DECEMBER 1993, Madras. Two leading dance critics storm out of Rajesh Pisharoti's Mohiniattam performance protesting against a man performing a quintessential feminine form. Kerala Youth Festival Kochi. The best dancer award is won by man—K.P. Rajan. Critics rave about performance of the Mohiniattam.
Gender prejudice, social derision, innuendo, economic insecurity, sponsors and critics mired in notions of male-female role-plays repertoires: these have been the constants of the male dancer's existence. Yet, men are dancing today than ever Confident, assertive, claiming centrestage, they are rejecting the roles of guru, choreographer and appendage to female performer traditionally ascribed to them.
Their predecessors from the '40s, barring a few honourable exceptions, danced because they were born into the tradition or because they had no other option. These urbane young men, on the contrary, have made a conscious, hard choice in going in for a decidedly uncertain profession Bharatanatyam dancer Navtej Singh Johar could have become the painter he's trained to be or joined the family export business. Bharatanatyam dancers Satyajit Dhananjayan and Rohinton Cama, modern dancers Astad Deboo and Shiamak Davar could have become engineers or executives. Yet, they chose to dance.
The risk quotient remaining unchanged, what makes dance a viable proposition for men today? In Madras, Rukmini Devi'sKalakshetra has registered a steep increase in male students: from seven a decade ago to a respectable 19 today. The Dhananjayans have 12 full-time male dancers in their company. Madras-based Sridhar's Pranav Kala Kriti company has five full-time male dancers. Dance critic Ashish Khokhar, 36, is considering starting his own troupe and making his professional debut as a dancer-choreographer.
In Bombay, Davar has to turn away males wanting to study jazz ballet at his dance school. Padma Subramaniam's best Bharata Nrittam student is a male, Sreekant. Waiting to debut on the national scene are academically bright teenagers, Keertik Nair of Ahme-dabad and Delhi-based Ladda Guruden Singh, both Bharatanatyam dancers. Keertik has a performing arts background: his parents are trained Kathakali and Bharat-anatyam dancers. But Guruden's parents come from stolid backgrounds: his mother is a university reader, his father a bank official. Indication enough of the across-the-board change in attitude towards male dancers. Guruden's parents are unperturbed about their son's future: "Where there is sadhana (dedication), success follows."
There is a quiet statement in the fact that Bharat Bhavan devoted a seminar, Purush, to the male dancer in 1994. The Arangham Trust, Madras, followed suit this August with a Purush festival. And the Madras Krishna Gana Sabha is organising a seminar on the subject later this year. Obviously, a space both psychological and physical is clearing for the male dancer.
What accounts for this new-found commitment of male performers and the renewed audience interest? Dance critic V.A.K. Ranga Rao of Madras feels film actor Kamalahasan's virile exposition of Bharatanatyam in films gave a major fillip to male interest in dance. "Within six months of Sagara Sangamam's release in the mid-'80s, dance schools in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu registered a 600-per cent increase in enrolments.''
Sarada Hoffman, senior teacher, Kalakshetra, ascribes it to the lure of glamour: "Boys find the prospect of media exposure and foreign travel seductive.'' The larger issue, though, pertains to the subtle shift in perspective the sexes have on themselves and on eachother. Kapil Sharma, 23, Bharatanatyam student at Kalakshetra, makes an astute observation: "Maybe men are changing.''
A view dance critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh endorses: "Art progresses along cognitive lines. More men are dancing because we are clearing our minds of cobwebs of gender and role-plays.'' Theatre person Veena-panni Chawla relates the phenomenon to the altered aesthetics of modern art. "It's about economy of line. Look at the minimalists, the austere lines of the new Hooghly bridge. Soft rounded curves had to do with the sensibility of another age.''
Khokhar relates the male's lack of inhibition about expressing himself through his body to fashion trends. "The male body is being celebrated—undraped, aestheticised, flaunted, iconised—as never before.'' There is a re-emergence of an appreciative eye for the male form and the visibility that the male dancer is enjoying today is a part of it.
But what price visibility? Dance remains an economically insecure profession. However, even here things are changing. Mainly because dancers are putting their skills to multiple related usage. Vitthal, a Delhi-based Kuchipudi dancer, pursues an active performance career in India and abroad besides running four dance schools in Delhi. "I make more than Rs 20,000 a month, less expenses," he reveals. "People say I am lucky. I say my art is lucky."
Davar earns Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh choreographing fashion shows. This apart from money made from television appearances and revenues generated from his school. An Astad Deboo performance costs a lakh; he averages four performances a year in India, performances abroad are extra.
Johar puts his skills to diverse use: teaching and lecturing at the Natya Ballet Centre, National School of Drama and National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, apart from performing in India and abroad. He brings home the salary of a mid-level executive.
Other dancers pragmatically pursue twin careers. Bangalore-based Sreedhar is an agricultural scientist, Baroda-based Barboza is a Jesuit priest, Rajesh Pisharoti from Madras is studying for a doctorate in genetics and Bombay-based Vijay Krishna moonlights as a journalist. Pisharoti sees no dichotomy in studying both sancharis and science. "Genetics is my profession. Dance is my passion. Why should one not pay for the other?''
Johar sums up the economics of the dance scene: "It is a daunting profession because of the multiple real and imagined uncertainties inscribed in it. But once you crack it, you realise there are avenues for income generation. It can even be lucrative.''
But in the new-found visibility and increased acceptance of the male dancer, it is the sponsor who remains tentative about investing in a new commercially untested product; unwilling to risk the minimum Rs 30,000 it costs to organise a solo performance. "Sponsors,'' says Shanta Serbjeet Singh, "still prefer bosoms to beards.''
Performers are philosophical about the situation. "It's only relatively easier for a female dancer,'' says Vitthal. "Sponsorships are hard to come by on either side of the divide. When were there ever enough funds for the performing arts?'' The odds remain. Yet there's a set-jawed determination, a new-found confidence in oneself and one's constituency, and a willingness to take what comes on the chin.
Kalakshetra students Sheejith Kumar, 23, Neewin Harshal, 24, and a teacher-performer like P.T. Narendran, 28, are confident they can survive on their art. Narendran displays remarkable confidence:I have skills employable anywhere in the world. They may pay me less or more but what is to stop me from changing location to earn more?''
Arjun Mishra, a Kathak artiste from Lucknow, puts it succinctly: "If you have Saraswati, Lakshmi too will follow.'' Like most artistes, he emphasises the importance of the pursuit of the higher goal: "Others have shares, we have shishyas. That's capital enough for us.''