idea what our dances are all about.

But within our small dance community, she says one would like to watch dancers who have this transporting quality in their abhinayas. “Birju Maharaj, Kelu Babu, Kalanidhi Mami all used to delve so much into transgressing gender roles, and we never saw a man or a woman doing the dance. They brought gender neutrality into play, maybe their age also helped. Dance is so subjective that one explanation cannot be used as a single blanket for all, yet I think male dancers should really attempt nayika pradhan pieces as long as they can do justice to their dance.”

Pandit Jai Kishan Maharaj, who hails from the Kalka-Bindadin gharana and is the elder son of Pandit Birju Maharaj states, “In our Lucknow gharana there is a loch even in the technical aspects of dance. Even when we stand and hit the first ta thai tat, there is a bhava in that also. But I think today the dancers in making, especially the male dancers, are trying to please the audience by doing something electrifying and garnering applauses rather than sitting down, calming the progress of their rendition and melting into intense pieces.”

He adds, “I have seen Shambhu Maharaj ji, Lacchu Maharaj ji, and my father who would use one single line and stretch the sanchari for hours at end. I am trying to render a similar education too but then my approach is gradual. I begin by teaching bhajans, and bhakti based pieces before moving to pieces like ashtapadis and so forth so that my students, male and female, reach a level mature enough to find spirituality into these seemingly highly sensuous pieces.”

Dabbling with contemporary reality of our performing arts scene, Parshwanath Upadhye, a younger exponent of Bharatanatyam laments, “Although I would love to do nayika pradhan varnams, it is the preference of the international and national audiences which demands us to present mostly group choreographies in which female dancers take up those roles.” But then he says that the scene depends on city to city as well. “Chennai might love to see solo recitals where I might delve into ‘sakhiye ind velayil or ati moham sankarabharnam’, but Bangalore or Delhi might want us to present group works leaving little scope for me to render such items.” Parshwanath adds that though the younger generation is performing gender restrictive pieces, they are still learning all the items from their gurus which would then keep the rich legacy intact.

Putting the idea of gender roles in Indian dance traditions in perspective, SNA awardee dancer-choreographer Navtej Johar says, “Indian dance is not about playing a role or a fixed character; in fact it is exactly not that. In dance; man, woman, god, demon, good, evil, all become interchangeable, the idea is to engage that fluidity that morphs these differences. Only in propaganda art are the parameters fixed, otherwise art is about blurring distinctions, deliberately falling between the lines, making meaning more abstract, poetic and paradoxical. Getting bogged down by fixed ideas of gender or any other social norm defeats the purpose of art and reveals a mindset that is wilfully chosen to remain un-poetic and un-free.”

Johar thinks that if people wish to stick to gender-specificity, or any other specificity for that matter, in dance, then he sees it as boring and a lost opportunity. When asked, as to, if the fear of being tagged as effeminate is stopping the current generation of male artists to venture creatively, he firmly states, “Proclivity of any kind is personal. It does not and should not impinge on art making. Men who want to prove their masculinity by playing conventionally acceptable male roles and ‘effeminate’ men who want to dance to act out their feminine fantasies, both miss the boat!”

So the answer, indeed, lies in the basic philosophy of our Indian classical dances that there is no man, no woman, no you, and no me. To depict the plight of Radha waiting to meet Krishna is not just superficial, but it is the plight of a tortured soul longing to meet their Supreme entity! If one is not able to understand this basic core of the transcendental qualities of our Indian classical dances, why to even bother and learn one rather than learning a more contemporary and acrobatically satisfying dance form.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.