Monday, 20 May 2013

The Chronicler

Tulsi Badrinath draws from her own experiences in dance and writing to establish the difference between telling stories through dance and, telling stories of a dancer

I have been privileged to learn Bharatanatyam from V P Dhananjayan and Shanta for the past thirty-eight years. While the Dhananjayans broke away from Kalakshetra—a move that shocked everyone way back in the late 60’s—in the classroom at Bharata Kalanjali, there are fond and frequent references to ‘Athai’ or the renowned Rukmini Devi, ‘Periya’ or S Sarada and ‘Chinna’ or Sarada Hoffman. The years my Gurus spent at Kalakshetra, also coincided with the golden years of the institution, and their memories of the many stalwarts at Kalakshetra were transmitted to us as legend. However, much of what they told us lay outside books and the printed word.  

I wanted to capture that hidden world, away from the limelight and the proscenium stage, in my book Master of of Arts – A life in dance. What is the life of a dancer like? What are the struggles they face in establishing a career? What happens behind the magic line that demarcates backstage from the stage?

At the age of eight, when I began to learn dance, I did not know that I was actually learning to inhabit myths, epics, in a different way -- interpreting them through my body, living the truth of those stories, becoming Krishna or Radha while dancing. Nearly forty years later, I can see how that shaped my response to the world, both as a writer and a dancer.

Dancing, the body sweated, tired, cried for rest. Motivated by the mind, the fear of shaming oneself in front of an audience, it re-energised itself. It learnt to keep the pounding heart and aching muscles secret, for the image to be projected by the flying arms and feet circling a small stage was that of a virile Shiva dancing majestically across space, creating effortlessly the universe, keeping in whirling motion the sun, the moon, the stars.

But as soon as the music ended and the dancer retired off-stage, what had been very real and apparent was now non-existent, vanished. So, when Shiva exited into the wings and the dancer was free to relax, no one backstage mistook for Shiva that only too human dancer doubled over, gasping for breath. I soon realized that each dancer had his or her own story, a narrative in which there was an enduring love for the art despite the most discouraging realities of a career in the performing arts.

Dhananjayan with Sanjukta Panigrahi
Over the years, many young men came to learn at BK, inspired both by Kamal Haasan and Dhananjayan. I was always curious about what possessed these ‘boys’ to become dancers, given that it was such an uncertain profession, one where there was no guarantee of fame nor income. Indeed, many of these male dancers came from lower-income backgrounds; unlike the large majority of female dancers, male dancers were often not in any position to pay fees, leave alone fund their performances.

I decided to write about them, focussing on my guru Dhananjayan’s life, which has spanned some six decades in the world of Indian classical dance. I wanted to write about the dilemmas they face, given that the core content of Bharatanatyam is linked with the songs performed by the devadasis, exploring a woman-centric universe of longing, desire, and devotion. I wished to describe the sheer joy of learning and performing Bharatanatyam, something that I had experienced first-hand.

What is the difference between telling stories through dance, and telling the story of a dancer? Well, in the first, the general shape of the story is fixed and the artiste embellishes details with her own imagination. When it came to real life, I had to be patient, to earn the confidence of the person narrating his journey in dance. Being a dancer helped. I could both ask the right questions and understand the importance of crucial details mentioned quite casually in the course of their narrative.  

When 14 year-old Dhananjayan, penniless and unproven, boarded a train at Payyanur for Madras in 1953, he did not know that he was embarking on an epic journey. His school-teacher father, relieved at having one less mouth to feed, had borrowed money for a half-ticket to send his son to Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra. There, playing the hero Rama, Dhananjayan was to discover in himself a masculine but sensitive dancer, fall madly in love with Shanta, taste success, and also notoriety when he quit Kalakshetra.

When mediocre dancer Ravi suddenly became wildly successful as a dance teacher, it unleashed a trail of jealousy and greed that led to his murder. Shafeekudeen never thought his being Muslim ought to interfere with his performing the roles of myriad Hindu gods but he is unwelcome in many temple-shows. Handsome Rajesh had every quality needed by a dancer, including that elusive quality of bhava or emotive feeling, but Time had other plans. At the very peak of his youth, the day after the best performance of his life, he drowned in a lake far away from home.

Equally handsome Satyajit was groomed from age six to inherit his parents’ legacy of dance but he shelved his god-given talents to become a photographer— why? Navtej Singh Johar, from a traditional Sikh family, had to fight many prejudices before he could follow his heart and learn to dance. L. Narendra Kumar walked 14 kms every morning from Villivakkam to BK and 14 kilometres back, after a full day of dance-practise, because he could not afford the bus fare. Charles Ma had to go through many disheartening experiences before he found the right guru. Talented Anand Satchidanandan is at the crossroads, trying to decide between a career in dance or the corporate world. Can he have the best of both worlds, he wonders.

During the course of writing Master of Arts—A Life in Dance, I discovered other issues that came to the fore. To name just a few— the fear of being perceived as gay; the distaste for men who do not ‘dance like a man’; the rise of the ‘contract’ or ‘freelance’ male dancer; the wish for a new set of songs that explored the reality of male desire; and disappointment with the way sabhas, and other patrons, operate. 

In narrating their stories, as also mine, I hope to usher the reader backstage, taking him or her close to the bejewelled male dancer in silken costume and maroon lipstick, as he waits in the wings ready to dance as Shiva.

The writer is a classical dancer, writer and author

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