Saturday, 21 December 2013

'Dance has been polarised...all bogus binaries' - Navtej Johar

Balagopal and he, as boys in Kalakshetra, had not been encouraged to dance the solo Bharata Natyam repertoire. "We were considered mainly Kathakali artists, who were taught Bharata Natyam so as to dance in the dramas. While I had done minor items in class which were male oriented, there were no suitable songs for boys. Only Rupamu joochi, a varnam in praise of Shiva. We did that varnam, dropping the line suma shara mulachewhere the nayika complains of being struck by the flower-arrows of Cupid. The padams were Natanam adinar, about the vigorous dance of Shiva, or the Ashtapadi Vadasiyadi, where Krishna cajoles an angry Radha. Balan and I learnt items such as the tillana on our own initiative, which did not go down well with some of the teachers. But because we were doing every possible role in the dance-dramas, the technical grounding was very strong. We could learn anything later on."

- From Master of Arts: A Life in Dance by Tulsi Badrinath

A response and further conversation with Navtej Johar

What was the style of dancing that were considered appropriate for men in Kalakshetra? Was there any difference in the training for men?

Navtej Johar
There wasn't really any different style at all. I think it changes from generation to generation, but in our generation there was absolutely none. It’s just that there were a few items, so to speak, which they thought were more suitable for men. It wasn't that men were encouraged to do only those things. That was the only thing, I would say. There were a couple of varnams that were more suitable for men, and now I can see why. Other than that, as far as technique was concerned, absolutely no difference. 

Not even the Kathakali training…

Not at all. Not at all. I was completely untouched by Kathakali. I was very close to Jannu Anna (Janardhanan Sir) and I learnt a lot from him, but I never …

A Janardhanan

I think when they were there – when V. P. Dhananjayan was there – Chandu Pannikar was there, Janardhanan Sir’s father. I think Athai (Rukmini Devi) was trying to use Kathakali for her dance dramas. So that was a different agenda, a different thing altogether. None of these men were trained in Bharatanatyam in the way that the women were – that’s true. Janardhanan Sir and Bala Anna, were not as sound in Bharatanatyam as they were in Kathakali. But they came from Kathakali families. So that was the focus. But when it came down to us there was zero differentiation.

And outside Kalakshetra, did it influence how that generation taught their students?

They went out and taught the Kalakshetra way. What you see in their students in pure Bharatanatyam, as done in Kalakshetra.

A lot of your abhinaya work – you’ve said also that you are trying to reclaim some of the varnams that are highly erotic, which many male dancers have been known to shy away from. And another thing that Leela Venkataraman said yesterday – that the male torso is so much more able to convey femaleness… easier than the female torso is able to convey maleness.
Do Bharatanatyam dancers need this?

I think she’s right on. If it’s a neutral male torso – I’m not talking about a Salman Khan male torso – though there are Bharatanatyam dancers who want that kind of look. Because it’s just the bare skin. When you say bare skin, the projections are less. If you see all these other things in there, it becomes more distracting. If it’s the bare male skin, it’s more sensual.

Sometimes I feel that I kind of fell between the tracks at Kalakshetra. Because by the time I went, there was absolutely no distinction. So I was allowed that freedom. Or at least I assumed that freedom for myself. I didn’t feel as a man I should dance like that, or emulate this person… and I did emulate Jannu Anna a lot. But not as a man, but as Rama he played in ‘Ramayana’. So I did not have this bias at all, or this kind of a divide in my head.

Let me just cut through this entire thing. I think this whole thing is a completely artificial divide, and we have to come to terms with it. I don’t see dance gendered at all. I think dance has been polarised between being moral-immoral, male-female, modern-traditional … and they are all bogus binaries. So for me the question doesn’t even enter my mind. It allows you the freedom to be man, woman – very erotic woman, very erotic man – animal, snake, wind…it’s all the same. And I think that should be the focus. That is the focus.

Last question – what are some characters or roles you would like to explore, which you’ve not done so far?

This is a very pertinent question, it goes with your enquiry. When I was beginning to dance, the characters were Rama or Shiva or Krishna. And I for the life of me could not play Shiva. I just could not. And now I am so deeply absorbed… I’ve been enquiring into it in a very, very serious way. Like I used to do Rama – I was completely Rama-obsessed for the longest time. So right now, I am exploring Shiva and the whole idea of Shiva. That too, in a very particular way – more into Kashmir Shaivism. Shiva, not as Nataraja Shiva, not at all. Or with the third eye. Or hair dangling.

So I’m doing my first ever Shiva varnam on 10 January at Bharat Kalachar. My very first Shiva piece, ever. It’s a varnam which has been done to death, and earlier, I used to dislike it immensely, because of the way I saw it. But now I’m making it myself. I used to find it very stodgy. They were all very male things – this is how men should dance, this is how Shiva should be. Sometimes male dancing can be made stodgy for it to look male. So I’m just imagining it differently.

But does the varnam text itself push in that direction?

No. It’s the interpretation. It’s the Todi varnam, rupamu joochi. Everyone has done it, it is the ABC of Bharatanatyam!

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