The writer of the story seen in his getup as a Odissi dancer
The writer of the story seen in his getup as a Odissi dancer

The tough truth of being a male dancer

There’s a reason why male professional dancers are rarely found on the stages of India. Navtej Johar, Akram Khan and Narthaki Natraj explain the scene
By Madhur Gupta
UPDATED ON JUN 13, 2021 08:31 AM IST

The life of a dancer is quite amusing when you come to think of it. More so, if you are a male dancer. Some instances and experiences leave you not only bemused and entertained but also wondering if ‘Sharmaji ka beta’ was right all along! That you should have chosen a less intriguing career. That you should have run after that coveted MBA degree from an Ivy League university. That you should have settled down with that iconic 9-5 corporate job and a big fat cheque at the end of each month.

But none of that would have offered even half as much fun as I have had trying to chase a career in a field dominated by women, being looked down on by a highly patriarchal society and encountering deeply ironical situations.

I once asked a fellow dancer, female of course, how come a certain large organisation whose core aim is to spread arts and culture amongst the youth never invites young male dancers to perform for their concerts. In response, she revealed, “Mr Ignorant (a high ranking official of that organisation) feels that kids won’t understand art if a man dances, so they prefer female dancers.”

I nearly choked on my laughter. Imagine an organisation that claims to spread the awareness of arts amongst young Indians having such a skewed concept of who an artist can be! Men don’t dance, was the message I received. You can imagine the satire of it all!

Fast-forwarding a few years, I came across an interview with a dancer, a young man, on how difficult it was for him to learn dance. As I read on, his story turned from being poignant to terrorising! It was almost a weapon to gain sympathy. The only takeaway was: “Look, I am a man struggling to find my gender identity in this world, hence adore me.” A clear case of playing the victim card.

Navtej Johar, who started dancing at age 21, was a bearded Sikh boy and had no idea he stuck out
Navtej Johar, who started dancing at age 21, was a bearded Sikh boy and had no idea he stuck out

Simply a dancer

Obviously, Mr Ignorant and Mr Victim play into each other’s vicious games. But as veteran Bharatanatyam exponent Navtej Johar exclaims, “Both are missing the boat! Art does not discriminate between man, woman, straight, gay, tall, short, black, or white. Imagination does not have a gender. Period!”

Labels have no place in the arts, Navtej says. “Art happens through us irrespective of our gender. We are not conscious ‘art-makers’; we just can’t help but be available when the imagination calls. At that point, identities do not matter. These categorisations are secondary and must remain so.”

Navtej Johar is regarded as something of a pioneer. He was one of the first Sikhs or even north Indians to learn a south Indian classical dance at Kalakshetra. Later, he was lauded with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his contribution to the arts and then he went on to fight and win the battle to revoke Section 377 of the IPC, which resulted in a historic decision for LGBT rights in India.

But in his own words, “I was 21, a bearded Sikh boy, when I began dancing and I had no clue that I stuck out. I never even registered this distinction in my student life or on the professional stage. Of course, there were a handful of prejudiced characters I came across now and then, but to me the facts that I am male and a dancer were never at odds. I am simply a dancer impelled to move in extraordinary ways.”

Strength to strength

Award-winning British-Bangladeshi dancer-choreographer Akram Khan unfortunately had no option but to face gender and sexuality issues head on when he started dancing.

“I was running away all the time from the violence I faced,” he says. “The violence in the West is not just verbal, it is physical.”

British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan faced bullying, but ended up choreographing the 2012 London Olympics; Bharatanatyam practitioner Narthaki Nataraj was the first transgender person to be awarded the Padma Shri
British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan faced bullying, but ended up choreographing the 2012 London Olympics; Bharatanatyam practitioner Narthaki Nataraj was the first transgender person to be awarded the Padma Shri

Akram is now a Member of the Order of the British Empire. He choreographed the 2012 London Olympics. He featured in a Netflix series. But, as a boy he was oppressed because he danced.

“The more I was bullied, the more I was convinced that dance was the path for me,” he says. “But let me tell you an irony. On the one hand, my family and community were pulling me down. But on the other hand, once I became a professional, the contemporary dance community embraced me. Gender was not an issue. If anything, I was championed because I was a male dancer – a minority. The fact that I was a minority became my strength.”

In spite of all the accolades, his family still has not much idea of what he does, says Akram. Recently, at the premiere of a show he had choreographed, his aunt came up to him and asked with concern, “But Akram, what do you do as a full-time professional?”

Art leads to god

For veteran Bharatanatyam practitioner Narthaki Nataraj, the gender issue was never some drawing-room conversation conducted by polite society. The label concern was very real and very harsh: she was thrown out of her home by her parents because she was not only a dancer, but transgender.

In 2019, Narthaki became the first transgender woman to be awarded the Padma Shri. Her journey to that point involved all sorts of abuse.

“In the early part of my life, before I was accepted as a female, I had to dress up as a male,” she remembers. “On stage, however, I always performed as a female. We faced abuse, economically, mentally, and, physically. But my friend Sakthi Bhaskar and I fought our way through. We kept going towards our single set goal of becoming successful dancers.”

Quick questions with the three dancers
Quick questions with the three dancers

For Narthaki, art cannot be gender-specific. Dance, especially, is beyond gender, language or race. It is the expression of our creative mind. “Art leads to beauty, beauty leads to the female energy and motherhood, ultimately it all leads to God. And God is neither male nor female,” explains Narthaki.

Go with the flow

The world of dance is a peculiar one. It is a realm where something called ‘reverse gender discrimination’ takes place every single day. Women who break subtle yet persistent gender-biased glass ceilings on a daily basis are my heroes. But in a world where we often talk about women’s rights, what about men who have to deal with oppression and derision?

Gender stereotypes are a thing of the past! It is an urgent need for us as a society to shed the rigid parameters of masculinity and femininity. When traditions that date back thousands of years were and are so gender fluid, why does the so-called modern society want to pigeonhole everything they set their eyes on?

Dance allows us the freedom to live in this elevated multi-dimensional space. We can be men, women, heroes, heroines, demons, gods, trees, rivers and whatever we’d like to be through this genre of art. I thank my stars that I didn’t become another ‘Sharmaji ka beta’.

Madhur Gupta is a leading Odissi dance exponent, an author and a columnist. He teaches Odissi at Sangeet Vidya Niketan, New Delhi. Follow @madhur_gupta04 on Instagram and Facebook

From HT Brunch, June 13, 2021

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