Gender Equality (or lack of it) in Classical Indian dance

A few months ago I came across this article which hoped men dancers won’t be subject to “reverse discrimination”. Before I go on, a disclaimer: firstly there are many incredibly talented men dancers. They deserve every bit of attention they receive because they are brilliant. Secondly, not all men dancers get an easy ride. Attractive, tall, fair skinned boys get an advantage. Thirdly, I am aware that men have to put up with a lot of crap and sexually inappropriate Gurus (both male and female). I know I am making generalisations and the scenarios below are not always the case. Nevertheless these things do happen in varying scales across the dance world.

My first example of sexism was at the age of sixteen when I was a happy and optimistic kid who enjoyed learning Kathak. I had spent a year saving up money to attend a summer dance school and felt ready to take up the advanced class. My teacher had instructed me to join the intermediate class and to attend advanced only when the Gurus believed I was ready. When the moment came and I was upgraded to the advanced class, the Guru said the class was too full because a boy with hardly any Kathak training was occupying the last place. The Guru chose the boy over me solely based on appearance and gender, not dance ability. I wasted a week unchallenged, unhappy and after that experience stopped dancing for a year.

After a lot of hard work I decided I wanted to be a dancer. I polished my laya, reduced a third of my body weight, and took fortnightly 15 hour overnight buses to attend dance classes. My dedication and drive was off the charts but once again I was pushed aside for a less experienced bloke. My biggest flaw was a lack of stage experience. During ten years of training I had danced on stage a handful of times and did not even own my own costume. I had no idea how to dress or perform. Boys with 3 months of training are thrown onto stage because there is always a shortage of men dancers. Not only are they allowed to perform before they can clap teentaal, they are also allowed to be messy and uncoordinated solely because “that’s how men dance”

Kathak is a career path taken up predominately by women, yet it is dominated by Pandit Birju Maharaj, a bloke. There are hordes of talented women dancers who are hidden in dance institutes around the world. Many women who succeed are gharanadaars or have rich parents. When women choose to take up dance, pockets of society still believe they are tawaifs (fun anecdote for another day about a North London taxi driver who asked me which bar I dance at). Men face homophobic and transphobic discrimination if they choose to take up dance, another symptom of the warped gender bias in the Classical Indian dance industry. Of course, men dancers are a better long term investment as they aren’t privy to changes in their figure after childbirth.

Raising gender inequality with dance elders tends to always get a bit of a shrug and a “well that’s how things go”. That’s exactly the type of attitude which allows discrimination to prevail. The status quo needs to be challenged, particularly in an industry which is seeped in (occasionally backward) traditions. Many men dancers are a part of “dancing duos” and one may see that as a symptom of “reverse discrimination”. I see this more as a symptom of a patriarchal society in which audiences expect to see beautiful women perform. In a perfect gender equal society audiences would judge performers for their dancing merit. Not their gender, parental background, or ethnicity.

There are many talented men dancers around. But Veejay Sai’s claim that they are subject to “reverse discrimination” is very one sided. Men dancers get far more stage experience and get away with sub standard dancing. Gender equality must be addressed to make dance a welcoming platform for all genders. Men and women are subject to different hoops to judge and different barriers to cross. Levelling the playing field by ensuring equality is imperative to the growth of Classical Indian dance.

Ok, with that I think I’ve written too much about dance. Will stick to politics and the Lib Dems in future posts seeing as no one is interested in dance anyway. Maybe throw some more satire out there. I suppose when an art form requires so much emotional investment to learn, I get a bit emotional at the things which irritate me. Feel free to email or tweet me to discuss this further or to hear why dance makes me so bitter. The answer isn’t “sour grapes” as some have been suggesting after my last post.


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