Gender stereotypes often restrict artists in search of creativity. We are forced to inhabit a prohibitive world that slams more than it commends. In any patriarchal society, women aren’t the only ones at the receiving end of oppressive power structures. Men are subjected to a similar tyranny for the choices they make.
Amma once shared a childhood reminiscence, “Pusan, my dancing star, was the first person I ever befriended at age 6. Not much older than me, he was a student of Ballet and often practiced in one half of the studio while I danced my earliest steps in Bharata Natyam. He trained in traditional Indian dance, as well. Most boys his age played sports or just ran amuck all day. It was the “manly” thing to do. They’d roast Pusan for his devotion to such an effeminate (to their limited minds) art form. They really humiliated him Kaali. For not fitting into the prescribed role for men, known to them. And then one day, when Pusan thought he had to go a step further than ignoring them, he told a band of those vile sneerers, ‘It will always crush you that while I can play as well as learn the world’s finest art; do all that you can do, you could never do what I do.’”
“Alright!”, I yelped, victoriously. “That must’ve choked them for good!”
“It did. It silenced the boys. But surely their behaviour’s a microcosm of palpable attitudes in society as a whole. They were only doing as directed; misguided to believe that dancing is a pursuit for women. We need a more formidable retort. To silence those who groundlessly hate and scorn.”
“How did Pusan Akka fight this crying shame?”, I asked, indignant.
“Well, the stigma still exists Kaali, but more people like Akka are willing to cross swords with it. And I see the army on our side getting stronger. We’re the people who don’t have a dictated list of ‘cant’s and ‘can’s customized to gender. It doesn’t exist for us.”
“For crying out loud, Lord Shiva is a man! The Lord of dance is a man. And the same society that worships him insults other men following, quite literally, in his footsteps!”
“We addressed the duplicity in one duet performance. Akka performed as Shiva and I played Parvati. It was an emulation of the dance contest between the two. Lord Vishnu would decide who the best dancer was. As the Supreme dancers danced, heaven was stunned. They were perfectly matched. Alternately imitating one another. It seemed impossible to judge.”
“So, who won though?” I inquired, impatient.
“Seeing the relentless performers before him, Vishnu was probably ready to quit the judging panel. Just then, something happened. Shiva’s earring fell down. Unfazed, the Lord reached for it with one leg and lifted it up and across to fix it back onto his ear. And it wasn’t ladylike for Parvati to do the same. Hence, to preserve her decency, she had to accept defeat.”
“So Shiva didn’t win. Shakti was forced to lose. What a sham! What’s indecent about a woman lifting her leg beyond a certain height? Another absurd, obsolete gender code, I suppose.”
“Precisely. However, there came a weightier outcome from this dance contest. Shakti fought for her place. Shiva’s stunt infuriated her. She revolted by disappearing. The whole world clouded into darkness. Everything came to a deadlock. Shiva saw his fault and convinced her to return. When the Goddess did, life resumed and the Lord endorsed the equality of woman and man. Because ‘Shakthi illayel Shivam illai; Shivam illayel Shakthi illai’. Shiva does not prevail without Shakti and Shakti does not prevail without Shiva.”
“In essence, when you flip the discrimination the other way, that’s what Pusan Akka was grappling with. It’s cruel. This constant battle of the sexes. First the gods have a duel. Then they claim the man has won. Then the woman has to stand up for herself and her kind and remind the world of her ruling role in it. When the injustice is recognized, she’s looked upon as an equal. The dance comes to us mortals, as a gift. We perform it in temples, before our deities as an offering to them. Devadasis pledge their lives to serving the gods their art. Some of these women perform in the courts of royals. Because those drunk with power are also besotted by the majesty of the art and its practitioners, they label the latter nautch girls. Eventually, as more people derive entertainment from it, some blockhead discredits dance. It is ordained a corrupt pursuit; unholy and lowly. Then one day, a man is determined to restore the debased art to its sacred pedestal. And lo and behold, he does! Still, after all that frenzy, when a man decides to dance; to really love his art, he’s pilloried for it. Because some other pathetic excuse for a man thinks it isn’t ‘manly’ enough for him to be doing so!”
Amma just shook her head repulsively.
“Akka dances like the man he is – fine and firm. And that’s all it means and all it takes to ‘be a man’.”
Amma was quick to ask, “And what does it take to be a woman?”
“The same, I’d say. True to herself. And respectful of the choices she or he make.”
“Dance like her then, Kaali. Dance, with pride, like the goddess who won her place. And humbly offer your art to all who wish to embrace it. Because everyone deserves to be liberated.”
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