Surrender totally

A conversation with bharatanatyam dancer Mithun Shyam

Mithun Shyam

In the ancient city of Chengdu in southwestern China, bharatanatyam dancer Mithun Shyam felt like Shah Rukh Khan.

“I was overwhelmed and astonished. Once the performance got over, I was mobbed for selfies, autographs and group pictures. It was like an epiphany — I understood at that instant the immense power of Indian classical forms,” he narrates joyously.

For Mithun Shyam, the encouraging reception he got in China as well as in all the other countries he performed in, including Thailand, Malaysia, the United States and the Middle East, only reconfirmed to him what his heart knew all along. Dance was where he belonged and all his dreams could only be realised on the stage — and not behind a laptop in an office cubicle.

A leap of faith

Like many men of his age who are keen about dance, Mithun was working in an IT company while simultaneously learning bharatanatyam under the eminent guru, late Padmini Ramachandran, and hesitated to take it up as a full-time profession. “Even today, people look askance when I tell them I am a professional bharatanatyam performer. I keep getting asked, ‘So, what else do you do?’,” he laughs.

But by 2010, Mithun had come to a decision. “I was most happy when I was dancing or teaching dance. I decided it was time to just trust my happiness and my guru held my hand when I took the final leap.”

But making the leap did not exactly mean an end to challenges. In fact, it had all just begun for Mithun, who trained in the Vazhuvoor style of bharatanatyam that emphasises grace and abhinaya.

Mithun says male classical dancers do face a load of discrimination but not many of them give voice to their frustrations. “You live with so much stigma that you ultimately get used to it… male dancers are routinely termed effeminate or gay, or sniggered at for not doing any real (read macho) job.”

Beyond boundaries

Such barbs only served to make Mithun more determined. He made special efforts to train male bharatanatyam dancers in Vaishnavi Natyashala, the dance school he established in 1998. Today, Mithun is known as much for his performance as his teaching, and trains as many as 16 male dancers in his school that boasts of more than 500 students. “The credit for building my confidence goes to my guru Padmini, without whose perfectionism I wouldn’t have the courage to experiment and look beyond,” he recalls.

Guru Padmini was famously a strict disciplinarian who insisted on every adavu being perfect. “We were greatly afraid of her — she would know immediately if we came to class without practice. But she knew talent when she saw it and always made it a point to encourage her students,” he reminisces.

For Mithun, the driving force of his productions are his innermost thoughts. “Our classical dance forms are powerful and have the flexibility and adaptability to convey any thought — be it modern or ancient. It is up to us to take it beyond our imagined boundaries,” he says.

He tried to do precisely that in his production that focussed on gender fluidity and alternate sexuality, the inspiration for which was his watchman! “Here was a typical man, aloof and disinterested in his child. One day, his wife dies and he transforms! I witnessed his change — the mother in him was suddenly evoked. This made me explore how we are all a mix of masculinity and femininity,” he describes. The dancer is working on his next production on fatherhood. ‘We often hear of a mother’s sacrifice, but what about fathers’ sacrifices? Why isn’t there any narrative about the journey of fathers, what they go through, and how they respond to parenthood?”

It is to explore these themes and bring about better awareness about classical dance forms that his dance school recently held an 11-hour-long event, Nruthya Neerajana, in Bengaluru. “I wanted to put across the message that classical dance is for everyone — yes, including young boys — and parents should not hesitate to encourage their boys if they express a desire to pursue classical arts,” he says passionately.

Mithun firmly believes dance is his spiritual path to a deeper, higher connection. “As grand as it may sound, for me, dance is my way of attaining salvation. I am not talking religion here or referring to any particular God... when I am dancing, I am surrendering and that is all that matters.” 

 

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