Purush Conference: the global dancing male

Purush Conference
Image Source: 
Courtesy Arangham Trust
Fri, 2013-12-20

Purush: does it signify a form? A philosophy? What does it mean to be a male dancer in a patriarchal society like India? What does shrinking performance space mean to the male dancer? Keynote speaker Leela Venkataraman, a renowned dance critic eloquently articulated the idea of the body being merely a vehicle capable of expressing both masculine and feminine qualities and transformatory nature of dance allowing such expression. Devadutt Pattnaik, a well-known mythologist, the other keynote speaker explored the need for a human to dance, to express, both for self-fulfilment and interaction with the other, be it male or female. In an ideal world, to perform, gender should not matter but it does.

 The panel discussions were ambitiously aimed at exploring diverse issues challenging the male dancer today ranging from sexuality to embodiment, from classical to contemporary. The rather sparsely discussed issue of patriarchy, sexuality and performance in relation to male dancers in India was the theme of the first panel discussion. It failed to meet expectations as both Dr David and Dr Chaterjee discussed the reception of Indian dance in the west and orientalism. Inclusion of this topic may have been slightly premature given the lack of expertise in this area especially in the Indian context. A much more livelier and informative panel presentation on the second day delved into the different schools of bharatanatyam, the Thanjavur, Vazhoovur and Kalakshetra.  Snippets from both recent and not so recent past where the male dancers were not just accepted but were primary practitioners of dance was revealing and perhaps made one think about why and when the balance did change. A film by Ashish Khokar archiving the Indian male dancer through the last century might give us some hints. In a society with strong gender stereotypes, performing arts being replaced by other forms of entertainment in the recent past have seen diminishing investment with some serious knock on effects on male dancers. Contemporary Indian dance and the male dancer, yet another vast topic that merits a whole conference in itself was the topic of the third day panel session. Although highly informative and global in its perspective with four presenters from four continents, the session would have benefitted from a bit more structure and focus to the theme. Dance conferences targeted at discussing social issues surrounding dance and dancers is rather unusual and out of the comfort zone for Chennai season which was reflected in an almost complete lack of discussion following panel presentations.

 But come the evening, the performances were well within the comfort zone and a dazzling display of diverse classical and contemporary dances were a delight to the connoisseur. Of particular note is the presentation of rarely seen art forms in the city like the exuberant ottan thullal, a traditional theatre art by Kalamandalam Suresh Kaliyath, the once dead Andra Natyam presented by Kalakrishna and his troupe and the elegant and graceful Manipuri by Sinam Basu Singh. Even those dances occasionally seen in Chennai like Odissi had yet to be performed by a male dancer and Purush certainly set that right by presenting the Rudrakshya foundation from Orissa, an all-male Odissi ensemble.  The strategic placement of a contemporary presentation by the one and only Astad Deboo between two classical performances of Kalakshetra style bharatanatyam and odissi accentuated the contrast between the classical and contemporary genres. Hari Krishnan’s Uma was a thought provoking multi-layered presentation with N. Srikanth, a male dancer impersonating a woman (sthree vesham) and Apsara Reddy, a transgender woman as the narrator to the varnam style javali that explored the classical and the contemporary in the form of devi and diva. Some of the finest young talent like kathak dancer Anuj Mishra who displayed extraordinary rhythmic precision, kuchupudi’s rising star Pasumarathi Mrithyunjay Sarma and bharatanatyam dancer Parshwanath Upadhye with his immensely powerful and ultra-accurate moves were also showcased in the three day and festival. 

No Chennai dance festival is complete without awards and accolades being conferred on revered gurus. Pandit Birju Maharaj was conferred a lifetime achievement award and we were treated to an exposition of Bhaitak Bhav by the master himself. A true legend and mere words will not do any justice to his mastery. Eleven male gurus of bharatanatyam were also honoured and one did feel the weight of being in the presence of such excellence.

 Purush was a phenomenal success from the perspective of diversity of art forms being presented, bringing together some of the finest talent from around the country but could have done better in making the most of having so many top notch artists and thinkers under the same roof by facilitating more discussion on crucial issues it initially set out to debate. Shortcomings apart, it was a brave attempt at shining light on issues of importance and the flamboyant Dr Ratnam achieved this in the true Ratnam style, full of energy, confidence and panache.

Conference presented by Karthik Fine Arts and Arangham Trust, Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, Chennai, 20-22 December 2013

Curator: Dr Anita Ratnam Co-Curator Prof Hari Krishnan

 

 

 

 

 

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