In the Absence of the Feminine: Dance Like a Man

[media-credit name=”Agastya Kohli” align=”alignnone” width=”640″]dance-like-a-man-3[/media-credit]

It opens with fact.

Before the play itself begins, there is a Bharatanatyam dance performed by Pandit Avijit Das, an internationally renowned dancer. I wasn’t paying attention when the announcer told everyone about the piece, but judging from the feet movements, this is an invocation of Lord Nataraja. Pandit Das is an extraordinary dancer with incredible power radiating from his center, and I love this stuff. I’m immediately immersed in a world of dance.

And then Pandit Das leaves the stage and the fiction begins.

A young woman, Lata, walks into an old house, entering from a door that opens into a library chamber. Her beau Viswas follows her. They are to be married. She has come home to ask her father’s approval. A conventional set-up, it illustrates a patent trope of South Asian culture and sets the play up to be a domestic comedy.

As it turns out, the parents are not home. Instead the young couple have a discussion about their relationship, and about the house, its history, its occupants. Their charming interplay fills the scene with its deft combination of those markers of youth: ambition and blissful ignorance.

Then the parents arrive. Skipping straight past the two young lovers they continue their own conversation, so self-involved that their future son-in-law doesn’t even get to state why he is visiting. Finally, the father, Jairaj, tells Viswas he doesn’t care: go on and do what you want to do, as long as you allow Lata her freedom to dance.

The contrast between the parents and the youth strikes one sharply. The youth are dead-set on their futures and are hardly college age. The parents live, moment to moment, oblivious to anything but themselves, although they are middle-aged.

And then the third generation enters.

Middle-aged Jairaj flashes back in time to when he was as young as Viswas and seeking to marry his own wife, Ratna. In the process of telling he becomes his father, Amritlal, a former fighter during India’s independence. The actor playing Viswas takes on the role of young Jairaj and the actor playing Lata becomes the young Ratna. From there the stories criss-cross, each level of the play alternating generations.

This is the skeleton of Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man. In the drama, the house itself stands in as a metaphor for all of India, in which a stubborn, self-righteous patriarch (Amritlal) hands down narrow prescriptions about male and female roles from generation to generation. In the world of Amritlal, men do not dance. Only women dance, and those women are whores. Despite his son’s obvious passion as a dancer, he cannot tolerate a man doing such unmanly things.

Jairaj and Ratna escape Amritlal’s house, only to find they cannot support themselves as artists. Once they are forced financially to move back into the domain of Amritlal, they will never be free again.

The rules of her father-in-law cripple Ratna and her career. As part of a pact with Amritlal, Ratna is allowed to continue dancing but only under the condition that she ensures her husband will never succeed at it. Furthermore, she is never allowed to become particularly good at it herself; Amritlal bans her from seeing the one person who can actually teach her to master the art.

But for however much Amritlal’s patriarchy cripples Ratna, it destroys Jairaj utterly. His wife and father’s machinations reduce him to being an alcoholic, a failure as a dancer and as a husband and as a father.

[media-credit name=”Agastya Kohli” align=”alignleft” width=”300″]dance-like-a-man-1[/media-credit]At first blush, one might mistake the play for an almost straightforward piece of naturalistic drama. The more one pays attention, however, the less straightforward it is.

At its core, the play treats the subject of gender within a patriarchy. Traditionally plays that treat patriarchy focus almost exclusively upon the sufferings of women. But here those patriarchal wrongs destroy men and women both, and Jairaj much more than Ratna who, at the very least, gets to be an artist. In Mr. Dattani’s play, young women can navigate in the patriarchal world as long as they follow certain rules. Older women are simply expected to disappear. Jairaj’s own mother is never even seen in the piece. The only other women from that first post-independence generation are sort of pariahs. Chennai Amma is a devadasi temple slave and the only other woman mentioned is the servant Shantamma who is responsible for the death of Jairaj’s son: the invisibility and inaudibility of the feminine voice leads to the ruination of men, not just women. To dance like a man in this context is to dance with death.

The structure of the play overlays three generations that seem to have different concerns. Obsessed with artistic freedom, young Jairaj is certainly not like Amritlal and his obsession with convention. And young Viswas and Lata are very little like young Jairaj and Ratna–or are they? The son of a rich mithaiwala (sweets seller), Viswas has no artistic pretensions. He is content to let his future wife be the artist. Yet that dynamic mirrors that of Jairaj and Ratna, who also have a relationship in which the woman is the artist of the family. Furthermore, his attitude that Lata’s dancing is “too erotic” connects him not to Jairaj, but rather to Amritlal, as does his materialism. When Viswas dons Amritlal’s shawl, the connection becomes even more explicit.

This is delicate material. Fortunately the Pratidhwani production has a fine cast who are sensitive to the nuances of the text. I’ve grown to expect excellent performances from Abhijeet Rane and this is no exception. Mr. Rane’s gift for portraying internal conflict displays itself well here, anchoring the rest of the cast. As an actor, he is always steady, always understated, even when playing the older Jairaj in his drunken scenes. Meenakshi Rishi shares an excellent chemistry with Mr. Rane. Her role shifts between comic, witty and vicious, and in the hands of a less skilled actress would be a recipe for deadly theater. Not here: Ms. Rishi plays her conflict subtly, the way I wish actors would learn to play Chekhov.

I’ve only seen Tanvee Kale and Jay Athalye in Pratidhwani dance pieces, and judging from their work here, I believe I have been cheated of many fine performances. Mr. Athalye in particular has an excellent grasp not only of both his characters, but their entire milieu. Given the contrast of personalities between his young Viswas and his young Jairaj, this is no mean feat. There was, on the night I saw the play, a bit of messiness at the climax of the play that came from a certain lack of voice projection. Apart from that, however, both Ms. Kale and Mr. Athalye give excellent portrayals of both young couples in love, with a thorough understanding of the difference–and possible similarity–between the two relationships.

I’ve seen the play done on a split level set representing the different generations, but here I rather prefer director Agastya Kohli’s decision to compress the action into the same location. The transformations of the set are as subtle as the transformation of seeing Jairaj don his father’s glasses and transport the entire play back in time. On a larger set this may well have come off not as stage magic but theatrical trickery. Mr. Kohli obviously knows what he wants from this piece. Given the author’s stubborn refusal to end the play with a message or indeed even an indication of the future action, one can either try to make it tidy or leave it be. Mr. Kohli leaves it be, and the production is stronger for it. Aided by Pallavi Garg’s delightfully archetypal costumes and David Hsieh’s scene design, Mr. Kohli manages to delineate clearly yet blend the inter-generational themes in a musical manner–which, after all, is one of the author’s own tropes. His balance is nearly perfect: the production is never exclusively about Jairaj, or Ratna, or Lata, or Amritlal. It treats them all as players in a much larger drama without leaving behind the immediacy of the one on stage. Each woman struggles in her own way with her own path. Each man follows along rather more powerlessly, learning how to dance in a world of convention and expectation.


Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net