Meet the Hyderabad dancer who is unboxing gender, one step at a time
It’s not every day you see a Kuchipudi performance where the dancer switches between male and female alter-egos using a mask. But that’s not even the most unusual thing about Patruni Sastry’s dance drama, Unboxing Gender.
What’s really interesting is that as the music picks up, you start to forget the differences and see his chosen faces as one fluid continuum. That is kind of the point. For five months, Sastry has been using the classical dance format to talk about gender identity, queerness, alternate sexuality and ideas of consent, to audiences that range from college students to young dance enthusiasts and members of the LGBTQ community.
The 26-year-old HR analyst from Hyderabad began studying classical dance at five, crafted and performed a dance drama about ragging in college, six years ago, and says he realised then that he could use his passion for dance to express feelings of anger, sadness and confusion that he couldn’t as precisely put into words.
“There is a taboo attached to the word ‘sex’. Overall too, there’s a general lack of gender awareness and sexual understanding in this country,” Sastry says. “I want to use my dance to fill that gap.”
It helps, he adds, that he can combine classical dance with ancient Hindu mythology to erase some of the sense of strangeness that surrounds ideas of alternate sexuality, reminding audiences that these concepts did have representation in ancient India.
Sastry was volunteering with the sexuality rights NGO Mobbera Foundation when he started using elements of Bharatanatyam, Kuchupudi and Odissi to spread awareness and sensitisation. His unusual approach got him an invitation to deliver a TEDx talk, where he spoke about dance as a learning tool. This caught the eye of the department of humanities and sciences at the Vignana Bharathi Institute of Technology (VBIT), which invited him to perform during their two-week orientation in July.
A typical Sastry performance involves traditional attire with a twist — where male dancers tend to go topless, he usually wears a blouse. He also uses scarves, white masks to represent varied identities, and soft, instrumental music.
He composes all his dance dramas himself. In Narcissus, The Auto-Sexual, which Sastry performed at a pride event in June, the moves and props talk about loving yourself. PAI (for Pan-sexual, Asexual and Inter-sexual) explores the fluid nature of identity. He uses mudras to represent consensual intimacy, as opposed to forced or coerced physical contact. This, he says, is for the younger audiences, especially in the light of the Me Too movement.
“Patruni’s TEDx was an impactful session. We felt it was the right time to include him in our orientation sessions,” says D Krishna Mohan Sharma, associate professor of English at VBIT. At the college, Patruni discussed and demonstrated how dance could be used as a medium for sex education.
“He also used his dance and the platform to discuss how art and science are not mutually exclusive, and actually complement each other. It was educational for all of us, especially in terms of creativity in visualisation,” Sharma says.
Some of the feedback has been less glowing. Sastry says he’s dealing with a backlash from traditionalists over his reframing of classical dance, but adds that he’s not exiting the stage.
“I want to eventually teach dance as a medium of inclusion. I was inspired by the dancer Chitra Visweswaran, who uses Bharatanatyam to talk about women’s empowerment,” he says. “Like her, I want my dance to be my voice.”