Setting the stage for male dance

When I heard the title of the upcoming Indian classical dance production, Purusham, the first thought that came to my mind was Maryada Purushottam – the name given to the Hindu deity Lord Ram. Simply translated – it means the perfect man, who is righteous and upholds all duties. And so, I see the resplendent image of Lord Ram, standing firm, looking composed, with a smile on his face. The Ramayan gives us this beautiful description of Lord Ram – ajanu-bahum-aravinda-dalayataksham. It means – One with arms reaching up to the knees, One with large eyes like the petals of the Lotus flower.
If you are a connoisseur of classical Indian dance, it will be easy for you to make the connection between Maryada Purushottam Lord Ram and the dancers in Purusham – which means male. As they dance, they stretch and move their arms to the limits the human body can. Through the swing of their arms, they narrate stories and through their bold eyes filled with expression, they draw us into their journey. 
Dance enthusiasts in Durban can witness this journey through Purusham which celebrates the Cosmic Man. It’s the brainchild of accomplished, astute and well-respected Indian dancer and tutor, Shri Manesh Maharaj, who runs the Kala Dharshan dance school.
Purusham Guruji.jpg
He explains what Purusham brings to the local dance industry, “Purusham was inspired by the numerous pleas for guidance and support by aspiring and promising male talent. As a successful classical male dancer myself, I recognise this as my purpose to create a conducive space for such talent. As a platform, Purusham also aims to preserve and advance the standard of Indian classical dance thereby enriching the cultural soil of South Africa.”
With such a strong purpose, it’s no surprise that Purusham 2018 has grown from an ensemble of four in 2017 to seven this year. An all-male cast will perform on stage in Durban in Kathak, Bharat Natyam and Kuchipidi – which is ground-breaking in the local Indian classical dance field. Gound-breaking? How so? Men dance in the genres of hip-hop, freestyle and traditional African, what makes Indian classical dance different? 
“Stigma still prevails in that Indian classical dance is a female-driven art. Yet we fail to acknowledge one of the most basic and fundamental principles of Hinduism, that is, the equal importance of male and female energies. There is no superior. We are all entitled to everything in the same magnitude. An equilibrium has to be reached in order to maintain an ideal spiritual life. Why then do we attach the idealism of gender-appropriate acts?” 
Rishalin Govender answers my question with a question that demonstrates his love, passion and respect for dance. He is one of the seven dancers who will take to the stage for Purusham, and spared some time in between his rigorous training schedule to chat to me.
Purusham Rishalan.jpg
Tell me about your love for dance and how it began to reach where you are today?
As a child, I had always admired the classical arts. Bharatanatyam had especially drawn my attention. Being involved in the Tamil eisteddfods gave me exposure to this spectacular art form. Having a background in classical music allowed me to better appreciate Bharatanatyam, and the understanding of music with its vital role in dance. I never imagined that I would become a dancer. I never thought of attempting it either. It was a dear friend of mine who asked me back in high school “why don’t you give it a try?”. Without hesitation, I did exactly that, performing a group Bharatanatyam piece at the eisteddfod and attaining a gold medal.
The amount of positivity I received from that performance encouraged me to take up the art form. However, living in the South Coast didn’t afford much in terms of dance tuition. As a result, I pursued online learning, gaining inspiration from dvds, YouTube and recitals. 
It was only in the year 2014 that I had formally started learning Bharatanatyam. I was approached by Shrimati Verushka Pather, artistic director of Natya Ananda, to audition for the role of Krishna in a dance drama entitled Sri Krishna Leela. This is what allowed my journey in Bharatanatyam to flourish and reach where it has today. More importantly, it has been through the support from my family and friends that I have been able to excel as a male artist in this field of dance in SA. 
Define the role dance plays in your life?
