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Empowerment through Bharatanatyam
- Tejsree Beharee

August 22, 2020

Throughout the world, there are male dancers who excel in fields such as modern dance like hip hop and popping and locking.We are all accustomed to watching talent dance shows where the male dancers, in all their muscular cast present those modern dance styles, under the enthralled gaze and cheers of the audience as well as the jury members. But what about the place of Indian classical dance in empowering men? Traditionally, most performers of Bharatanatyam are female; not to say that there are no male Bharatanatyam masters around - far from it. This begs the question: "Can Bharatanatyam be a means to empower men?"

'Empowerment' is a word widely used, but often hard to define. It seems like every individual or party has defined the word by taking inspiration from their personal experiences. To shed light on the matter, the Division for Social Policy and Development (DPSD) of UNDESA (United Nations) created an online survey to ask people all around the world about the definition of empowerment (Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Social Policy and Development, 2012). Sandra Lincoln, a Province Leadership Team Member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, quotes: "Empowerment is to give a person the confidence and education and where-with-all to be all that they can be." Kenneth Schadt, a History and Literature tutor defines the word as, "Power to achieve political, social, and economic equality...", and Donal Horowitz from the Federation of Jewish Men's clubs explains that, "Empowerment means that people, individuals have a voice in making decisions for themselves and for society." To summarize, it can be said that empowerment is the ability that enables an individual or a community to exercise control and power to attain a certain target, and in the process, they are helping themselves and other people (Adams, 2008).

If we go through the news and other informative channels, the word 'empowerment' is often used in connection with women. It is a 'weapon word' to defend women on many frontiers: the right in decision-making, sexual harassment, politics, domestic violence, amongst others. The author's first acquaintance with the word was during her formative years, on International Women's Day celebrations, where radio channels were debating about 'Women Empowerment'. In fact, Luttrell et al. (2009) state that the term 'empowerment' was first regularly used in women's movement. They further explain that in the mid- 1980s, the 'empowerment of women' was a fundamental part in propelling the inclusion of women in decision performances and development purposes.

However, the world comprises of both genders. While many are working on empowering our girls and women, why should it be different for our boys and men? Both men and women are needed in their complementary nature to contribute to the world (Correia, 2017). According to Voice Male Magazine, there is the paradigm that men are generally strong and independent. There is a pressure that it is a 'quality' that is inborn in the male gender; hence they need no formation as women do (Correia, 2017).

But, have you ever pondered about the black-skinned man who is associated with discrimination (Monk, 2015), the men with tattoos, or ripped jeans who are stigmatized as being uncivilized (Mehta, 2018) and the homosexuals who suffer from social isolation (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016)? How do they feel in this society? Empowered? Quite unlikely.

Out of the various ways to empower men, one strategy is to use the Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam is deeply rooted in ancient Indian scriptures. As per Hindu mythologies, this dance is performed by Lord Shiva (Cartwright, 2015), Lord Krishna (Suresh, 2019), and even Lord Vishnu as Mohini - his female form (itimes user, 2014). Moving from mythology to contemporary, we have male ambassadors of Bharatanatyam like Professor C.V. Chandrashekar, V.P. Dhananjayan, Praveen Kumar, Christopher Guruswamy, amongst many who are leaving no stone unturned to carry the beauty of this art across the world (Nair, 2017). According to The Times of India, Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Bharatanatyam pioneer, has always campaigned for male dancers to train and keep their vigorous and masculine form in their dance (Pandey, 2017). Moreover, Kumar, a young and dynamic dancer explains that when performing Bharatanatyam, he sticks to the male roles. "There has to be space in dance for how men emote too..." he stated. "I mean men pine too, but they do it differently. Men wait for their lovers too, but again very differently."

