By V.P. Dhananjayan
S. Santhanam has a valid point in arguing about having an upper garment as part of the costume for male dancers. I hope he witnessed my performances at the Music Academy in Chennai some years ago when I experimented wearing a well designed upper garment (see photo). Some people liked it while others privately advised me not to wear it. But none openly came out in public with any opinion or criticism. Unfortunately, people are afraid or reluctant to comment on such matters. I am glad that Santhanam has now expressed his opinion and opened a discussion on this important subject.
Let me set the ball rolling.
In south India we have the tradition of men wearing the angavastram, either to cover the torso or to tie it around the waist as the situation demands (as mentioned by Santhanam).
There were not many male Bharatanatyam dancers when the Sadir and devadasi system existed. The male nattuvanars generally wore the angavastram on their bare torso. When stalwarts like Ram Gopal, Uday Shankar, U.S. Krishna Rao started dancing on stage they invariably followed the male figures depicted in ancient sculptures including that of Lord Nataraja who is the symbol of the natya tradition and our cultural emblem.
Male dancers with good chiselled figures can as well dance with bare torso and rasikas do appreciate and enjoy the performance. Otherwise it is better to camouflage the body a well designed costume.
Male Kathak dancers always wore an upper garment because of the colder climate in northern India. On the other hand, the Manipuri drum dancers do not wear an upper garment, probably because they were also attached to the temple (age old customs). Of course situations have now changed.
“Old habits die hard”, the Chennai audience is used to the idea of male Bharatanatyam artists performing without an upper garment. Had anyone liked my idea they would have appreciated it, and male dancers would have followed my experimental venture.
Personally I prefer to dancing without the upper garment as there is great felicity in dancing with abandon. In fact, women dancers envy the men because they have umpteen knots from head to foot, whereas men can dance around freely.
Last but not the least, some ageing men like me need to cover our loosening muscles so as not to embarrass the rasikas.