Dance plays a huge role in my life. It has grounded me spiritually, emotionally and physically. It has allowed me to study our heritage, our scriptures and our culture. It has allowed to me experience divinity. It is a medium through which I can connect to and communicate with the Supreme Forces. It is not entertainment. It is a platform to allow whoever is watching to be able to experience the divinity that resonates from a recital. To dance is to serve, a form of sadhana. To dance is to live. Dance is food for my soul, and I cannot imagine a balance without it. 
When it comes to Indian dance in South Africa, do you believe there is enough emphasis on male dancers and enough awareness and appreciation?
While there has been an increasing number of male dancers coming forth and showcasing their art, there is certainly a lack of awareness and appreciation for male classical dance artists. To dance is to… display one’s devotion. The soul knows no gender.
We need to remove the misunderstanding, misconception and stigma that is associated with male dancers. Shri Manesh Maharaj has contributed to this effort by enabling a platform that showcases male dancers. While this is certainly a huge milestone, there should be more initiatives like this which might even involve community outreach to seek and search for males who are afraid to announce their interest in and passion for classical dance. 
I caught up with another talented dancer who will take to the stage in Purusham, Rory Booth. He is well-known as a local singer, actor and comedian, and dance is an integral part of his life. He says “Dance for me, is how I pray. I pray when I dance and I dance when I pray. It keeps me focused and committed to the task at hand and these attributes follow suit in all the other aspects of my life.”
Purusham Rory.jpg
He narrates how his journey, from a student to the stage, began, “The wheels to my dance journey as a kathakaar started when I joined one of Ronnie Govender’s productions mid rehearsal, to replace an actor. In the production, Kajal Bagwandeen was performing a kathak piece and the choreographer Varsha Sharma tricked me into believing that I had to learn the kathak piece – I was excited only to find out that she was pulling my leg. I always loved watching kathak but never knew what it was called. Varsha introduced me to my Guru Manesh Maharaj and the rest was history.”
Like Rishalin, Rory believes there needs to be greater emphasis on male dancers in the Indian classical genre. “That’s one of the main reasons for Purusham…we hope to inspire other aspiring dancers to not be afraid and dance!”
Is it as easy as it looks on stage? Certainly not! Rory says, “We’ve all been rehearsing and working hard for one performance. As much as classical Indian art is a spiritual journey, it is an art that requires perfection. I will strive for that perfection.”
Rishalin and Rory’s eloquent words about dance will surely translate into a powerful performance – one that I’m certainly looking forward to!
But, let me admit, I have a personal interest in Purusham. My dear friend, whom many of you know as my younger brother, Taresh Harreepershad, is also part of this all-male ensemble cast. I consider myself well-placed to speak about his dance journey because I was there from the beginning, and even when dance did not feature in his life.
Purusham Taresh
To say it was his lifelong passion is an under-statement. Yes, he always wanted to take up dance, but I think, he needed to take up dance. He knew, as much as I did, that something was missing in his life. It was incomplete without dance. And once he took that first step to study Kathak under Shri Manesh Maharaj, his life took on a deeper meaning and purpose. I have seen search endlessly for the perfect dancing bells – ghungroos, I have seen him fall and get hurt, or pull as muscle (yes, it’s that intense!), I have seen him pick himself up and grow in character through dance. I know that in his performance in Purusham he wants to take his dance career to new heights.
When I asked him to pen a few words about what dance means to him, he responded within seconds with this, “Dance for me represents knowledge. Like it’s this sacred intricate thing that just permeates my mind and echoes through even hours after I have danced. I mean it takes me a long time to learn a move or master an understanding of a composition. And when I eventually get it-  I feel like I have accomplished such a mammoth task- simply by learning one more thing about Kathak. And this quest represents life doesn’t it- how we as humans try our best in life and when we eventually get it right, that’s when our souls celebrate.”
I cannot think of a more beautiful meaning of the power of dance.
Please join me next Sunday in celebrating with this all-male ensemble.
Purusham– Celebrating the Cosmic Man
Date: 24th June 2018
Time: 5pm
Venue: Thekwini College (262 Daintree Avenue, Asherville, Durban)
Tickets: R70
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