Days of dancing

Days of dancing

bold steps

Days of dancing

The stage was set. At a prestigious college fest in Chennai, in 2007, 50 competitors would stage their Bharatanatyam performances. Two of them were male. Of them, Charles Ma, a student in his early-20s from Bengaluru, was there to just give it a shot. He was new to the dance form and the city, a cultural centre of South India.

With a duffle bag across his shoulders, he arrived solo at the venue. He got dressed and saw his competitors, all lithely beautiful women dancers — who were later introduced as students of Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan recipients — adorned with temple jewellery and flowers in the hair, and big beautiful eyes.

First, fright found him. Then, a beautiful girl, on seeing him, sniggered. Hit hard by the reaction, but suddenly feeling determined to beat her and everyone else (at dance), he retreated to a corner and waited for his turn. And he won the competition.

“The win was a turning point in my life. From then on, I believed I was a dancer, and pursued it,” remembers the 31-year-old Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher and motivational speaker, sitting cross-legged at his home in Indiranagar, Bengaluru.

Charles Ma speaks with unwavering, energetic decibels throughout our conversation — sometimes swearing, mostly poetically. He could be sharing both the stings and successes that have marked his journey as a dancer. The well-built and fit (“This is not my peak fitness level yet”) dancer is not short on energy. “I’m a passionate person. Today, it’s Bharatanatyam, but tomorrow, who knows, I may write a book, or maybe start a restaurant, or a gym,” he says, while keeping an eye out for Troy, the stray dog he and his family have rescued and nursed to health.

Groomed by life

Bengaluru has been home to him since birth. “My grandfather is Chinese, my grandmother is Nepalese, and my mother is from North-East, so I’m kind of a mash-up. But I grew up here, in a working-class, Tamil-speaking neighbourhood, full of warm-hearted people. I learnt to speak Tamil from them. I attended an all-boys school, where I learnt to read and write Kannada. Imagine not knowing the languages as a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher! Most of the songs are in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. I like to think life was preparing me to become a dancer,” he explains. 

Many factors, at different times, have separated and brought together Charles Ma and his passion. “To start with, I was really bad at dancing and was teased by my friends. I started with contemporary dance and choreography, not classical. I made the switch only when a gracious dancer snubbed me. I had an urge to prove her wrong, to become a great dancer. So I just picked Bharatanatyam. Then many gurus were apprehensive to take me as a student. Come on, first, I was a boy; second, I looked like an Oriental boy, a novelty! I was not comfortable with those few gurus who took me as a student, so I would slink out of classes. My search for a guru went on. And, in college, for some time I gave up dancing because I didn’t feel mentally stable.”

He is a mass communication graduate from Christ University, Bengaluru. He says the guru who helped him pick up pieces and transform into a serious dancer is Poornima Ashok. “She is a beautiful dancer. I’ve known her since 2004. She still guides me.”

But his ruling passion today is teaching Bharatanatyam, not so much performing. Only a few minutes back, he has combined math and rhythms to build a dance sequence with Samyukta, one of the 35 students of Natyaprabha, the dance school he started four years back. It’s sort of a moving dance school — he teaches some students at their homes, and some others at the dance studios in Indiranagar and Kasturinagar. Of the 35 students, the youngest is aged 4, and the oldest is in her early 50s, and three of them are boys.

Charles Ma feels he is a “teacher, not a guru. The student-teacher relationship is not restricted to dance. It’s about inter-personal relationships as well. As one, I’m someone who is there for my students whenever they need me — emotionally and financially (sometimes). A teacher is more accessible.”

In practical sense, this means, “We joke around, laugh; eat chats, share stories and secrets. I know when my students are having bad days. But on stage, we have a dignified rapport.”

‘Guru’ or teacher?

He adds, “There is deep respect and certain fear for the ‘guru’. I don’t want them to be afraid of me or the dance. My students have a voice. If they don’t like an aspect of dancing, they say it. It’s not being disrespectful. I want them to think about dancing. Why did a character do that? How old is Krishna? He can be 24 and behave differently, or he can be 16 and behave in another way. Our classes are layered that way.”

As a teacher, he equips himself with lessons from “paatu class, mridangam class etc.” “I need the students to challenge me, and my students do. I have to choreograph newly for them,” he says. Now onto reviving Bharatanatyam “with a sense of vintage aesthetics and yet that suits modern sensibilities,” he watches how the dance form looked 50-60 years ago “in the dance videos of performers Vyjayanthimala and Kamala Lakshman.”

According to him, Bengaluru is the perfect place for the dance form to flourish. “There is respect for traditionalism, yet there is a cosmopolitan view toward life.” The journey of dancing, he says, has made him a better human being. “I’m a more relaxed person today. Bharatanatyam captures the beauty of human life. Beauty does not just mean good things — love and happiness. It’s also about hate, anger, loss and revenge. We are coloured this way. Bharatanatyam is the reflection of that.”

With that, he is off — after blessing his student who has touched his feet, and patting Troy’s head — on his bike, to his next class.

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