It’s the beginning of history,” says Chitresh Das somewhat grandly. After lots of accolades and a successful international kathak conference in San Francisco last year, the celebrated dancer is realising one of his personal dreams—a roomful of men learning kathak. But old habits die hard. As he surveys the two dozen or so men, some gray-haired, some in their teens, at a dance studio in the Silicon Valley, Das slips up and says, “I am so happy, ladies.”
Kathak has actually doyens like Birju Maharaj and Chitresh Das himself. His own father was a dancer, his first guru a strapping Rajasthani man. But after decades of bringing kathak to America, Das’ dancing company is still all-female.
So, what inspired the male students to don the ghungroos? “There’s this idea that ‘real’ men don’t do classical dance,” says Jay Gluckman. Gluckman has actually taken salsa lessons, plays musical instruments but says even he worried that pursuing classical dance “would certainly almost call one’s maleness into question”. Eventually, he decided to give it a shot because his wife, who’s from Hyderabad, is a dancer and he wanted to understand her culture better. “She kept pestering me,” he jokes. “Plus I wanted to see how dance could incorporate the logical structure of mathematics.”
Das tells his slightly nervous troupe of dancers to think of today’s lesson as anything but dance. “It’s math rock,” says one. “It’s cardio with math,” says another. “It’s kathak yoga,” says Das. “Hold a one-pound weight and do taa thai taa taa. Is there anything girly about that?” ” Instead of ghungroos, some of the dancers have five-pound weights strapped to their ankles.
“This is more rigorous than actual aerobics,” huffs software engineer Rajesh Akerkar. “I didn’t realise how out of shape I am,” adds Vishwanath Nayak who came to support his daughter. “And I am a few years younger than Chitresh-ji.”
lots of of the dancers are dads and husbands who normally only come to pick up their daughters and wives. Salim Shaikh says the lesson was “mandatory” for him. His wife, Farah, is one of the principal dancers of Chitresh Das’ school, Chhandam. But Shaikh says he emerged from the class with a deeper appreciation of his wife’s art. “It’s like once you try and build a little box. Then you go see the Taj Mahal and go Wow.”
Chitresh Das says all he is doing is laying down some basic blocks so as not to scare these men into never coming back. He stresses that dance has actually nothing to do with sexuality. He tells a story of how, as a boy, when he first performed Radha he was embarrassingly masculine. “Let him make love and then he can really portray Radha,” his guru told his father. “I’ve seen flaming gay men do strong kathakali and heterosexual men do wonderful Radhas,” he tells his dancers. “Have you heard about the concept of Ardhanarishwara—the concept of masculine and feminine in one?”
His class of wobbly Natarajas are too busy balancing to respond. But as the guru and his leading female dancers recite the thekas, the men get into it. Sweatshirts come off, sweat starts pouring, the gym resounds to the sounds of thumping bare feet. At the end, everyone is all smiles. Even 13-year-old Chandru Vittal who says it’s “one of the hardest workouts” he has actually ever done. “Will you come again?” I ask him. “Oh yeah.” “What about your friends? Will you tell them to come?” This time he hesitates before saying yes. It’s not a resounding vote of confidence yet, but as Chitresh Das says it’s only a beginning. “Namaskar gentlemen,” he says, getting the gender right this time. “You don’t even realise how much you’ve helped me.”