In a dance tradition mostly dominated by the lovelorn nayika in throes of hopeless passion – alternately besotted, enthralled, passionate, rejected, nostalgic and vengeful – there really isn’t much place for men. But during this annual culture season in Chennai, it was the male Bharatanatyam dancer who made the most spectacular impact, reworking tired tropes and breathing subtlety, even humour, into choreographies.

You just had to walk into the premier dance festival at the Music Academy in Royapettah to see the gender game change in Bharatanatyam. Mumbai’s Vaibhav Arekar, with his memorably cerebral performance, was the most talked about artiste of the week. And, there was not a single dance lover left untouched by Bangalorean Praveen Kumar’s charmingly understated abhinaya.

This did not come out of the blue. Male Bharatanatyam dancers have been steadily chipping away at the reverse glass ceiling for years and, with a new generation of audiences looking for diverse experiences, they are finally getting the stage to themselves. A Lakshmanaswamy, Shreejith Krishna, Christopher Guruswamy, Zakir Hussain, N Srikanth and the indefatigable Parshwanath Upadhye are some names that pop up on dance schedules earlier cornered by women dancers.

It is not that male dancers are totally new to Bharatanatyam. Ironically enough, they have grimly monopolised the space of gurus and the nattuvanars (the all-important vocal percussionist). But dancing? Well that was left to the women, who it was argued were a natural fit for the sringaric package with their looks, the brilliance of the silken costumes and jewellery.

A man in a dance costume usually elicited a nervous titter. Kalakshetra dancers such as CV Chandrashekhar and VP Dhananjayan, and much later Navtej Johar, did break the mould, but it did not make for institutional changes. For sponsors and organisers, women dancers were always the safest bet.

Vaibhav Arekar
Vaibhav Arekar

In step with time

Over the last few years, however, a handful of male dancers have been hacking away at the gender barrier. It was a tough climb that they managed with steady hard work and innovative thinking. And the time is just right for change. Over the years, audience were getting weary of the predictability of it all – the cupid’s arrows piercing the heart, the sakhi in sympathetic mode, the nayika swooning with desire, the moon’s rays adding to her agony. If you watched often enough, the dance plays out in your head before it begins on stage.

That they didn’t go for the clichés worked for both Arekar and Praveeen. Arekar, for instance, brings to his dance a decade of theatre training under legendary director Chetan Datar. Not only did he get a rousing applause every time he came on stage (including when he appeared to announce the next choreography), he was also accosted by fans on the academy premises.

“Art is changing and so are the audiences,” he said. “Where is the point of my doing the same viraha, the same padam with the same codified body language? Datar encouraged me to bring an experiential voice into the dance, to look at the character beyond the lyrics. What is his or her back story? If she is carrying a flowers to the temple, what flowers are they, how heavy is the basket she carries, what time of the day is it? Is she weary because it is the end of the day or has she a spring in her step because it is dawn? Who is the Shiva or Krishna we are playing? We ask these questions of our characters in theatre, why not dance?”

Instead of letting the sakhi do the tried and tested job of running pretty errands between the separated lovers in his varnam, Arekar turned her into an intelligent counsel, he spun the nayika’s grief as meditative melancholy, not dramatic wretchedness. And bingo, the audiences got it.

Praveen Kumar
Praveen Kumar

Dancer, writer and choreographer Anita Ratnam says this growing recognition of male dancers was a change long in the making. Three years ago, Ratnam had hosted a festival named Purush in Chennai, featuring male dancers who were not staples on the dance circuit.

“Male dancers in India have been lone warriors, never a part of the ‘circle’, constantly questioned about their sexual identity,” Ratnam pointed out. “But audiences are now weary of the sameness of what is presented by the younger clones of the female superstars. Amidst all that cloying sringara, men dancers come across as more honest. They can’t hide behind superb costumes and make-up. Each one of them has to, and does, offer something new.”

So how do male dancers cope with a conventional repertoire that is almost entirely women-centric?

They could simply play effeminate or exaggeratedly feminine as women themselves do, they could stick to the few male roles in the repertoire or they could interpret female roles without being effeminate. Interestingly, all options have found takers. A dancer like N Srikanth, for instance, is fully comfortable with the stree vesham (female role), Lakshmanaswamy is an unabashed about sticking to the persona of the erotically charged nayika. Praveen Kumar and Arekar choose to differ.

A new insight

Kumar says he would rather keep a distance from the overwrought feminine bhakti package. He sticks to male roles as much as he can. “There has to be space in dance for how men emote too, right?” he said. “I mean men pine too, but they do it differently. Men wait for their lovers too, but again very differently. If I do the female caricature, I wouldn’t be true to myself.”

The forlorn lover at the rendezvous by the river is a thing of restraint in Kumar’s choreography. He runs his toes through the water, languidly chucks a couple of stones into it and waits, eyes not quite focusing.

Both Kumar and Arekar bring a rare quality into dance – humour. Kumar’s Krishna walks cockily to Radha’s home, quite confident that his flings will be forgiven. He straightens the tiara, flicks the peacock feather into place and gives his belt a hitch up – quite the natty man about town. Arekar’s take on Shiva forced to dress decent for a meeting with Vishnu tread the very fine line between humour and gravitas.

“I am not looking to go contemporary. Margam (classical repertoire) is my path,” Arekar said. “This is all the language I need but I have to be convinced about everything I do and offer the viewer a new insight.”