Breaking barriers in a woman’s world

By Manju Subhash Chandran

First Published in The Asian Age on March 30, 2015.

Dancer Aniruddha Knight slips in and out of multiple roles with remarkable ease

The love-struck nayika asks the lord how he can be so indifferent. As she bathes in the moonlight and the breezy cool winds caress her, it reminds her of her lord’s touch. The singing of the cuckoos and the mangroves that rent the air with their fragrance makes her pain all the more intolerable.

At the diversity and inclusion meet on ‘Breaking Barriers of Gender stereotype at workplace’ at Godrej Industries, it was apt that the role of the nayika was portrayed by a male dancer Aniruddha Knight.

His rendition of the Virahotkantita nayika (one who is disappointed with her nayaka) in the Bhairavi varnam Mohamana en meedu set the tone for lively defiance of gender stereotypes associated with classical dance, among others.

A ninth generation descendant of a 200-year-old family of dancers and musicians, and the grandson of world famous Balasaraswati, classical dance could have been a natural career choice for Aniruddha, but the dancer maintains it was definitely not the first choice for him or his family.

“This was not handed over to me. I had the option of taking up conventional 9-5 jobs, which was what in a way my mother wanted me to do. Even I aspired to be a diplomat, but it’s only now I realise how undiplomatic I can be,” quips Aniruddha.

“I chose dance the same way it chose me. It must be fate. What you have chosen also chooses you. Everything goes both ways,” he adds.

Aniruddha next portrays a sarcastic woman or the Kandita nayika who is angry with her Nayaka for going to the other woman. My heart has cooled down, she says when I saw you in extreme joy holding her hand tightly as you were walking and giggling in the moonlight.

Next he depicts a nayaka who threatens to go to kashi because his lover is not interested.

The dance recital concludes with the famous Krishna nee begane baro where a mother realises her child is no ordinary child as she sees the three worlds in his mouth.

Aniruddha slips in and out of the role of the pining and sarcastic women lovers, the sulking male lover and an amazed mother with remarkable ease.

Mainly considered a demesne for the women, what attracted Aniruddha initially to the art from was the unique dimension of being an artiste. “Afterwards when I begin to understand what was happening it was of course the geometry, the way one moved and used one’s body. The grace as you assume various positions with your face and body attracted me to this art form,” says Aniruddha about his formative years as a dancer.

Despite carrying the legacy of a tradition, being a male dancer in a woman’s world he did have to face his share of biases. “Though dance in itself was attractive, all these biases can be really unattractive to a person pursuing it,” he says. Sometimes they can supersede your own interest and your own need to do something, but you just need to make sure you go beyond that.”

Elaborating on the art form, Aniruddha spoke about how abhinaya was the communicative aspect of Bharatanatyam. “Every movement conveys something different. One word or gesture can transform the meaning immediately. This is a highly stylised form of language. How I put the movements and expressions together with my body lend it legibility,” he says. “It is all about beauty and grace. Don’t go trying to understand it, rather just enjoy it.”

Beauty and grace are words commonly associated with the female gender. So how is it that Aniruddha managed to override these notions, when he performed?

“I didn’t have to do much with the repertoire, because if you look at any art there is no gender to it. It is not based on being male or female and goes well beyond one’s perception of what a man or woman is supposed to do. I just needed to continue this reputation. I had to drop all the baggage I had, and approach it as an artiste, not as a man. Even as I do certain gestures, they are free of gender considerations. Art transcends gender.”

Elaborating further, he says “Bharatanatyam is a suggestive or symbolic art. No one becomes a character. It’s just a portrayal. One does not become Krishna, Rama or Sita, but rather depicts what Sita or Krishna could be to yourself.

Aniruddha who has seen his family handle the various stereotypes when he chose to be a dancer says he is facing is own challenges right now. “The biggest challenge for me is to teach an 11-year-old boy. I have to teach him to dance with grace at the same time without effeminacy. He has to come across beyond those barriers, which is not impossible. Hopefully he can look to me as an example. Even though things do look tough, it does not mean you give up on them. When you confront biases freely these do seem to dissipate,” he says.

Together with vocalist Usha Shivakumar, Aniruddha makes up a perfect parallel that could be emulated in art and life and in workplaces. “Women accompanists or percussionists are not something new. My grandma had women accompanists, vocalists and percussionists, which was really forward thinking in those days. Today many of us won’t find such situations. We work as a family and go beyond gender. There is no hierarchy within the system of how we work. To pull something off like this we all have to be on the same wavelength and learn to give in to each other when necessary. No one person tries to dominate the other.”

For Aniruddha and Usha things work out based on general consensus between music and dance. “When a male vocalist sings for a woman dancer people think it is natural, whereas a woman vocalist singing for a male dancer is questioned. People wonder why and I wonder why not,” says Usha, who has been with the family for decades.

Aniruddha says there is no space for gender stereotype because art forms and styles are improvised constantly and carrying baggage could be limiting on stage. “You have to learn to get rid of these things quickly,” he says.

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