Posted by Jerin Jacob
Mahesh Dattani’s works are noted to be of paramount importance in the field of Indian contemporary theatre. They question an amalgamation of social and gender-related issues. His play Dance Like A Man, set in the post-independence scenario, mirrors numerous concerns inherent in the fiercely heterosexual Indian society.
The characters and their respective struggles to live up to the gendered expectations of the patriarchal, bourgeois society – the ‘dancing’ man and the repercussions he faces for following his considerably ‘feminine’ passion of dancing, the rigid questioning of the ‘maleness’ of his identity, an over-ambitious woman failing in her role as a ‘nurturer’, money controlled power structures, a society reeling under the pre-independence clutches of tradition and the dominant nature of patriarchy are issues starkly reflected in the play.
Dance Like A Man revolves around the couple, Jairaj and Ratna, both Bharatnatyam dancers, and maps the struggles they had to face in the course of their Bharatnatyam careers. Amritlal Parekh, Jairaj’s autocratic father opposes their dancing and becomes the epitome of patriarchal subjugation in the play.
The themes which Dattani explores in his plays are far from conventional and centrally focuses on male stereotyping and gendered identity crises. The title is suggestive of the central challenge faced by the male protagonist, Jairaj, “[if] he [can] dance like a man”, as the very notion of dance is opposed to that of maleness and considered only as a female enterprise. Jairaj finds his passion condemned, his gender questioned and his identity stigmatized.
Gender is deemed performative and seen to be a cultural process and a pre-established pattern of behaviour which in the play brings Jairaj’s plight to the fore. The widely accepted view among the general public is that men and women fundamentally differ and that a distinct set of fixed traits characterize masculinity and femininity.
the very notion of dance is opposed to that of maleness and considered only as a female enterprise.
Dattani comments gravely on gender binaries and highlights the bias society fosters against the act of dancing in the play, voiced by Amritlal – “A woman in a man’s world may be considered as being progressive. But a man in a woman’s world, pathetic”. Jairaj is thus seen to struggle under the weight of patriarchal subjugation, repressed desire and traditional constructs.
Amritlal tells Ratna later, “Do you know where a man’s happiness lies?”, “In being a man”. Ratna too, hurls her abuse at Jairaj, “You stopped being a man for me the day you came back to this house”. His own view of his masculine identity is shown to be at conflict when she accuses him of being incapable of supporting them.
In this flux of autocratic patriarchal expectations and so-called “progressive thoughts”, Jairaj, both as a dancer and a human being, is made to finally sacrifice his passions and desires, though initially he tried to keep Amritlal from stopping him pursuing Bharatnatyam when he says – “And I will not have my art run down by a handful of stubborn narrow-minded individuals with fancy pretentious ideals”.
Amritlal also has an issue with Jairaj’s interest in growing his hair long. Jairaj wishes to have long hair so that it’ll enhance his abhinaya and thus his dance. Amritlal, however, reiterates the patriarchal voice that long hair is a signifier of femininity and that female beauty is a threat to Jairaj’s holistic masculine identity as demanded by society.
We observe a power-play between patriarchy, epitomized by Amritlal and its victim, Jairaj, forced to give up his dreams because they don’t satisfy the expectations or meet the standards set by patriarchy. A power-play also exists between tradition and modernity, two generations of masculinities and their warring ideologies symbolized by Amritlal and Jairaj.
In the play’s bourgeois social setting, money can be seen as equivalent to power. Thus, for Amritlal, his dancing son, with no monetary power (as dancing is not considered to be a rewarding profession), will not be able to lead a respectful life in a heterosexual patriarchal society.
He then tries to buy Ratna into helping him by offering to help her nurture her passion for dance at the cost of helping him make a man out of Jairaj – “Help me make him an adult. Help me help him grow up.” We see towards the end, Jairaj reduced to a situation of drunken impotency after his ‘self-esteem’ as an artist is shattered through the plans of his controlling father and ambitious wife while Ratna continues to excel in the field of Bharatnatyam often with the help of Amritlal himself.
Mahesh Dattani also questions the biased norms of masculinity through the discussion he has with Lata (his daughter), Viswas (his to be son-in-law) and Jairaj after Viswas states that Lata’s latest ashtapadi performance was too erotic, hearing which, Jairaj gets angry and retorts to Lata – “There’s nothing crude about it. I danced the same item. For the army… Your mother was too scared and they only wanted a woman. So I wore your mother’s costume… and danced. They loved it. They loved it even more when they found out I was a man…”
A power-play exists between tradition and modernity, two generations of masculinities and their warring ideologies.
This retort underlines the fact that Jairaj was indeed good as a dancer even when he took up roles where he had to cross-dress. This dialogue, though, contradicts the society’s stance it holds against a man pursuing the conventionally feminine enterprise of dancing. Society entertains itself and thus acknowledges a man dancing but still fosters a prejudice against his interests and passions.
The ‘non-womanly’ attributes of Ratna also become a cause of much speculation in the play. She controls and manipulates both her husband and her daughter, thus fulfilling the expected patriarchal ideals of masculinity in the household. She also teams up with Amritlal on his request to help him “make a man” out of Jairaj and in turn be allowed to fulfil her ambition of dancing.
Ratna’s feminine role of being a dutiful mother is also questioned towards the end of the play. Jairaj points out how her over-ambition and profession as a full-time Bharatnatyam dancer led to the untimely death of their son due to an overdose of opium, after which Ratna gives up a full time profession in dance. At this point in the play, we see Jairaj symbolizing the patriarchal voice of society and stigmatizing Ratna for failing to live up to the expectations of the woman as a nurturer in the same way that Jairaj is condemned in for choosing an ‘unmanly’ profession and hobby.
These subtle undertones of gender-based issues run throughout the play. Dattani, through his play Dance Like A Man, throws light upon the patriarchal and heterosexual post-independence setup of the Indian society where this play is set. Dattani succeeds in giving a voice to the voiceless identities and un-gendered passions and strives to bring to the fore unseen issues that his characters grapple with by his unique way of dealing with themes like gender, identity and sexuality.
Jerin Jacob is an ardent literature and languages enthusiast and swears by the power of words changing lives and creating change. A woman with a keen interest in working for the cause of gender justice and being a firm believer in writing based and art driven activism, she uses education as a means to propagate social change.
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