CHENNAI : For long, the arts have been a prism of gendered stereotypes. The notion that dance is a woman’s pursuit has only fortified the rigid walls of masculinity. Fourteen years ago, when Christopher Gurusamy moved from Perth in Australia to Chennai, to learn Bharatanatyam, all eyes settled on him, discreetly watching a non-Indian male, dance with abundant feminine grace. Over the last decade, Christopher won many hearts, made Chennai his home. And acknowledging his passion, this classical Indian dance form found permanent residence in his heart.
Through his various performances, Christopher has discarded the stigma of what a man can and cannot do. In his liberating effort to do so, he recently stunned us with his modelling assignment for Panjavarnam Silk Sarees. As the rains soak Chennai outside, CE catches up with Christopher about this one-of-a-kind shoot while he rehearses for his next performance along with a Sri Lankan friend.
Sari — the gentle drape — is often considered to be a woman’s prerogative. Designers, brands and fashion weeks seem to perpetuate the notion that clothes dictate our gender. More than a decade back, it was designer Himanshu Verma who took to the sari as his sartorial preference, and was hailed as the Saree Man of India.
Verma is one of the many few who are campaigning for the sari as being gender-fluid. And what makes their voice unheard is the lack of support from brands. But, blurring the traditional boundaries, Panjavarnam Silks and Christopher departed from this socio-cultural norm through their shoot for their latest collection.
Christopher stirred a fashion awakening, decked up in traditional Indian jewellery and make-up under the weight of Kalamkari and Kanjivaram finery. “One of the drapes is from two dupattas — blue and yellow. I pinned two dupattas in the centre to make it look like a dhoti,” shares Christopher adding that the final look was decided during the shoot and not prior to that.
Dismissing that he had any qualms wearing the sari, the Australia-born tells us about his love for drapes of different fabrics, so much that, he breaks from the convention of stitching Bharatanatyam costumes from saris. Instead, he prefers to wear it like a dhoti for performances. Showing us some of the saris he has worn on-stage, he says, “Every sari or fabric should be treated differently in a way that the person wearing that adds value to the fabric.” He tells us how the shoot fell in place for the store owner, photographer Satyajit and him as they just worked around enhancing the styling of the sari rather than focusing on the model.
Vijaylakshmi Ganesh, the founder of Panjavarnam says, “We get a lot of enquiries from men about our saris and fabrics. They want to buy saris for women in their families, they want to experiment with fabrics. It cannot be linked with any particular gender. We went out looking for a male model for our fabrics and Christopher fit in very well. Christopher is known for his costumes that is why we wanted him and fortunately, it worked out.” The one-of-a-kind shoot which went on for around four hours required Christopher to change into five different kinds of saris.
To Christopher, the sari is a piece of art, an investment. His post on Facebook, after the shoot with Panjavarnam reads, “Do we, however, think of the sari as a piece of art? A highly skilled craftsman played a huge role in making the sari; selecting the silk colours and zari designs. It is through his skill of the warp and weft that we have these beautiful and exquisite weaves.”
He compares the sari with the
sruthi (tone) in a concert, explaining how it has to be in harmony with the ideas being presented. Just as the sruthi sets the tone for the piece, the fabric also sets the tone and the mood in general. For the shoot, Christopher wore two Pochampally fabrics with dupattas, one sari with a kurta on top among other styles.
A refreshing change
For both, Vijayalakshmi and Christopher, it was refreshing to see a man in a sari advertisement. Christopher says, “So far nobody has come up to me and said anything bad about the photos. I do not think I will stop doing anything I do just because of stereotypes.” The positive response from this shoot has goaded Vijayalakshmi and Panjavarnam Silks to speak to male dancers who will be performing at the Marghazi dance season this year, about more such shoots.
Chennai, known as the cultural capital of India, has attracted many cultural artistes from all over the globe. One such is Christopher Gurusamy, whose father is a Singaporean Tamil and mother from the UK.
Born and raised in Perth, Christopher learned Bharatanatyam from the guru who also taught his mother. Just like Abhimanyu from the Mahabharata who learned to enter the Chakravyuh while in his mother’s womb, Christopher too was initiated into Bharatanatyam when he was in his mother’s womb. “My mother was learning Bharatanatyam when she conceived me and resumed classes just after she delivered me.
I would be part of all the classes and that’s how I started dancing,” he says, adding that the ambience at home always drew him to the arts. His paternal aunt is a Bharatanatyam dancer in the Kalakshetra style and was his first guru. Now, he trains under city-based Bharatanatyam teacher-performer Bragha Bassel. In the era of fancy arangetrams, Christopher chose to keep it a low-key affair.
“I did my arangetram ten years back in Perth in a small temple. My mother insisted that I should not make a big deal of it. I had been to kutcheris even as a child but I never had the exposure to the Chennai sabha culture until I came to Kalakshetra. My seniors would take me to kutcheris, here.”His first performance in Chennai was in 2011, a year before he graduated from Kalakshetra at the Spirit of Youth Festival at the Music Academy.
Cradle for dreams
“I knew I had to dance and I was not getting enough of it in Perth.I knew dance was taught at Kalakshetra. My father and I spoke about it. He asked me to try being in Kalakshetra for four years and see if it works. That’s how it all happened,” says Christopher. “I don’t even remember Australia anymore. There are kutcheris here all the time. The city has also changed in the last fifteen years. It was a sleepy city which has now become a metropolitan city,” says Christopher.On International Men’s Day, we hope more of his ilk disprove the ancient stereotype that garments and gender are not seamless in our social fabric.