Yes, when it comes to males in Bharatanatyam, they are considered a minority/endangered species/rarity in some geographical places. For unspecific reasons, there seems to exist the proverbial “glass ceiling” that they face. However, outside the performing circle, male dancers do get the knotted-eyebrows-look as to why they dance. Still, there is a dedicated following for male dancers, regardless of the style/bani they follow. Also, among the male dancers there seems to exist a mutual respect. Dance is supposedly genderless and so ideally the gender of the artist shouldn’t matter, after all the dance is bigger than the dancer.
The most cliched observation is that after all Lord Nataraja is a male, but the female dancers dominate the field. Mythology says that Bharata choreographed the first dance using only males. Then, the apsaras came into the picture. Historically, among the pioneers who spread the classical dance form across the west some of them were males, like Ramgopal, Uday Shankar, and others. (How the “purists” at that time viewed Uday Shankar’s dance is a topic by itself to discuss/debate and analyze, not for this post). Going further down the history, in some of the inscriptions we see that kings gave prizes to male dancers for dancing the “koothu” in the temple for specific occasions. For more details see an earliest post.
Still, the audiences, when they see a male dancer perform, are quick to jump to some conclusions, which unfortunately shows remnants of attitudes from a bygone era, I think. I am not sure if we should call it a real “prejudice against male dancers”, but I think there is to some extent, a lack of awareness about male dancers and their contribution to the art form. Not giving them an opportunity to dance is just half of the equation. It is a fact that dance festivals with only male dancers performing are happening on a regular annual basis.
Should the parents be more encouraging if their son shows interest in dance?
Should female dance teachers encourage more male students (or start teaching male students) getting enrolled in their classes?
Should media do their part of covering more male dancer’s performances and their perspectives of dance? and finally
Should audiences/rasikas make an attempt to see a male dancing without any preconceived notions?
There are no straightforward “yes/no” answers to these questions and they are debatable.
In 2009, The Hindu published a fortnightly column called “Malespeak” by Gowri Ramnarayan. However, after interviewing ten male artists in Bharatanatyam and one from Andhranatyam, they stopped for unknown reasons. Read about them here in another earlier post.
In 2007 , Hindustan Times published an article titled “Natraj”s dilemma”. Few male dancers based in Delhi spoke about the pressures/struggles they face(d).
Sponsorships for performance are hard to come by, but what came in unwanted abundance are jibes from all and sundry. With time he [Sadanand, Kathak dancer] has learnt not to get agitated when called a nachnewalla, a chhamiya and even a eunuch.
…Chakraborty has had to train female disciples to partner him on stage – just so that he is allowed to perform..If you are male classical dancer and unmarried, people think you are gay.
Kuchipudi exponent Raja Reddy says
People are misinformed. They think dance is only for girls. To the parents, a boy means a doctor or engineer, not a classical dancer…A guru I approached rejected me bluntly, saying I was too dark and had too thick a waist.
When he went to the next guru, he took his 14-year-old wife Radha with him – and was accepted.
Bharatanatyam dancer Navtej Johar says
I now realise [sic] that feminine mystique still rules in this profession, but I did not feel that while trying to work my way through. I feel that it was almost easier for me because being a man I could stick to the struggle longer without the social pressures women are subject to.
Read the full article here:
In 2009, NDTV Hindu made a report on the lives and struggles of male Bharatanatyam dancers titled “Navarasa nayakans“.
See part one:
See part two:
See part three:
In this week’s Friday review of The Hindu, in the article titled “The suppressed male” dancer Aranyani Bhargav writes
…folk dances in India and indeed all over the world, have involved men and women equally and without prejudice…But the sort of patriarchy that alienated the male dancer in the west, did, perhaps through Colonialism, enter the Indian subconscious. And homophobia also came to be entrenched in Indian society. It is then plausible that the prejudice against male dancers has also seeped into Indian dance.
But somewhere in the minds of contemporary spectators, centuries-old prejudices still persist. Arising from patriarchal ideas – that outline the dominant role of men in society and prescribe how men should conduct themselves publicly in terms of their feelings – these prejudices are deeply linked to homophobia, and outdated ideas of masculinity and femininity
Read the full article here: http://www.thehindu.com/arts/dance/the-suppressed-male/article4009192.ece
On a lighter note and at the end of the day, I think this is what male dancers do. That is to just dance, dance, dance…