Dance against the odds: What are the career challenges that male classical dancers face?

Niharika Centre of Performing Arts (Kolkata) and Shivoham Institute of Performing Arts have organised the exclusive male dancers’ festival known as Gandharva in Kolkata at Children’s Little Theatre Aban Mahal auditorium, Dhakuria, Kolkata on Sunday, February 9. The festival features six male dancers showcasing varied classical styles of India.

The dancers performing are Arkadev Bhattacharya and Nilesh Singha for Bharata Natyam, Souvik Chakraborty for Kathak, Prolay Sarkar for Kathakali, Manju Elangbam for Manipuri, and Krishnendu Saha for Odissi.

Arkadev, who heads the Niharika Centre of Performing Arts, and is an accomplished Bharata Natyam dancer and teacher says, “There are various reasons as to why we have organised this festival with the support of my friend from Mumbai, Nilesh Singha, who is a fine Bharata Natyam dancer and heads the Shivoham Academy. Firstly, we would like to prove the point that it is females who have trespassed our territory! If you look at Indian history of dance you would realise that females were not allowed to dance, hence males would don the attire of females as well. Later, dance pioneers like Rukmini Devi Arundale urged girls from respectable families to learn classical dance as it is divine and there is nothing obscene about it.”

Further more, boys are normally not encouraged to learn dance as it is considered a feminine occupation. Arkadev points out that counselling at the school level is necessary to encourage boys to learn dance but even after learning it, it is not easy to become a professional as it is quite expensive and initially the returns are low. “Hence boys from middle-class or lower middle class are unable to take it up as a profession. The government should come forward and the corporate sector can also take the initiative in providing scholarships or financial support to deserving dancers.”

He adds, “In my case, my father being a military officer, firmly felt that dancing was not meant for males as it is a feminine occupation. He would say, ‘I will shoot you if you dance’. Later, due to my persistence, he agreed and said that if you want to learn dance, you must learn Kathakali as this dance is exclusively performed by men and the females roles are also enacted by men. I did learn Kathakali but was fascinated by the dance style of Andhra Pradesh known as Kuchipudi for which I got a scholarship from philanthropist Soli Batliwala. My first teacher and my inspiration has always been my mother, who was a great actress.”

Nilesh Singha maintains, “Actually the gender of the dancer does not matter; what matters most is the quality of performance. If you observe, most male dancers perform quite well, as they have to go through a lot of problems with the family and the society as well. Most of my fans are all females, rarely a male comes forward to tell me I danced well. Moreover most organisers are all males, they would prefer some charming dancers to come and participate in the festival. They are reluctant to invite male dancers, unless you are established exponent like Pandit Birju Maharaj.”

Unlike the west, there is no organisation to support or guide dancers. Young dancers find it extremely difficult to get suitable platforms to exhibit their art. Still worse, organisers expect the dancers to donate. Most religious organisations do not pay and say, ‘You are dancing for God, you cant expect a remuneration for that’. Classical dance is divine but one cannot survive without money, as there is no royal patronage unlike ancient times.