Monday, Aug 14, 2023

‘Kathak has given me independence’

What it means to be a male dancer in a world of stereotypes and tradition

kathak"As an introvert, I was fascinated by Bollywood songs and would easily pick up the dance steps I saw on Chitrahaar."

Small acts of everyday freedom go a long way in establishing who we are as a people, and who we may want to become as a society and a nation. Ahead of Independence Day, we bring you stories of little acts of defiance, endless notes of possibilities.

Dheerendra Tiwari, 40

Kathak dancer, New Delhi

Growing up in a conservative family in Agra, which wasn’t very educated, the focus was on academics. To my parents, that was the way to a successful career and comfortable living. As for co-curricular activities, they were just that — co-curricular.

As an introvert, I was fascinated by Bollywood songs and would easily pick up the dance steps I saw on Chitrahaar. But what I absolutely loved were these semi-classical dances, especially by Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965). The delicate expressions, the virtuosity of the steps enthralled me, and I realised I wanted to dance. And I felt that Kathak was the way to learn how to express myself. So, I began to learn in the neighbourhood.

My father was fine with this till I was very young and did well academically. But the older I got and the more I wanted to dance, the more distant and resentful he became. He thought it awful that a Brahmin boy was going to put on make-up, tie ghungroos on his feet and dance before people. The whole idea of naach was derogatory for him. I was all of 16-17, when he decided to not support me anymore, both emotionally and financially.

So, I began teaching at a dance institute in the city, to be able to pay my college fees. I was doing a graduation in mathematics then. My mother would save the ration change and my older sister would buy me clothes. The extended family and friends, of course, kept up their taunts, often using derogatory words, even hinting at homosexuality. It hurt, but it also felt like a barrier that I needed to overcome.

Around the same time, I saw a performance in Agra by a student of Pandit Rajendra Ganganiji and decided that I wanted to learn from him. But he lived in Delhi and taught at the Kathak Kendra and I had no money to live in Delhi. I found out that they gave Rs 1,500 as a housing subsidy. So I came and found a room for Rs 750 in Shakurpur and used the rest of the money for the bus fare to Mandi House. I’d walk till ITO to save money some days because food was always short. How does one dance on an empty stomach? When this wasn’t sustainable, I began travelling from Agra every day, because then I could live and eat at home and travel on a Rs 350 pass. But the journey of about eight hours every day and then riyaaz at Kathak Kendra took a toll on my health and I fell sick. It was then that my guru asked me to live in his house. He never made it sound like a favour but offered me a home, food and a shot at learning one on one, in the old-fashioned guru-shishya way. I was finally happy. But life never stops throwing difficulties at you. I developed vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that causes the skin to lose pigment. I was a male dancer who was not going to look beautiful on stage. This gave me an inferiority complex and pushed me into depression, but dance kept me afloat.

Once, Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, who was looking for dancers to join her company Drishtikon, saw me perform at Purana Qila in a group performance. She asked me to join. Soon, I went on a world tour with her.

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I’ve been in Delhi ever since. I now create my own compositions, perform regularly, and teach others. For me, Kathak, which distanced me from my father, who passed away in 2013, is the one thing that has not only made me independent, it’s my only medium of expression. My father never saw me on stage. But my mother has, and she loves it. I am glad I can dance. It remains my only sense of freedom.

As told to Suanshu Khurana

First published on: 14-08-2023 at 06:00 IST
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