Asian Music and Dance

Purush: the global dancing male

Day 1: The scene was set

Why do we dance? Do we always dance to achieve the same end? Is it and was it the forte of one gender? Such fundamental questions were the focus of keynote speeches at the three-day Purush: the global dancing male conference in Chennai. The mythologist Dr Devdutt Pattanaik explored the concept of dancing for the self and dancing for the other: Shiva Nataraja dances simply to fulfil the need to express with no desire for an audience, while the dance of Vishnu, the Natawar, demands an interaction with the other. 

When dance is looked upon as a spiritual art form, as all Indian classical dance forms are, the question of gender doesn’t arise. Gender does become important, however, when dance is seen as entertainment. Leela Venkataraman, the respected dance critic, highlighted this issue and discussed the negative impact for the male dancer, for whom the performance space appears to be ever-shrinking. The perception is that the audience prefers to see a pretty woman on stage (though I did think that a handsome man on stage is not a bad idea either). The quandary we are in is probably the result of dance developing from a spiritual art to an entertainment art in a strongly patriarchal society where most key decisions are still taken by men. 

The patriarchal mindset is impossible to escape for anyone living in such a society and too close to home to discuss its impact on the art form. I would go as far as to suggest that it would be impossible to analyse objectively the impact from the inside. Was this why the panel on ‘Patriarchy, sexuality and performance’ was drawn from Europe? Dr Ann David (UK) and Dr Sandra Chatterjee (Germany/Austria) presented a compilation of anecdotes and views about how Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar were received in the west. Stripped of its spiritual significance and viewed in a different cultural context, the exoticism and beautiful bodies of the dancers had become the highlights. Perhaps such perceptions in turn influenced the art form itself. Rukmini Devi, for example, introduced the strongly ballet-based ideas of group performances focusing on symmetry, lines, coordination, emphasising the physical elements of performance and possibly unintentionally sucking out the emotional content. Was this the start of gender becoming important in Indian dance? It appears that gender and how one expresses oneself while dancing may not be an issue among practitioners. So where does the problem lie? The first day of the conference tried to scratch the surface of issues surrounding gender, sexuality and being a male dancer today. 

The evening was a triple bill of triple bills with all-male ensembles presenting bharatanatyam and odissi sandwiching a contemporary triple bill by Astad Deboo. The artistry was outstanding and I was left wondering who it is that thinks they do not want to see men dance on stage. 

Day 2: A celebration of classical dances of India

The second day of the conference had a rather celebratory feel to it with award ceremonies honouring accomplished male dancers. It felt rather like a ‘who’s who’ of the bharatanatyam dance world. A demonstration of the various styles of bharatanatyam was the theme of panel presentations. Vazhuvoor, Thanjavur, Kalakshetra: one was reminded of regional English accents in the UK; the same language but with unique regional usages.

For me the best part of the day came with the evening performances. Navtej Johar and Sudeep Kumar (Delhi) were dressed in simple white dhotis, in single file with a measured walk, carrying a plate of wood shavings, a broom and a paper skirt. Dravya Kavya, a contemporary interpretation of the ordeals of Sita while she enters the forest, drew the audience into the performance. Clever use of lighting maximised the effect of darkness and gave the illusion of a much larger performance space than there was and also served to focus the attention of the audience on the dancers’ moves. The exquisite control of energy and sharp symmetrical mirrored martial arts style movements were a delight to watch. 

From contemporary dance, we were taken to the traditional theatre art of ottamthullal by Kalamadalam Suresh Kaliyath (Pondicherry). Draupadi sets her mind to obtaining the fragrant suganthigam flower and asks Bhima to fetch it for her. Bhima, the strongest of the Pandava brothers, on his way to fetch the flower stumbles upon Hanuman in the forest. Not recognising the mighty Hanuman, he insults him and pays the price. Hanuman tests his strength by asking him to move his tail out of the path as he is too old to move. Bhima nonchalantly tries to move the tail with a finger, then a hand and then with all his might and fails. Hanuman then reveals his true identity and Bhima is humbled. A comical episode portrayed with lots of humour lifted the spirits after a rather intense Dravya Kavya

Rarely-seen manipuri was a treat. The extraordinarily talented Sinam Basu Singh (Manipur) had a distinctly ethereal quality to his dancing. Manipuri is a form that differs from the other classical Indian dances quite fundamentally. Most of the other forms are a series of postures interspersed with smooth transitions, whereas manipuri is a series of transitions with no beginning or end, lending lightness to the dance. Sinam had mastered this quality of lightness while portraying the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Every part of the aharya (make-up, costumes, ornament) was geared towards enhancing the lightness. No bells meant no sharp footfalls, soft colours added to the effect and the softness seemed to have permeated into the very being of the dancer. The audience was enchanted.

