Breaking Barriers

American-born Justin McCarthy, who has been performing bharathanatyam for the last 30 years, took the Chennai stage for the first time recently and spoke to CE about his journey so far...

Published: 04th November 2014 06:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th November 2014 06:04 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI : For Delhi-based Justin McCarthy, a renowned bharathanatyam exponent, who was in the city this weekend to take part in the 8th Nartaka Festival, his latest show has been special for many reasons. Completing 30 years in the performance arena, this show at the festival that marked the 100th year of renowned dance guru the late Pandanallur C Subbaraya Pillai, was also McCarthy’s first in the city.

City Express caught up with the American-born dancer after his hour-long performance on Saturday at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium in Mylapore. “It is a kind of a milestone in my performance career. Almost 30 years ago, I began my career in dance after my arangetram in the early 80s. But in all these years, I never came to Chennai for a show,” he says.

Now, an Indian citizen, McCarthy came to Madras almost 36 years ago to train under Pillai, after learning under the tutelage of two American bharathanatyam dancers Lesandre Ayrey and Mimi Janislauuski, who were disciples of the legendary Balasaraswati. After a year, he shifted to Delhi to train under Leela Samson. “Chennai weather and the food here was too much to handle and upon a friend’s suggestion I relocated to Delhi. I trained under Leela akka for almost 10 years,” he recalls.

McCarthy began taking lessons as a teacher while he was a student with Leela. He is now teaching at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. An accomplished pianist and harpsichordist, McCarthy also teaches the piano.

Bharathanatyam has been the fountainhead for his interests in Tamil and Sanskrit, and carnatic music. “I regret not learning Telugu and now my brain doesn’t seem to work like it used to before,” he says with a laugh. “When I was in Madras, learning Tamil was an entry point to the city. I learnt it from books and by brushing up my skills, reading bi-lingual posters on my way from Kottivakkam to my dance class in Kilpauk.” His love for Tamil took shape with his performance Madurai Kanchi from the Sangam era of literature. “I love the sound of Sangam poetry and this work is very secular,” he adds.

A male dancer on a women-dominated turf and an American pursuing an Indian classical art form — McCarthy’s journey in dance has been full of challenges. “My teachers were very supportive and the audiences extremely accepting. Various male organisers seemed to have a problem with a male dancer taking part in their shows. However, here we have  a woman like Prema (Prema Satish of Natyanjali Trust), who is completely supportive and has been conducting the Nartaka festival for male dancers for the past many years,” he says.

At his next show in London, McCarthy will be exploring Indian mythology and sexuality, in the backdrop of kalamkari images.  “It is the story of the enchantress Mohini and there will be six different javalis. I have an artiste in Kalahasti working on the kalamkari images that will be used as backdrop.”


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