When you read the title Master of Arts by one of the disciples of Dhananjayan, Tulsi Badrinath, you might be quick to assume it is a biography on the life of the artiste. You read a few chapters and then you begin to think that it is an account of the life of male dancers. However, Master of Arts: A Life In Dance cannot be pigeonholed with one label.
Badrinath says, “The book follows three threads — the story of male dancers, the account of my guru and my journey as a dancer. That is why I would say it is an outcome of forty years, from the time I started learning dance from the Dhananjayans’ at the age of eight. The actual writing took me almost two years.”
The book offers a ring-side insight into the world of dance and has an extensive reportage on the Dhananjayans’ learning phase at Kalakshetra, sabha domination, the reason behind Dhananjayan’s fall out with Rukmini Devi Arundale and the highs and lows that the dance couple have been through. Badrinath’s book combines both her identities of dancer and writer.
The book takes a cue from the common perception that male dancers are effeminate, but the highlight is its objectivity in the portrayal of her guru. In the process of presenting one of the dance world’s towering figures, the author has neither fawned over her guru nor attempted to show a larger-than-life personality. “The Dhananjayans have been so frank and outright while giving me the material for my book. And, usually biographies tend to always show the subject in a positive light. I didn’t want to do the same,” she adds.
Master of Arts.. is possibly the most detailed exercise that delves deep into the struggles of male dancers. And, as she interestingly observes, the two probable factors that led to an increase in the number of male dancers are Dhananjayan and actor Kamal Hassan, who made the art popular on the silver screen in Salangai Oli.
With anecdotes that the author has heard from her guru and their interactions with other eminent names like Pandit Ravi Shankar and a young Akram Khan, who went on to become a big name in contemporary dance, Master of Arts.. is an intense record of the field.
Vivid and gripping, the work of non-fiction also has an interesting focus on the decline of the Devadasi culture, which binds the other subjects dwelt upon. Badrinath says, “That is why today dance and music have become two separate art forms. The Devadasi parampara actually looked at both as
related.” As part of the book, Badrinath also observes that the success of a dancer should not be measured in the space they occupy at the sabhas. With details of her experience during every Margazhi season to look for sabha slots, she draws attention to the alternatives dancers have. The author, whose earlier work includes Meeting Lives and Man of A Thousand Chances, which were both longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, says that though there has been a surge in the number of male dancers, they still have a struggle to deal with. “It is still tough for them to make a living out of dance, through solo shows. They have to look for other channels like corporate shows,” she signs off.