Breaking barriers

After productions on gender fluidity, Jesus Christ and the Sabarimala issue, Bharatanatyam  dancer Mithun Shyam looks at addressing colourism and racial stereotypes in his upcoming work

Published: 04th December 2019 06:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th December 2019 06:47 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

BENGALURU: It’s no secret that fair is considered lovely in India. But one Bengaluru-based man is determined to  challenge this notion through the medium he knows best: Dance. Meet Mithun Shyam, a Bharatanatyam teacher and choreographer whose upcoming dance production, Shyama Sundari, aims to break racial stereotypes through art.

Mithun Shyam

“It’s a fact that girls are looked down upon for having a darker skin tone or receive fewer opportunities than their fair-skinned counterparts,” says the 37-year-old dancer. In line with his past performances – which also focused on social issues like gender fluidity and why women of menstruating age are not allowed at the Sabarimala temple – his new one too poses an important question: Are these performers any less because of their colour?

The production will have 15 female dancers in the age group of 10-30 years, all with various skin tones, performing six pieces over 90 minutes. Most of them have experienced “heartbreaking” instances of either having personally faced or seen somebody else face bias due to their skin colour. “People in the audience always appreciate my talent when they see me perform. But once the makeup comes off, they wonder and ask if I was the same person they saw on stage,” says 11-year-old Rishika Dasharath.And though not always blatant, the bias still exists, adds Huvishka Reddy, another dancer from the team.

“Sometimes in school shows, even if you are the better dancer, it’s the girl with the lighter skin colour who gets the main role or gets to be in front,” explains the 16-year-old.But this is where Reddy and her fellow performers hope to make a change with their upcoming production. One of the varnams they will perform focuses on Krishna, his skin colour and how his gopikas related to him. Explains Shyam, “Indian gods and goddesses, like Krishna, Kali or Ram, were projected as dark-toned beings. But what was once celebrated is now thought of as being a trait of the inferior.”  

The dancers have been rehearsing for a month now and have bonded well. And Shyam, who is a firm believer of art transcending religion, language and other such factors, has seen firsthand how this production has helped his students. “They’re so proud and thrilled to be a part of this,” he says. “Their love for dance only intensified once they were acknowledged for their talent, sans any bias.”

Tales from a trailblazing journey
This isn’t the first time Mithun Shyam is using an expressive medium to address issues he feels strongly about. While Shayam Sundari focuses on skin colour, his next production will address mental health issues like depression and schizophrenia.  In the past too, Shyam has been known to weave social issues into his dance performances, particularly the one that looked at the Sabarimala controversy. “I saw that the narrative around the issue was not correct, and wanted people to know the actual story behind why the temple disallowed entry of women of menstruating age. I didn’t impose any views, I just wanted them to know the real reason,” he explains. Another performance saw a troupe of all-male Bharatanatyam dancers, in which they played the female roles themselves.In a similar pursuit of breaking barriers, Shyam also used classical dance to recount Jesus Christ’s story, from his birth to crucifixion. “It need  not always be about Ganesh, Shiva or Krishna. Dance can really break barriers,” he says.

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