A winning stance

A winning stance

Watching Haleem Khan, you think, “Here is a dancer performing Kuchipudi. Here is a dancer in stree vesham. And, here is a person who has taken a leap of faith.”

At 33, Hyderabad-based Kuchipudi dancer Haleem has around 800 dance performances, workshops and lecture-demonstrations (in India and abroad) to his credit. Haleem performs the regular Kuchipudi repertoire, but most of his recent performances have been of stree vesham. A stree vesham refers to female impersonation by a male dancer. “Well, nowadays I get more requests for such performances,” he says.

In other roles

Among the female roles that have received appreciation are a vain Sathyabhama in Bhama Kalapam, a coy Padmavathi in Annamacharya lyrics, a shy Parvathi in Girija Kalyanam, and a lovelorn sringara nayika in various javalis. He has also performed Kuchipudi to Sufi music and ghazals, and experimented with fusion dance involving Kuchipudi with Flamenco, with Thai traditional dance, and with ballet.

As an actor, he is featured in seven Telugu films. The eighth film, in which he plays, for the first time, a negative role, is now under production. Savvadi - Sound of Dance, a film on Haleem made by Praveen Bangari, is doing the rounds of film festivals. Haleem is also the founder-director of Deccan Kuchipudi Art Academy, Telangana.

Haleem has also recently brought out an instructional dance DVD titled Haleem Khan’s Kuchipudi, which he says is not “a substitute for a teacher, but a means to raise awareness about Kuchipudi. It’s meant to complement the learning of Kuchipudi from one’s own teacher.” He adds that it pays tribute to great artistes who have contributed to preserving the legacy of the dance form.

The story of how he has reached this far is interesting and inspiring.
Haleem was born in the town of Ongole in Andhra Pradesh into a community where learning a classical dance form is almost unheard of. Also, certain rituals that are part of Indian classical dances, especially Kuchipudi, are all taboo in the community.

Moreover, his parents were orthodox. Growing up, he was a typical Telugu-cinema-loving kid. However, it was the highly aesthetic, dance-based Telugu films made by ace director K  Viswanath, like the classic Sankarabharanam, Swarnakamalam and Sagara Sangamam, that made an impact on him. “I resolved to learn dance, Kuchipudi to be precise, and dreamt of performing on stage,” he recalls. However, his parents reacted unfavourably to his initial hints. “But I had a burning desire to become a dancer. In high school, I secretly enrolled in dance classes under guru K V Subramanyam, a student of the legendary Kuchipudi teacher-choreographer Vempati Chinna Satyam. I managed to keep this under wraps. I was already attending computer classes, so I joined a completely unnecessary typing class to create an interim one-hour period that could easily go unaccounted for. This hour was used for my dance class!” He had another teacher much later — Pasumarthi Nagamohini.

His performances began with bit parts and a few years later, he was used to solo shows. But, all of the early shows were under a pseudonym, Hari, as he felt his own name may raise eyebrows. “I was doing everything I could to overcome obstacles and realise my dream!” he says. It was only in 2006 that he began performing with his own name. Around 2008, his parents learned that their son was a dancer when a TV channel approached them for an interview.

Haleem, who had alongside pursued his education, earned an MBA degree and got himself a job, but gave it up in 2010 to become a fulltime dancer as he found his passion for dancing overwhelming. “I believed this was the best time to establish my career and build a reputation, though it was considered a foolish move by some friends.”

Happiness in acceptance

Today, that second leap of faith has proved to be a risk well-taken.
Successful artistes, or successful professionals in general, are empowered by self-belief and conviction, which encourages them to take risks and make sacrifices to achieve their goals. Haleem exemplifies this. His parents are now more than reconciled to his career choice. “From opposition they moved to acceptance, and then encouragement. Now, they actually take pride in my achievements!” He finds this one of the happiest developments in his life.

About the recent biopic Savvadi, a short film on him, Haleem says, “I never imagined that my artistic journey would inspire someone to document my life. I still remember those days of the past when my passion had to be kept under wraps... those days of playing hide-and-seek with the world... when I was afraid of taking my ghungroos home, and when I practised dance in the bathroom with the tap running to prevent my family from hearing the sound.”

In India, the space for classical arts is still smaller compared to popular forms like cinema. Moreover, male solo classical dancers in India do not receive as many performance opportunities as their female counterparts. So, does he find the going tough? Haleem says that despite all the visibility and acclaim he has garnered, it’s an uphill road ahead.

“There is not enough awareness about or promotion for the classical arts in India. The public and private-sector organisations need to support these traditional arts more. As artistes, we too have a responsibility to spread awareness about them. That’s what I am trying to do as best as I can.”

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