Indian mythologies overflow with stories portraying the valor of Indian gods. And these stories are often narrated to dance students and put in a dance form.
"Yashomati maiya se bole Nandalala, Radha kyun gori? Main kyun kala?"
(Famous Indian devotional song on Lord Krishna)

In this song, Lord Krishna asks his mother Yashoda: why is he dark-skinned while his lover, Radha, is so fair. The mother then explains that Krishna has been enchanted by Radha's dark eyes, which philosophically means that Krishna is the consciousness (black) while Radha is the material existence (white). Just like all colors when mixed create black, in the same way, Radha is the light that reveals consciousness, is that solid, unchanging, and beautiful color (Vijayasri, 2009). In many stories of Lord Krishna, he is described as a handsome and flirty young man (Starr, 2015). In no way is his dark skin an obstacle to him. His beauty lies in his complexion as well as in his demeanor. He is loved by everyone as a lover, a son, and a protector. He dances the Kaliya Mardana (Nivedita and Coomaraswamy, 2001) on the hundred-headed serpent, to push the latter away from the village's cattle, saving the villagers' income. The dark lord, not Voldemort from Harry Potter, but the handsome one from Hindu mythologies, can ingrain in our youngsters how beautiful it is to have a dark complexion, and how to draw power from it.

According to the Shiva Puranas (an ancient text), Daksha, Sati's father describes Lord Shiva as uncivilized and uncouth due to his unruly appearance (Pattanaik, 2016). Similarly, many men who have adopted the rowdy looking fashion today, like ripped jeans, or tattooed body are seen as deviants of the society, and they face the prejudiced eyes of their surroundings (Mehta, 2018). In the mythological story, the Ananda Tandava, Lord Shiva dances to destroy the arrogance of sages, who send a tiger, a snake, and a dwarf demon to kill him (Pattanaik, 2006). Macho in character and notwithstanding wrong in the society, he metaphorically 'kills' arrogance. That same masculine figure, takes in the ardhanareeswara form, where he is half man and half woman. This phenomenon represents the equality of men and women in the society, yet complementary in nature (Viswanathan, n.d.). Lord Shiva is the protector and the equal partner who sometimes steps back to let his wife take over. Imagine our boys learning how to be strong and yet charming, to be responsible and yet free to choose their fashion, to be both alphas and secured of their partner's success.

Mohini, the Goddess of Enchantment, is the female form of Lord Vishnu. She appears in various mythological stories to distract demons from creating havoc. One of the famous stories is the Amrita Manthana, where she lures the demons away from getting the nectar of immortality. Mohini and Shiva share a love relationship narrated in various ways in different stories. In the Kanda Puranas, Lord Shiva falls in love with Mohini, and the result of their love gave birth to a dark boy with red locks named Hariharaputra (Sivaraman, 2006). In the Agni Puranas, Lord Shiva is enchanted by Mohini and they gave birth to Lord Hanuman (Pattanaik, 2006). This relationship figuratively brings forward a parallel to LGBT. Whether it is a homosexual or a heterosexual, both can feel love and create a family, as the soul is the same, which is what makes us human (Saahil, 2020). These stories carry delicate messages, yet a societal truth, which can be explained to our boys, at a maturing age, to understand and respect this veracity.

Anukeertanam (imitation) is an important and documented aspect of Bharatanatyam (Ramaswamy. 2012), and the link between imitation and learning has been at the core of the work of several authors such as Kymissis and Poulson (1990), Meltzoff and Decety (2003) and Hurkey and Charter (2005).Thus, in a Bharatanatyam performance, when a man acts as Lord Shiva - all powerful, or Lord Krishna- the handsome one, or even Lord Vishnu- the courageous, he has to imitate these characters and empathize with them. He must become these characters, and in the process, he forges his mind, emotions, and body to imbibe these stories and take decisions that will help himself and other people he connects with. This eventually sets the male learner on the path of empowerment. Bharatanatyam offers vigorous manly movements as well as impacting male stories that help the male gender to reflect and have compassion. This is especially true for teenage boys who, at this age, are still building their characters (Freeks, 2015). Subsequently, inculcating Bharatanatyam in the education of young men can make a difference, even if it is only a few as one dot of a person can cause a wave of difference in a village, state, or country.

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- STARR, R. (2015) You are Woman, You are Divine: The Modern Woman's Journey Back to the Goddess. Los Angeles: SCB Distributors.

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Tejsree Beharee is a dance educator based in Mauritius. She is presently in her second-year completing a Masters degree in Bharatanatyam from the University of Madras.

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