Telling moves

ace performer

Zakir Hussain is exceptional not only as a Bharatanatyam dancer, but also as a researcher of the dance form and a guru, writes Hema Vijay.

Zakir Hussain is back in Chennai now, after one of his workshops outside the country. This time around, he was in Dubai for a training session for performing dancers on the play of aesthetics in dance. Earlier, over phone, we had fixed up a date for our interview. On the D-day of the interview, a stocky and exuberant-looking man walks in with the stride of a body builder. It is difficult to associate this person with the onstage persona of the enigmatic Bharatanatyam dancer Zakir Hussain, someone known for his emotionally intense and spiritually anchored performances.

And before questions get rolling, he grins to say, “For the last 22 years, I have been barraged by questions on how it is that someone of Islamic origin stepped into Bharatanatyam. I would prefer to just speak about the dance itself.” But he relents to add, “I’ll just say this though. It must be the influence of an earlier incarnation. That seems to be the only logical explanation. I am fortunate to have been born in a Muslim family. Now I know both the traditions.”

Zakir has come to be known for his eclectic reproductions, interpretation of Western classical tales in Indian dance idiom, and of course, for his spellbinding dance recitals and oratory centered on the child poet — Saint Andal.

Researcher

Zakir Hussain is also one of those few Bharatanatyam dancers who pursue a literary agenda in their dance. He has been researching on Vaishnava sampradaya, including the Pancharatra Agama Sastra, the scriptures governing temple construction and worship rituals. His knowledge about the Vedas, Agamas and other ancient texts is impressive. In fact, he regularly gives literary discourses. He has researched on Vaikanasam and interpreted ritualistic mudras into Bharatanatyam. The Department of Vaishnavism at the University of Madras has acknowledged Zakir’s literary expertise by appointing him a visiting professor on Vaishnava mythology and history.
The passion for the literary aspect of dance is why his dance school, SriPaadham Academy of Dance, trains dancers in not just nritta (technique), adavu (steps) and abhinaya or expression, but also the history of this ancient dance, with its students encouraged to come up with their own compositions and choreographies. SriPaadham follows the Vazhuvoor style of Bharatanatyam. Firmly rooted in reality, as a dance teacher, Zakir advises budding Bharatanatyam dancers to simultaneously pursue a career outside of Bharatanatyam. “In the future, it will be extremely tough for dancers to make a career out of classical dance. The cost of production is fast becoming unaffordable to the majority of dancers, despite their obvious talent.

Meanwhile, the audience’s attention span is dwindling, while technology incites people to view dance and theatre on YouTube rather than take time, effort and expense to experience a live performance. For most dancers, surviving in this field is becoming difficult now,” he says candidly. It is for the same reason that Zakir chooses to stay unmarried. “This profession is extremely demanding, with scarce consideration for family requirements of the dancer’s time and attention,” he adds.

In the course of his 22-year-old dance career, Zakir has travelled to perform in 32 countries, besides scores of cities within the country. And then of course, he is a sought-after dance guru of professional dancers in several countries outside India.
Zakir reveres Bharatanatyam not just as an exquisite art form, but also as a powerful tool for communication, holding tremendous scope for contemporary exchanges. “In a futuristic sense, our larger goal is in taking this dance form ahead with scientific reasoning and modern thoughts and concepts,” says Zakir. One of few of the vanishing breed of male Bharatanatyam dancers, he concedes, “A male dancer does have limitations. A female can dance as a male, but when a male attempts to dance as a female, there are wide-ranging limitations on his movements.” This remains a curious reality of our times, though Shiva or Nataraja, the God of Dance, happens to be male.

Dynamics of performance

It is difficult to pin down what makes certain choreographies resonate with the audience, while others don’t. Someone who is famous for the incredible energy he exudes on stage during performances, Zakir sees the intellectual and emotional energy flow between the performer and the audience as the key to momentous art. If the audience is silent and seems wilted, the dancer has the power to make them enthusiastic, apparently.

“A successful dancer knows how to grab energy from the audience. From classical dancers to pop legends like MJ who used to perform for hours without a drop in vitality, what made it happen was this two-way flow of energy with the audience. Good audiences and good performances go together. This enthusiasm is different from knowledge. An audience can be a complete novice to the art, but if the dancer strikes a chord and sets the energy dice rolling, great performances ensue,” says Zakir.
In fact, Zakir regards that novice audiences are a welcome treat for performers. “Like blank pages, they have space to be written upon, and one can introduce a truly high sense of aesthetics to them, rather than just offer clinically correct performances,” he muses. He adds, “Audiences expect every performance to be a huge success. A performer cannot afford to have even a single ‘off-colour’ day.” The invocation part of the performance is crucial. It makes or breaks your audience’s attention, he says.

To each his own

Not a purist, Zakir believes in each dancer creating his own style and footprint, In fact, his hugely successful production, Cinderella, that was staged in Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Dubai happens to be a fusion dance, interpreted in Mohiniattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, besides free style Western classical. Zakir likes to innovate with sound too. In his choreography of Dasyam, which incidentally had lyrics by prodigious actor-musician Revathy Sankaran, audiences were pleasantly surprised to hear temple bells and the conch, while his Narayanam’s musical score was evocative of vedic chants.

Zakir was born in the small city of Salem in Tamil Nadu. He gravitated to dance rather late, compared with other Bharatanatyam stalwarts. In fact, he graduated in Fibre Technology before his passion for dance took him to Chennai. Here, he took training from noted danseuse Chitra Visweswaran. Alongside, he studied dance theory from Krishnaveni Lakshmanan of Kalakshetra.

Later, he studied the largely forgotten but exquisite system of mudras of the Pancharatra Agama Sastra, which he used in his critically acclaimed production Narayanam. After several years of struggle, now, Zakir is one of those inspired classical dancers who are at the crest of an evolving aesthetic wave that is dashing into the shores of a rapidly changing world.

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