You want to learn classical dance? How about something more modern — like contemporary or hip-hop?” Jay Sehgal was not surprised by his parents’ response when he told them about being keen on learning Bharatanatyam. “Coming from a family that loves to see its boys break out in freestyle Bollywood or Bhangra at the drop of a hat, classical dance was a no-no for them.” Although his folks eventually came around, the 22-year-old laughs recalling their worry that he might end up becoming effeminate. “Well, they needn’t have worried, for don’t we all have the Ardhanareshwar in us? And Lord Nataraja, the God of Dance, was far from being feminine,” smiles Jay, who has since continued with Bharatanatyam only as a “passionate hobby”.
However, prejudices like the ones Jay encountered, have kept many men away from classical dance. Murli Mohan Kalvakalva, an HR manager with an MNC, remembers that despite the support of “very culturally inclined parents”, he often faced bullying at school for being a dancer. “But, I managed to brave it all because my passion for dance was stronger than those taunts,” he smiles and, upon growing up, “came to understand that dance alone cannot put food on the table.”
A glass ceiling for men?
Just as women talk of the glass ceiling in the corporate world, many men face it in fields traditionally associated with women — classical dance is a prime example, says Murli. “That’s one of the reasons men often feel discouraged to learn classical dance or feel forced to give it up midway,” he explains. Although his passion for the form grew with each passing year, his dance guru, Dharamshi Shah and his parents, did not let his focus shift from his studies. Murli went on to do his MBA and was soon part of the corporate world with dance continuing alongside.
Soon, Murli also started doing stage shows, and now, despite working for a Bangkok-based company, continues to keep himself motivated by flying down to India as often as he can to continue dance practices with his guru. “Dance for me is akin to bhakti,” he states simply.
Voicing a similar sentiment, Anil Iyer, a counselling psychologist by profession, remembers being so fascinated by Bharatanatyam that he, as a nine-year-old, even found a teacher for himself. “I came across a board stating ‘Bharatanatyam classes’ in my neighbourhood; I just walked in and took admission there.”
Seeing his interest in the dance form grow by the day, his parents, to further encourage him, would often take him to watch Bharatanatyam performances by seasoned artistes. Amidst all this, Anil continued to do well academically and went on to do his Masters in Counselling Psychology.
And now, despite being busy as a consultant with a wellness firm and teaching in two Bengaluru colleges, the 29-year-old ensures there’s enough time not just for his daily riyaaz and practice sessions with his guru Poornima Gururaja, but also for recitals that he’s invited for.
Lack of support
Not being dependent wholly on dance financially and keeping it just as a hobby works well for Anil. “And, as I often tell people, it is also very good for one’s emotional and mental well-being”. This is something that Akshat Kapoor, a Kathak artiste for more than 25 years, believes in. There was a time when, he confesses, bogged down by the “grueling schedules” of his work as a PR & marketing professional, he was forced to let dance take a back seat. However, soon realising that the vacuum created thus was not helping him, Akshat got back to his riyaaz, and now, the only regret he has is not being able to bring his dream of becoming a professional dancer to fruition. “Blame it on lack of enough opportunities for male dancers or peer pressure to have a stable, lucrative career early in life.”
Male dancers don’t have it easy, agrees dance historian Ashish Khokar, “especially because of factors like (unnecessary and negative) competition as well as lack of enough sponsors and support systems.” Having been witness to many young men getting disheartened on being bypassed by selectors for major platforms, “unless it is an all-male one like Kathakali”, Ashish established a forum called ‘Purush’, to encourage them to find good opportunities for performances.
A lifelong passion
Happy that such a platform is giving space and encouragement to young men, Ssumier S Pasricha, aka the viral sensation Pammi Aunty, remembers getting onto the Kuchipudi firmament by sheer accident — when he was asked to present a short dance piece at his former alma mater with his junior in school — Kuchipudi dancer Yamini Reddy.
“Despite not knowing the ABCD of classical dance,” Ssumier took on the challenge and started preparing for it with the help of Yamini’s parents — dance gurus Raja, Radha and Kaushalya Reddy. And thus began a lifelong affair with Kuchipudi. His teachers, seeing his interest and potential, were only too happy to take him on as their shishya, “but not before making it clear that classical dance is a life-long sadhna and not to be treated lightly.” And that’s what it has been for Ssumier who continued with his riyaaz even when he went to Australia for his postgraduate studies.
However, an emerging back problem that made him “too scared to continue”, together with a budding career as an actor forced him to put Kuchipudi on the backburner. But, his association with classical dance, it seems, was destined to continue. Soon after he shifted to Mumbai, a Bharatanatyam guru who he met by chance, encouraged Ssumier to shed all fears regarding his back problem and start preparing for an international dance festival. And that’s what he did with the guidance of his gurus back in Delhi. And now, while being an actor takes centrestage in his life, Kuchipudi continues to be a “passionate hobby” that occupies a prized place in Ssumier’s heart.