CHENNAI: Dance happened to mankind when it was found that stories written in Brahminical texts — the Vedas — did not reach the masses. Lord Brahma asked sage Bharata to write a book using the literature available in the four Vedas to form the Natyaveda, commonly known as the Natyashastra. This shastra contains the grammar one has to follow in creating a stage presentation and while going on stage. India’s classical dance forms use Natyashastra as their base book.
While the shastra talks about what an ideal dancer should look like, there seems to be no reference to what gender a performer should belong to. While social norms did not encourage women to pursue dance, in the last forty to fifty years, the socio-cultural clime seems to have changed. The roles have reversed.And the number of male dancers is now fast declining. The few who can be still seen on stage or during festival performances are striving to keep the shastra’s no-gender reference alive through their dance. “When Natarajar is a man, why should men not dance? Why is it a taboo for us to dance?” asks Krishnan, a Bharatanatyam dancer of the Kalakshetra style, a disciple of CV Chandrasekhar.
Dealing with stereotypes
The rise of patriarchal systems rewrote the role of men and women, outlining their conduct and pursuit of arts in society. Women now wore ghungroos while their male counterparts faded into oblivion. Social stigma robbed them of their art. But the few who continue to blur the gender lines are fighting for acceptability and recognition. Kuchipudi dancer Madhavpeddi Murthy, who chooses to feign ignorance to barbs and caustic remarks, says, “I am glad to be an artiste. It is a gift to be an artiste and that is the ultimate for me. I have been dealing with this right from the time I was in school. My classmates used to tell me I was doing what women do. But I have succeeded because I ignored what was said,” he says, recalling moments when his father Madhavpeddi Satyam, a renowned music composer asked him to focus on art. “He told me that art doesn’t come to everyone. And that I was lucky to be an artiste.”
Murthy practices the art form that was once performed only by men. It is believed that women started performing Kuchipudi only after Padma Bhushan awardee Vempati Chinna Satyam started teaching the dance form to them. Traditionally, in Kuchipudi, village boys from ten families in the Kuchipudi village in Andhra Pradesh learned the art form. Girls were restricted to the role of being temple dancers. But, the winds of change came when Vempati arrived in Chennai in the 1960s. He set up the Kuchipudi Art Academy and welcomed girls as his shishyas.
Pay, passion, competition
Murthy’s passion for Kuchipudi is evident. He left his cushy corporate job at the Vayudoot Airline to become a full-time professional Kuchipudi dancer in 2011 when Vayudoot merged with Air India. “Sportspersons have an edge over dancers as they can be posted anywhere but dancers cannot afford to be posted anywhere in the country. As an artiste, I had to be in Chennai. This is where an artiste has to be. So, I quit my job and started focussing on dance. It became my bread and butter,” he says.
Poor economic gains, lack of support and funding — the journey has never been easy. “It is difficult for men to survive. Dance is a competitive field and men have to fight for a slot compared to women. But the pay is usually the same across sabhas. In fact, the community feels that most sabhas in Chennai do not pay enough for artistes to even survive. They need to rely on teaching to have a steady income. Men are required majorly for dance-dramas where male characters have to be portrayed. But, we cannot sustain in this manner. We need more corporate and government funding,” elaborates Murthy.
Echoing Murthy’s thoughts is Anirrudha Knight, the first male dancer in the Balasaraswati Bani and the grandson of the legendary dancer Balasaraswati. “It is difficult for male dancers to sustain and survive as talent is usually overshadowed by gender. Every time a man gets on stage, he has to first fight stereotypes, start from scratch and convince the audience that a man can dance.”
Grace beyond gender
The common perception is that male dancers tend to exaggerate the bhava on stage while depicting female characters or portraying various nayika avasthas (female moods). But, male dancers assert that epitomising grace is a job they are better at than women, who do not always get under the skin of the character. The trick, Murthy says, is to first understand the lyrics, the mood and then dance. He reminds us of how in the bygone days, men only played the role of Satyabhama in Bhamakalapam — the magnum opus in the Kuchipudi repertoire. “This is the method I use to teach my students — both male and female. I give them the context of the piece and the meaning behind the episode,” he says.
But Knight finds the debate over expressions as a matter of subjective perception and training. “It all depends on the training. If the dancer understands the concept of Natya Dharmi (a systematised form of dance) and differentiates it from Loka Dharmi (folk), it is possible to get the desired expression. Loka Dharmi will mean the person would show some mundane expression,” he says.
The prevalent reverse glass ceiling in Kuchipudi offers a seemingly fertile ground for gender barrier. With women deemed as the natural fit for Kuchipudi, men have grimly taken to other allied roles — of being a guru, or nattuvanars. “We have to support our families, so teaching and taking up allied professions like being a nattuvannar is how we make ends meet,” shares Krishnan. The other only not-so-sustainable alternative is occasional lecture demonstrations and workshops, and to play roles in dance-dramas with other artistes when they need men to don male characters. Murthy does duet performances extensively with legendary actress and danseuse Hema Malini. She has also been a student of Vempati.Krishnan, Murthy and Knight are striving to keep up with the changing art and audiences. In a dance form that is now dominated by women — is there place for men to reenter and chip away at the gender barriers? Is it time for art and cultural rhetoric to merge?