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Dance like a man

C.V. Chandrasekar in performance. Photo: R. Ravindran   | Photo Credit: R_Ravindran

Indian classical dance seems like an all-woman’s world. After all, in an age of multi-national imprints, power suits and private jets, which man would want to consider a thankless career pursuing the classical or contemporary arts? But look back in history and you will find that all the earliest dancers, dance teachers, ballet masters, choreographers, scholars, critics and historians have been men who have nurtured and, in turn, been nurtured by the dance forms they chose to embrace. Whether Ram Gopal or Uday Shankar, the first international impressions about Indian dance came from the male dancer. They were India’s answers to the likes of Vaslav Nijinsky, Ted Shawn and Diaghilev. Forms like the Kathakali were the exclusive domain of men; Kuchipudi was initially taught and performed only by men. Gotipua dancers in Odisha were young boys and Odissi emerged in its present avatar due to the untiring efforts of dancer-gurus like the late Kelucharan Mohapatra and Debaprasad Das.

In the early 20th century, most well-known names in Bharatanatyam were male, who helped design the modern format of proscenium Bharatanatyam. Veterans like Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Dandayudhapani Pillai, Muthuswamy Pillai and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai helped the successful transference of Bharatanatyam to women outside the traditional Devadasi families. Some of these gurus contributed significantly to dance becoming a vital element in cinema, with Ramaiah Pillai being the first guru to be credited as ‘choreographer’.

So, what is the significance of the male dancer in today’s context? Indian classical dance harks back repeatedly to the image of Nataraja, the cosmic dancer. Appropriating his role in today’s world, male dancers perform and are interrogated through the prism of gender, sexuality and queer studies. However, Siva seems to preside over an ocean of predominantly female dancers.

Asked for his view, Guru C.V. Chandrasekhar said: “It is a misconception that dance is the privilege of the woman. Only Bharatanatyam has propagated this notion that dance is effeminate and suitable only for the female body. Fortunately, this is changing fast.” Critic Sunil Kothari added, “In contemporary dance across the world and in India, men have dominated the discourse. Male choreographers and performers receive greater grants and larger budgets for their productions. The U.K.’s Akram Khan, the U.S.’ Bill T. Jones and Taiwan’s Lin Hwai Min are prime examples.”

Rising star and Kathak dancer Anuj Mishra remembers how his father Arjun Mishra, a well-known Kathak artiste, found it very lonely as a male dancer during his days in Lucknow. “But”, he says, “today, Kathak has so many dynamic male dancers. The world is certainly more open to men in dance.”

Kolkata-based Kathak-trained dancer, choreographer, theatre director and performing arts researcher Vikram Iyengar, begs to differ: “In India, the position that we, as male dancers, are in today, is historically different from what it was. Most gurus of classical dance were male. Today we are marginalised in both numbers and visibility. A man practising a classical art form is tagged feminine but a man practising Bollywood-style dance is not.”

He illustrates his point with an example. How often in Hindi films, he asks, do we see a central male character as a classical choreographer/dancer? “To begin with, he is rarely ever in the dance space and, if he is, it is only in a contemporary sense. That was not always the case. Think of Shantaram’s films in the 1950s. There is another reason. Dance is perceived as a form of entertainment and it becomes problematic for a man to dance because — let’s face it — it is difficult for men to objectify the dance and the dancer when they’re watching someone of their own gender. It isn’t so much of a concern for the woman viewer. But that raises problems of its own, which are not really relevant here.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to Indian male dancers getting equal performing opportunities is the silent issue of sexuality. A dancing man is automatically presumed to be homosexual and many male dancers strive to appear “hyper masculine” on stage. Today, those stigmas are rapidly fading and men can choose their “role playing” on stage, choosing to interpret a poem in the feminine sense rather than always appearing to be energetic and strong and thereby masculine. While power structures still reside in the hands of men as sabha secretaries, corporate sponsors and agents, dancers are citizens of a fast-changing society where role playing has crossed gender borders. Dance is fast becoming “ungendered”. Unfortunately, the male gaze might still prefer to watch a moving female body, but men themselves are as energetically vaulting over walls to claim their place on the dance stage.

With inputs from Veejay Sai.

The author is the curator of Purush: The Global Dancing Male, a part of the Kartik Fine Arts Natya Darshan conference in Chennai from December 18-22.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 8:22:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/dance-like-a-man/article5459782.ece

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