Boys with ankle bells


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In the century gone by, the names of male classical dancers had a certain resonance. Uday Shankar. Bhaskar Roy Choudhary. Ram Gopal. They were men who dared to tie bells on their ankles and leapt onto stages across India, at first greeted by sneers about their masculinity, later earning enormous respect. State patronage elevated traditional performing artist communities in various pockets of India’s princely states into exalted ‘classical’ dancers and they became household names. Some of the traditional dance forms in India are still the special territory of male dancers, be it Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, Sattriya in Assam, Gotipua in Odisha and Kathakali in Kerala. But big names in the next generation are hard to find.

After India’s independence, the first generation of male classical dancers took it upon themselves to propagate the art form far and wide. So across the country one saw artistes like Birju Maharaj and Durga Lal in Kathak, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Mayadhar Raut and Debaprasad Das in Odissi, Kalamandalam artistes in Kerala, Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma and Vempati Chinna Satyam in Kuchipudi, Amobi Singh in Manipuri, Astad Deboo in contemporary dance and several others. But when they set themselves up as gurus, most of their shishyas were women.

Contrarily, when a woman, Rukmini Devi Arundale, started the ambitious Kalakshetra, somehow her male protégés made it big. CV Chandrashekar, Balagopal, Adyar Lakshman and the following generation of dancers like Navtej Johar became pathbreakers in their own right. Another woman Maya Rao set up India’s first institution for choreography that has produced scores of male dancers and choreographers of international standard. All the names mentioned above are now revered figures in the world of dance. Just like Ted Shawn, Nijinsky and Nureyev in the West.

Somewhere along the line, by the 1970s and ’80s, the male dancer fell victim to political debates and cultural chauvinism. Be it state-sponsored initiatives or at an organisational level, male dancers were sidelined and gradually began fading out of the performance spaces. Towards the end of 1990s, it was difficult to point out even a dozen names of male dancers of any international worth. Several critics and scholars all but predicted the death of the male dancer in the Indian performing arts scene.

Now, however, there is hope for the male dancer. At a recently held international conference titled ‘Purush’ on the global Indian male dancer, organised by Dr Anita Ratham in Chennai, one saw a resurgence of sorts. A young brigade of male dancers took the audience by storm. They seemed assured not just of a comeback but a long shelf life too. The cross-country gathering of artistes, scholars, critics and media gave hope to the world of male dancers that all was not over as yet. One saw a lot of hope in the decades to come.

Suresh Kaliyath had a packed hall splitting in laughter with his highly enjoyable performance of Ottan Thullal. A mechanical engineer by profession and an artiste by choice, Suresh is trained in Thullal, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Parichamuttukali and the intricate art of playing the Mizhavu. He is one of the few professional Thullal artistes we have in this country with high expertise and flair to keep his audiences wanting for more. His efforts to preserve this fading form are highly commendable.

Beyond the geographical limits of the country, several dancers of Indian origin and connection are making waves in the international scene with their art. Mavin Khoo from Kuala Lumpur has become yet another name to reckon with in London. Trained in the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam, Odissi and classical ballet, alongside contemporary dance in New York, Mavin is easily one of the finest dancers in Europe today and his training in Indian classical dance inspires most of his work.

Brought up in Toronto, Canada, Bhavajan Kumar moved lock, stock and barrel, leaving his family across the shores to pursue dance full time in Chennai. A big professional risk no one in his age would dare to take. Armed with a degree in behavioural neurosciences and Spanish from Boston University, Kiran Rajagopalan took to his passion for dancing and moved to Chennai.

In an age when Sabhas and organisers don’t go looking out for male dancers, where sponsors don’t come easy, where the risk of their being labelled and branded is high, something about dance keeps them going, irrespective of all the predicaments they face. There is no bed of roses for them. They have their own set of trials and tribulations in a system where commerce and not art are valued.

Speaking to them, one gets the impression that they are courageous, intelligent and belong to the multi-tasking generation of savvy youngsters who can take risk without a second thought. They know their capabilities and insecurities and have no hesitation in speaking their minds. They wouldn’t stoop to sycophancy and know the good from the best. They are open to healthy, constructive criticism, are ready to put in hard work and have high assurance levels in their art. In an age where thousands of boys are taking to technical education and mbas are dime a dozen, the premium on these artistes will be super-high. One just needs to give them time. For those who talk condescendingly about male dancers, be ready for strong and pleasant surprises. The next generation is footloose and more than fancy-free.

Sai is a writer, editor and culture critic


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