All male dancers are effeminate” is a cliché that has been heard for decades and despite many dancers proving it wrong it remains a stereotype that male dancers have to deal with at every stage in their careers.
Title: Master of Arts
A Life in Dance
Author: Tulsi Badrinath
Publisher: Hachette Indian
• Rs. 599 • 312 pp
Along with it is the “who wants to watch men dance?” prejudice.
Choosing a career in dance where the work is hugely demanding and the remuneration paltry is a difficult decision for anybody to make and it’s much more so for a male dancer.
Tulsi Badrinath writes about all that and more in her book Master of Arts.
The book begins with the story of the life of VP Dhananjayan, a celebrated Kathakali and Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher.
From his entry into Kalakshetra as an impoverished boy from a village in Kerala, it traces his extraordinary life.
Woven into this is the author’s own story as a senior disciple of the Dhananjayans and her experiences as a dancer. The third narrative thread is about the male dancers who have been disciples of the Dhananjayans.
The life of the male dancer is probably the strongest voice in the book with the other two supporting it.
From the success story of one, to the untimely death of another, and the struggle that a third still has ahead of him, what unifies these men are the cultural and social stereotypes they have had to face and the harsh realities of idealism versus commercialisation.Then, there is also the son who let his parents down by choosing to not dance and another boy who disappointed his by choosing to. The stories of these male dancers are not generic tales of woe or all bitter.
In fact, these are the lives of men from different backgrounds and with different struggles to face.
Apart from a common struggle against stereotyping and the lack of resources, another common unifier, and probably most important of all, is their passion for dance.
Some stories are quite inspirational while some left me, as a dancer, quite frustrated with the unfairness of the system that these men have to work within but constantly work against as well.
Another often-skirted-around topic of discussion in the dance world is the lack of transparency of the funding agencies and the selection processes followed by the organisations that host performances.
This book bravely talks of all that a dancer has to go through to get a performance slot, especially one of the coveted December season slots.
On a personal level, reading this book has been like taking a peek into the human side of a larger-than-life figure and to hear him talking about his failures as much as his successes.
Aarabi Veeraraghavan is a classical dancer who lives in Chennai.