Dancing Men
- Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant
e-mail: ananda.jayant@gmail.com
Photos: Vivekanandan

January 9, 2014 

Many years ago, I remember rashly promising Anita, that I would be able to facilitate bringing her event Purush, an evening of male performances with her as Sutradhar, to Hyderabad. When I presented this programme to a much respected arts presenter, I was met with the counter, “But who will see men dance?” and I remember retorting, “Women!” I also remember arguing vehemently that if conservative (in my opinion!) Chennai could do it, then cosmopolitan Hyderabad could too! And all my justifications fell on very deaf male ears!

For most of us trained in Kalakshetra, the male dancer has never been an exception, rather more the rule. As young students, we learnt and performed alongside macho or effete male dancers, were trained by male gurus, and learnt that beautiful art was not the prerogative of any class, caste, religion or gender. Chennai, as a city too, has over the years, embraced the primacy of good art above all manmade segregations and divisions. I have, over the years, watched the much maligned sabhas present artists of both genders, transgender, and cross dresser, with equal élan, in both presentation as well as recognition with awards - sure this percentage is skewed in favour of the women artists, but so is the ratio of women artists!

Once again, Chennai rose in my eyes as a very modern city couched in deep traditionalism. As Anita succinctly put it a few years ago, Chennai - where Mallipoo meets Martini! Kartik Fine Arts in Mallipoo Mylapore rose as one to meet Martini and sundry other cocktails in co-presenting Anita Ratnam’s Purush conference and conclave, to which I was invited as an observer.

Purush was an extremely well thought out and laid out 5 day event that straddled the worlds of street and proscenium, academia and celebration, youth and maturity, icon and new entrant, the  classical and the contemporary, with professional expertise and skill. Anita brought her curatorial acumen and organisational proficiency to lead a finely tuned team, who were empowered to deliver an efficient and intelligent conference. And yes, it was raining men... of all ages!

The deliberations of the three mornings were mostly celebratory in nature - from beautiful  reminiscences of  Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar  to honouring our very own living dance legends Pt Birju Maharaj, Udupi Laxminarayan, K Kalyanasundaram, B Herambanathan,  Adyar Lakshman, CV Chandrasekhar, VP Dhananjayan, A Janardhanan, CK Balagopal, Narasimhachari, Ramli Ibrahim and Dr. Sunil Kothari, with pithy and humorous introductions by Lakshmi Vishwanathan that brought the house down!

Lakshmi Vishwanathan

Anita Ratnam, Hari Krishnan

Dr. Ann David

P Praveen Kumar

The academic session on Ram Gopal by Dr. Ann David from the University of Roehampton, UK, was lucid and interesting while Dr. Sandra Chatterjee’s on Uday Shankar, meandered and lost direction. The Bharatanatyam showcase of three male gurus and their male disciples made for interesting viewing, as was the talk and film Male Moves by Ashish Khokar, which allowed us a peek into the very rich Mohan Khokar dance archives. A special mention of the performance here of Praveen Kumar, who displayed a quiet strength in “Shankara rudra roopa,” a C.V. Chandrasekhar choreography.

Gender, dance and sexuality, came in the form of personal journeys of 4 male dancers Hari Krishnan, Jay Pather, Sooraj Subramaniam and Ramli Ibrahim from across four continents, and allowed us to see into the souls of these dancers, the choices made, and also the artistic angst that drives them.

Of the 3 performances I was able to see, the Rudrakshya Odissi ensemble was slick and in perfect synchrony that was a reflection of hard training and practice under Guru Bichitrananda Swain. The solo piece by Lingaraj Pradhan was a tad too long and tedious. The Bharatanatyam ensemble lead by PT Narendran was high in energy with intricate patterns   woven into complicated adavus. It was indeed lovely to see the now very rare mandi adavu, and sarukkal adavus as was the adavu laden Dashavatara sequence woven into a Trikala Jathi. A work in progress, this presentation could do better with more practice and synchrony. I guess this is where the separation of choreographer and dancer helps as it did in the case of the Odissi ensemble.

PT Narendran ensemble

Lingaraj Pradhan

The opening of the Purush event with Pavitra Bhat started off impressively with clean lines and extensions, and high leg raises, but remained at the very basic level in terms of the grammar and choreography woven into the technique. Stretch, kick, pose, and a few ta tei tei ta, kudittu mattu adavus and thati mettu in madhyamakala? A few of us dancers and gurus   found this trend akin to the old world Oriental dance! Is this the new avatar of  Bharatanatyam?

Though erudite keynote speakers such as Leela Venkataraman and Devdutt Pattanaik threw much light on the subject, from the esoteric to the mundane, a topic such as Purush may have needed another two days of deliberations and debates to address issues beyond performance. Often Anita and I have had these long telephone conversations on related issues such as:

•    The problems faced by male dancers who freelance with other dance companies, mostly led by women, in terms of acceptance, self worth, finances etc., vis-à-vis complaints of unprofessionalism thrown at freelancing male dancers.
•    Male classical dancers as choreographers on hire for many Indian and overseas based dance companies, sometimes with and most often without credit.
•    Male dancers as teachers and gurus – as livelihood choice.
•    As creators and performers for corporate entertainment evenings or wedding festivity.
•    How do very male dominated dance styles like Kathakali or equal participation styles like Kathak and Odissi tread these paths? Is there a lesson that male Bharatanatyam dancers can learn from there? etc.

Maybe if the afternoons too had been harnessed for the conference, these issues may have come in for some interesting dialogue, debate and participation. Once again, kudos to Anita Ratnam, co-curator Hari Krishnan, Arangham Trust and Kartik Fine Arts and the whole Purush team for mounting a rich and varied conclave.

Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant is an acclaimed Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, choreographer, guru and scholar. She is the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for Bharatanatyam in 2009 and the Padma Shri in 2007. She trains students in Bharatanatyam at her institution Shankarananda Kalakshetra in Hyderabad. A highly rated and much viewed TED speaker, Ananda is a sought after motivational speaker and lectures on art and breast cancer support and advocacy.