We moved from the silky-smooth manipuri to the switch-your-mathematics-brains-on kathak: the self-assured, immensely capable Anuj Mishra (Lucknow) was on a mission to compress as many chakkars as possible into the shortest possible time. He had set himself a most challenging task and there certainly was a wow factor to his performance. Despite the extreme physicality of his dancing which bordered on a boot-camp exercise, he did infuse the spirit of dance into it. A flick of the hand, a turn of the head and the precise movements of even his curly locks evoked the sense of watching a performance of the highest order in a Mughal court. 

Kuchipudi is a dance that I had only seen performed by female dancers up until that evening, when I watched yet another brilliant dancer. Mruthyunjaya Sarma (Hyderabad) from the illustrious lineage of Pasumarthi from the village of Kuchipudi dazzled the audience with his Shivashtakam. Neat lines, flawless execution of steps and effortless use of space worked together to result in a well-rounded satisfying presentation. 

Timetabling constraints meant one had to choose between the main venue in the evening and an open-air performance in a local park. Given that the open-air therukoothu (village street theatre) was rarely seen in Chennai, I decided to head to the park. It was not far but one must not underestimate the travel time in rush hour (which has no beginning or end) in Chennai. Brightly-coloured clothes, rather bold make-up and loud music all under a large tree took me back to the village fairs I had been to as a child in my ancestral home town. Draupadi’s disrobing was the theme of the play. I walked in while Duryodhana was attempting to recall the names of all his hundred siblings; quite something. I felt quite elated after the sumptuous feast of Indian dance throughout the evening. 

Day 3: Honouring a legend

The last day started early with music. Sikkil Gurucharan and Anil Srinivasan presented padams on a piano. Although I did keep an open mind, it seemed like brilliant piano and brilliant singing but they didn’t quite work together for me. Having got us all into the venue early, we were served a hot South Indian breakfast before the highlight of the three-day event: the lifetime achievement award presented to the legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj. There are very few times when one feels truly overawed by another human being but this was one such moment. Unpretentious and full of childlike enthusiasm, the Pandit held his own in the Baithak Bhav session: forty-five minutes of enthralling artistry. What impressed me most was his ability to sing. We all know that kathak dancers have an excellent grasp of complicated rhythm but melody? I gathered that Panditji had been praised by none other than Bhimsen Joshi. Interpretation is the essence of art and Panditji beautifully took his inspiration from nature: a bird feeding her chicks; the rustle of leaves; the repetitive moves of the chicks’ beaks; the flying in of the bird. It was an absolute delight. You could tell that he was lost in his own world of imagination; nothing to prove, none to impress, simply dancing for the joy of it. 

The final panel was another international one, with panellists sharing experiences about the issues faced by Indian male dancers internationally. The common theme that emerged was how strongly the social structure of the host nation was shaping the direction of the dancers’ choices of expression. Professor Jay Pather from South Africa talked of dance as a means of social change, exploring topical issues like male aggression and violence. Ramli Ibrahim traced his long journey towards establishing a highly successful institution in Malaysia where bharatanatyam, both in its traditional and more contemporary hues, was flourishing. Sooraj Subramaniam (Belgium) showed how cutting-edge contemporary choreography infused with bharatanatyam manifests itself as a new avatar. Sadly, there was not enough time for debate.

Come the evening and the final set of performances promised to deliver it all. Hari Krishnan’s Uma raised questions at different levels. When the cast of Uma walked up the stage dressed in black, it was clear that this presentation was set to question all the norms. Srikanth Natarajan, a well-established charismatic bharatanatyam dancer and bhagavata mela atakam artist, was dancing Uma dressed as a woman and the voice for the performance was Apsara Reddy, a transgender TV star. The two sides of Uma’s personality were contrasted with subtle humour, quite provocatively. It was the one performance that explored the issues of gender and sexuality in performance. Following this, dancers from Bangalore and Hyderabad treated audiences to some exquisite bharatanatyam and rarely-seen forms like perini thandavam and andra natyam

It did feel like a long three days and yet very short. Could there have been more focus? Perhaps the first panel dealing with gender, sexuality and performance in the context of the Indian male dancer could have been a structured Q&A session. Since male dancers find it difficult to find a platform for solo performances, what if the powers-that-be had been drawn into a discussion and maybe even committed to positive action in relation to supporting male performers? Still, for a city used to hosting predominantly traditional classical performances and lecture demonstrations dealing with technical content, this was certainly a first. It was a very genteel introduction of a delicate issue to a highly-conservative audience and for that Dr Anita Ratnam and Professor Hari Krishnan must be applauded. Now we wait with bated breath to see what happens next.



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox