Fourth Nartaka Dance Festival
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

October 28, 2010

It was Jayalakshmi Sadagopan's mission in life to encourage artistic development of young dancers by providing a platform through various events to showcase their talents, so she established Natyanajli Trust in 1980, and worked towards that aim. After her passing away, her daughter Prema Satish, a disciple of Chokkalingam Pillai and Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai, carries on her mother's work. Her initiative is the Nartaka Dance Festival started in 2007 to give performance opportunity exclusively to male dancers from India and abroad, who have made dance their profession.

Now in its fourth year, the festival titled Male Matters, took place in Chennai from October 21 to 24 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Ashish Mohan Khokar, Ranvir Shah, Ramli Ibrahim and Gowri Ramnarayan started the festival by each speaking briefly about the plight of male dancers in today's scenario. "Males have been at the helm of most major dance forms of India, except for Mohiniattam. It is sad that now hardly a dozen male proponents of a dance form have distinguished themselves, except for Odissi. There are many male dancers in Orissa, because of the Gotipua tradition, but the male dancers in Tamilnadu are more into group work or have turned teachers for lack of solo performance opportunities. The male body is as important as the female form, but the essence of dance is beyond aaharya. Increasingly, over the last 40 years, the number of male dancers has been decreasing steadily which is why festivals such as this are very important," said Ashish Khokar, who in his 2010 annual issue of Attendance, gave prominence to the male dancers of Karnataka.

Ramli Ibrahim was next to speak. Male matters have been a topic of discussion for the past 2 years now. As the supreme male dancer, Sivaraja Nataraja is celebrated as the metaphor of the art of creation itself. Through his raas dance, Krishna, the ardent pastoral lover of all times, takes us into the realm of unconditional love. These are some of the mythic incidents where the male form becomes the personification of the universal and timeless concepts of all times. Over the ages, the fate of male dancers, like dance itself, has experienced many ups and downs. In Indian classical dance, there are generally more male teachers than dancers as they have lost opportunities to dance and shine unlike their female counterparts. Even with Indian dance being so popular worldwide, male dancers exist in fringe situations and their numbers are dwindling in sharp contrast to their female counterparts.

In most parts of the world, classical styles like Bharatanatyam and Odissi generally project an image which is exotic and pretty. There is a gender biased notion where female dancers usually fare better. Among the performing arts professions, dance is still the least financially secure one. Even if the male child possesses talent, parents do not encourage because of the idea that dancing would make them sissies. This misconception still persists. In spite of the proliferation of performing art institutions, there has not been significant strategy (in film or in curriculum) to counter this misconception in which an alternative image to change the mind set can be generated. In the last few years, the dance world has not been able to project a male dancer or choreographer of major international standing a phenomenal 'star' who can stir the imagination and interest in the younger generation to take up dance.

Gowri Ramnarayan has been a student of Kalakshetra and as a critic for The Hindu, she conducted many interviews in 2009 to give a voice to male dancers who have turned teachers and are carrying on their work with dedication, like unsung heroes. She drew upon these experiences in her speech. "Having been a student of Kalakshetra, I have always had a bias for male dancers. They were to me, the epitome of what a dancer should be they had power, charisma and talent. I felt the female dancers could not hold a candle to them. That could be because I saw them as part of a dance composition and not as solo performers. During a recent visit to Delhi, I was told that if the dancer is male, he could not make it as performer but could anyway become a teacher if he wants. This is such a sorry state of affairs since this comment was made by a member of a leading cultural organization."

Change has to come in, if the male dancer is to survive. Male dancers, on their part, must rethink about their aharya, how they present themselves on the stage, the way they walk and so on. It is important to think of the content and form of presentation. Today's audience and today's needs are different from the past and the musicians have realized it and adjusted to the current times in their presentations. When she conducted the interviews, she found that male dancers face all these problems in general prejudice, lack of performance opportunity and lack of audience. While female dancers come from convent education background and upper levels of society, male dancers come from different backgrounds and communities. Some come from small towns to the city, find their gurus and struggle to make a mark. They have to take more risks and have to be ready to face failures. There are so many wonderful male dancers in the field. While the female dancers do exactly as their gurus instruct them, male dancers are more experimental.

The final speaker was Ranvir Shah. Most male gurus view from a paradigm of power. Males have been in control of dance forms. So, it's a pity that there are such few male dancers now, but they are generally good. Of the female dancers, there are so many but only very few of them are really good. There are so many biases and prejudices with which one views the male dancer, that it is difficult for them to make a career in dance. There is the issue of sexuality when viewing the male dancer. Until the audience resolves this in the mind, the male dancers have a hard task, faced with criticism, no support from family and little appreciation from critics. There is no need to have a great body to convey your art. All time greats like Kelu babu and Balasaraswati could express what they wanted and touch the audience.

The brief and heartfelt speeches was followed by a 20 minute film on Purush put together by Ashish Khokar, a recap of the last century about the evolution of the dance forms and some male dancers of each decade. An excerpt of the famous Nataraja dance of Ted Shawn (1910 -20) where he stands in the centre of the halo like the sculpture itself and just steps off it to perform, Ram Gopal's Garuda (1930-40) with exotic costumes and Uday Shankar's grand group production (1940-50) were wondrous. Dance performed by the Siddhis of Gujarat (1950-60), Chhau dance (60s-70s) followed. Though Kuchipudi has changed, even now Kathakali has not and males still do female roles. Some male dancers featured in the film were Kuchipudi dancer Pasumarthy Vittal, the enchanting singing of Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj, Odissi maestro Kelucharan Mohapatra, the stunning music and picturisation of 'Rituals' performed by Astad Deboo and Jayachandran's innovations using technology in his contemporary dance.

The evening's Bharatanatyam performance titled 'Encounters with Krishna' was presented by Ramli Ibrahim with Shanmuga Sundaran and Harenthiran. The items presented included Todayamangalam "Jai Janaki Ramana," "Nee indha mayam," "Parthasarathy" that depicted Krishna as the charioteer of Arjuna in the first part and Gajendra Moksham in the second part, and a thillana in Brindavanasaranga. All items were choreographed by Guru Adyar Lakshman. Lights by Sivarajah Natarajan added to the ambience. One has usually seen Ramli as an excellent performer of Odissi, so it was a different experience to see him perform Bharatanatyam that betrayed his ballet training. Ramli generally performs Odissi with his dance company, so many felt a solo Odissi presentation by him would have started the festival in style. Harenthiran comes across as a very confident and upcoming performer with clean lines and strong footwork, training as he is at present in Sutra Dance Theatre. Everyone knows of Shanmuga Sundaran, who runs Sathir School of Bharatantyam in Chennai, as a good teacher and the evening also showed what an elegant dancer he is. He says he gets more opportunities to perform abroad than in India, especially Chennai. He is all praise that an individual has put in so much effort to give a platform for male dancers and feels established organizations like ABHAI and Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram to name a few, could easily do their bit to promote male dancers as they have easier access to financial support. Since its inception, Shanmuga Sundaran helps Prema Satish with the Nartaka festival.

Shanmuga Sundaran, Ramli Ibrahim, Harenthiran
Kiran Rajagopalan
The second evening started with a solo Bharatanatyam performance by Kiran Rajagopalan. He presented a verse on Lord Hayagriva by Swami Vedanta Desika, an alarippu composed by G Vijayaraghavan, a jatiswaram by the Tanjore Quartette in ragamalika and misra chapu talam. The centerpiece of the evening's performance was the pada varnam "Chalamela" on Lord Ranganatha, followed by 'Priye Charusheele,' Jayadeva's 19th Ashtapadi from the Geeta Govindam with music taken from bhajana sampradaya in Bukhari ragam and khanda chapu talam, concluding with a thillana in Maand composed by Lalgudi G Jayaraman. The accompaniment comprised of A Lakshman on the nattuvangam, vocal by G Srikanth, mridangam by G Vijayaraghavan, violin by Kalaiarasan and flute by R Thyagarajan. Lighting was by Murugan. Having come to Chennai from the US to get his MA in Bharatanatyam from the Madras University and to pursue his training in dance under Guru A Lakshman and abhinaya under Bragha Bessell, Kiran did his gurus proud, his sincerity and devotion to his art form shining through his performance. Kiran was blessed by 85 year old Guru Gopalakrishnan who commended him for his mukha bhavam. Seasoned observers would however like to see more strength in his movements. "Gender inequality is rampant in dance as many schools don't encourage male soloists, so it is good to see teachers encourage their male students to perform solo and for organizers to present these dancers at their festivals. The musicians enhanced the beauty of the dance," summed up Ashish Khokar. It was an all male music ensemble!

It was a special evening for Kiran in more ways than one because he made his debut in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 2006, and Guru Udupi Lakshminarayan, who is this year's recipient of the Nartaka Award, had conducted his recital. "I knew that the 4th Nartaka Dance Festival would be an important milestone in my dance career and that it was my responsibility to be well prepared for it. Therefore, my teacher and I carefully selected the pieces in advance, and I devoted more than three months to learning and practicing them. The Natyanjali Trust must be commended for their hard work and dedication. After all, this festival is one of very few in India that exclusively and grandly showcases male classical dancers," says Kiran.

The second performance of the evening was Odissi by the well trained Rudraksha Dance Ensemble of Guru Bichitrananda Swain from Bhubaneswar, who founded the Rudraksha Foundation in 2000. The synchronized mangalacharan "Bhaje Brajeika Mandanam" (Music composed by Binod Bihari Panda, rhythm composed by Bijaya Kumar Barik, choreographed by Guru Bichitrananda Swain) depicting the embellishment of Brajapur with their idol Lord Krishna, by all 3 dancers was followed by Amulya Balabantaray and Rashmi Ranjan Barik presenting the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu, choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra with music by Pt Bhubaneswar Misra. According to Hindu scriptures, Lord Vishnu took ten forms to uphold righteousness and redeem this world from evil forces. These included a fish, a tortoise, a boar, Narsimha (half-man half-lion), Parasuram (a furious sage), Rama, Balarama, Buddha, and Kalki.

Karna's story from the Mahabaratha was a powerful and intense solo rendition by Lingaraj Pradhan. In the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, Karna ended up confronting Arjuna, the third son of Pandu, who had Lord Krishna as his charioteer. During the confrontation, the wheel of Karna's chariot gets stuck in the ground and he disembarks his chariot to pull out the wheel. That is when the Lord advises Arjuna to shoot his arrow. Hearing this Karna looks at Krishna with utter bewilderment as he is not on his chariot and is unarmed, yet Krishna gave Arjuna the order to shoot at Karna. He questions him about the injustice he is doing to him not only now but since his birth at every step of his life. Dance choreography was by Guru Bichitrananda Swain, music by Ramahari Das, rhythm composed by Guru Dhaneswar Swain and lyrics by Dr. Rajendra Kishor Panda. The dancers completed their recital with a Pallavi in Raag Dev Gandhari, a pure dance item of intricate footwork and sculpturesque poses, with rhythm and choreography by Guru Bichitrananda Swain and music by Ramahari Das, assisted by Guru K Ramarao Patro. The wonderful lighting by Sivarajah Natarajan and melodious music added to the beauty of the dance and as Ashish Khokar summed it, "One can see how well the lyrical aspect of Odissi sits on the male body."

Lingaraj Pradhan, Amulya Balabantaray and Rashmi Ranjan Barik
Pavitra Bhat
Day three started with a Bharatanatyam recital by young Pavitra Bhat from Mumbai. He was accompanied by a distinguished orchestra comprising his Guru Deepak Mazumdar on nattuvangam, vocal by Randhini, flute by Ramesh, mridangam by Ram Shankar Babu and violin by Muruganandam. The items presented were an Oothukaadu Venkatasubbaiyer composition "Sri Vignarajam bhaje" on Lord Ganesha, "Jaganmoha natana raja sabapathiye" composed by Papanasam Sivan where Shiva portrays the nava rasas through various incidents associated with him, a kriti "Yaaro ivar yaaro enna pero" on Lord Rama, the power of bhakti in "Hey Govinda hey Gopala" by Surdas, and a brisk thillana in Behag in misra chapu. Pavitra Bhat came to learn dance from his guru about 9 years back and when faced with the option of pursuing commerce and a secure job after completing his B Com, he chose dance instead, a not very easy decision considering dance is hardly a choice as profession for a male in the current situation, said his guru affectionately. Ashish Khokar summed up the presentation with, "This is Bombay brand of Bharatanatyam at its very best. To maintain the purity, clarity and effectiveness of the form amidst competition from Bollywood and to perform so eloquently here in Chennai, the citadel of Bharatantayam, is an achievement in itself. The music support was excellent and the meticulous manner in which Guru Deepak Mazumdar has nurtured and groomed his pupil is evident." For Pavitra Bhat, performing at Nartaka Festival in the presence of stalwarts was a great honor, an amazing feeling and a wonderful experience "that gives a lot of encouragement to young male performers like me." He is now all set to perform at the Natraj Festival in Delhi in November.

The second half of the evening was an electrifying performance of 'Shadow in the body' by the Dewandaru Dance Company from Indonesia, with the charismatic Rianto, co-founder of the company and choreographer of the piece, Wijanarko and Wahyu Bayu Praretyan. Rianto was invited to represent Indonesia as a dancer and choreographer at the inauguration ceremony of US President Barack Obama. Trained in classical Indonesian dance, Rianto seeks his inspiration from nature and the movements from the art of Javanese puppetry, and using these with his classical training, gives his work a contemporary flavor. The full length piece starts with sounds of nature, movements and sounds inspired by nature and Javanese puppet shows. One could recognise portrayals of monkey, hen, crab, scorpion, frog and so on through intricate twining of the bodies. Rianto then performs a solo segment that looks like shamanic rituals with a touch of nava rasas, his body contorting and undulating, bending backwards and performing in that stance for quite a few minutes, an exercise in immense body control. After going through sadness and other emotions, the mood is finally of peace, the wild hair and wild expressions of the middle segment replaced with soft, straight hair and peaceful Buddha like tranquility. The superb audioscape and split second precision of movements coinciding with the sound beats had the audience, with many dancers, classical and contemporary, having put in an appearance, cheering many a time. The lighting by Sivarajah Natarajan was excellent. "We saw two different parts of world view, from Bharatantayam by Pavitra Bhat to the other extreme, the other side of the spectrum, an avant garde work, yet rooted in tradition. This is definition of modernity from an Asian dance tradition, with nava rasa as seen from a different perspective. Yet another view of male dancing," concluded Ashish Khokar.

Wijanarko and Wahyu Bayu Praretyan
The final day of the festival saw a good crowd and a tastefully decorated stage. The chief guest was D Purandeswari, the Union Minister of State for HRD and guest of honor was Ram Kumar of Sivaji Productions. Purandeswari has trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi under Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, so she spoke eloquently on the subject. Culture is best reflected in the art forms of various regions. Each form has its own local flavour and each region preserves its own tradition and culture. Every dance form is integral to the region where it evolved. The gurus of these art forms have handed down their knowledge to their disciples. Glitz and glamour of western culture is taking our youngsters away from our arts and traditions, whereas many children in the west are learning our traditions. Parents have a great role to play in guiding their children. Governments should do a little introspection and add their bit to safeguard the dance forms of the country. She congratulated Prema Satish saying it is an achievement in itself to identify, promote and felicitate upcoming dancers.

Son of the great actor Sivaji Ganesan, Ram Kumar spoke about how as a boy, he had watched Guru Udupi Lakshminarayan working with his father on stage as well as in films. He recalled seeing Guruji dancing with Sivaji in a birthday song sequence in the play 'Thanga Padakkam.' Ashish Khokar referred to the times when Bharatanatyam was in dire straits, how a few gurus fought against all odds to keep the art form alive, and it is these individuals who are the role models of today's form. Guru Lakshminarayan was a choreographer for films; it is more creative since choreographing and directing dance for films involves thinking from different angles. Music can be with us in the form of audio tapes and CDs, but dance of olden days do not exist except for some film clips. Dance is there and then, here and now, so we must honor, evaluate and cherish.

Ashish Khokar, Ram Kumar, Guru Udupi Lakshminarayan, Honourable HRD Minister Purandeswari, Prema Satish
After the felicitations, 85 year old Guru Udupi Lakshminarayan was honored with the Nartaka Award for 2010. He spoke in Tamil, saying he owed it all to his guru Ellappa Pillai, who taught him everything, including how to speak in Tamil, when he first came to Chennai as a lad. In the 7 years of Gurukulavaasam, he had to observe everything that his guru taught his students. His guru took him to watch programs of luminaries like Balasaraswati. All this was his training and inspiration. With his Guru's permission, he started his dance school Natya Manjari in 1962. There were not many male dancers those days. Ladies have natural body glamour but surviving as a male dancer is rather difficult. When he started his dance troupe, he had no help coming in despite his asking, so he had to do something to sustain his 25 member troupe. Thus started his career as choreographer for films when he was invited by Sivaji Ganesan to compose dance for his film. The words of appreciation he received from the great actor is something that he would always cherish. There is no video proof of his dancing, just a few b & w photos and the one witness who has actually seen him perform in Sivaji's plays is Ram Kumar! Guruji remembered how Jayalakshmi Sadagopan had encouraged him suggesting special themes and recalled emotionally, how he himself owed it all to his mother's encouragement and one could see many an audience member wiping away a tear. "She's the reason I am here now. After my mother, it was my wife who encouraged me. Unless you have the support of someone or family members, it is difficult for a male dancer to come up, as he must also earn and support his family. It's a rarity to see male dancers perform. Instead of going for glamour, one must also see what male dancers can present and encourage them. We should help male dancers come up in life." Guruji said he has received many awards for being a good dance teacher and his contribution to the arts, but no one had ever given him an award for his dance skills. The Nartaka Award was his very first recognition as a dancer and hence very special to him!
Parshwanath Upadhye

The festival concluded with a Bharatanatyam performance by talented Parshwanath Upadhye, disciple of the Kirans, from Bangalore. The items presented were "Gajananayutham ganeshwaram" choreographed by Parshwanath, "Sri Krishna Kamala natho" originally choreographed by Guru Narmada and set to music by Thirumalai Srinivasa Iyengar in ragam Reetigowla, adi talam which depicted scenes from Krishna's life like Poothana incident, jala kreeda and Kaliya mardanam, and a devarnama "Baro Krishnayya." Lights were by Murugan. The long varnam gave ample scope for Parshwanath to display his abhinaya skills. His costume and jewellery were simple and his dance eloquent. As Ashish Khokar summed up, "Everything was understated. The program showed that a sanchari need not be repetitive to be effective. A single line said it all and it was yet within tradition." The orchestra comprised of G Srikanth on vocal, Renjith Babu on nattuvangam, Ramesh Babu on mridangam, Eswar Ramakrishnan on violin and Jayram on flute. One has usually seen Parshwanath in group performances or in duets with Rukmini Vijaykumar, but for the past two years, he performs solo whenever the opportunity arises. In group, everything follows a set pattern, but in solo, one has the freedom to improvise with the musicians and with one's own choreography. "Presenting male dancers from outside Chennai is good as one gets to see different styles of Bharatanatyam. For a youngster like me, who wants to experiment with the art form, it was encouraging to see the crowd," says Parshwanath. It was heartwarming to learn from him that there are individuals in the dance field, who are quietly supporting male dancers coming from not very well off background, through sponsoring certain of their performances.

On the whole, it was a well conducted festival with tastefully done invitation and festival brochure, simple stage, good sound and lighting and talented performers accompanied by excellent musicians. Prema Satish is already enthusiastic about what more she can do in the next Nartaka festival. Seeing Guru CV Chandrasekhar perform a Dhanyasi varnam at Music Academy about five years back, she was astounded by the beauty of his performance at his age. There is so much dance going around the city through the year but it is always showcasing women dancers. There are many good male dancers, like Kalakshetra dancers who generally perform only in group choreography. She feels adequate consideration has not been given to male dancers and that's why she started this fest. It was Guru CV Chandrasekhar who suggested the title Nartaka Festival. Natyanjali Trust honored him with the first Nartaka Award and then Guru Adyar K Lakshman and Ramli Ibrahim last year. On a final note, she says, "This is a yearly program, not once a month. I wish more male dancers would attend the festival since this is being done for them; this festival is for them!"

After the Nartaka Festival in Chennai, we have the Natraj Festival conducted by Alaknanda in Delhi on November 13 and 14 and the Purush Festival conducted by Srjan in Bhubaneswar in January 2011.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of