Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Ambition and Anxiety in Mahesh Dattani’s –

B. Yadava Raju

Ambition and Anxiety in Mahesh Dattani’s

There is a paucity of drama in Indian English Literature (IEL). Compared to other literary genres, the out-put of Indian English drama has been scanty. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the most important reasons is that English is not our ‘mother tongue’. English is a ‘learnt’ language, at best the ‘second’ language and the learning of it is still confined to the ‘urban elite’ of India. As opposed to this situation, the playwrights in all the national languages are more successful compared to those writing in English. It is in this context Mahesh Dattani’s writings assume importance because his plays have come to stay in the literary circles. Writing plays in English at this time and situation is, certainly, a challenging activity. Mahesh Dattani not only continues to write plays in English, but has bagged the Sahitya Academy Award for English literature for his play Final Solutions.

The plays of Mahesh Dattani bring Indian English Drama into the post-nineties. His plays are so realistic that sometimes they generate a lot of discussion and controversy. At the same time his plays embody many of the classical concerns of world drama. Human relationships and the family unit have always been at the heart of this dramatic representation. While concentrating on the family unit and human relationships, Dattani bravely experiments with the techniques of presentation. He often uses split-sets, hidden rooms and many other innovations. In Dance Like a Man, Dattani makes use of the ‘flash-’ technique that suits the theme and brings out the best in the play.

Dance Like a Man is a play in Two Acts dealing with the history of oppression and revival of Bharatanatyam. Any quick reading of the play will bring out two important aspects of the play. On one hand the play focuses on the ‘difficulty with which the art form (Bharatanatyam) is revived and saved for posterity to learn it. On the other hand, the play attempts to bring out the ambition, anxiety and prejudices of the artists who try to preserve the art form.

In the earlier days Bharatanatyam was associated with temples and rituals. The art was preserved by ‘devadasis’, who were professional dancers in temples. They were, however, exploited by the priests and the rulers, and eventually, out of economic necessity, turned to prostitution. Hence, a stigma came to be attached to the dance form itself. Till nineteen-thirties and forties, the dance form was ignored and neglected. Added to this was the British prudish attitudes which dubbed Bharatanatyam as erotic. Some of our ‘brown sahibs’ also endorsed such view and considered the art form as a ‘debased and licentious remnant’ of our barbaric past. (see the playwright’s Note to the play). With the advent of anti-nautch movement in the nineteen-thirties, many ‘social reformers’ also whipped up public opinion against this art form. But in spite of this, in the same decade, a few young dancers from well-to-do and respectable families came forward to learn the dance form from the ‘devadasis’. It is due to such enthusiasts that the art form has come to survive till today. This is the explicit theme of the play which is made clear by the playwright himself in his ‘Note’ to the play.

The originality of Mahesh Dattani lies in underscoring the clashes, conflicts, jealousies, anxieties and prejudices of the artists while practising the art form. Such an attitude of the artists proves to be counter productive. The play meticulously exposes some of these emotions.

Structurally, there are Two Acts in the play, each Act has its own divisions between the present and the past lives of the central characters. Act One opens with the present developments and flashes into the past. Act Two opens with [the past] nineteen forties and projects into the present. This shuttling between the present and the past takes place more than once in Act Two.

In the second part of Act One of the play, the conflict between art and society is a prominent one. Amritlal Parkeh, Jairaj’s father, is the representative of the society of the 1930s and 1940s. He is a freedom-fighter, but curtails the freedom of his own son, who wants to be a dancer. Amritlal Parkeh is an autocratic father for whom Bharatanatyam is the craft of a ‘prostitute to show off her wares’ (p.137), and hence a man has no business to learn such a craft, and ‘anyone who learnt such a craft could not be a man’(p.137).

This view is opposed tooth and nail by Jairaj, who is all out to prove himself to be a male (Bharatnatyam) dancer. In disobeying Amritlal Parekh and rejecting his views on dance both Jairaj and Ratna come together and challenge the old man. They leave the house in defiance. The ‘first flash-’ of Act One comes to an end with their defiance. Act Two begins where the flash-in Act One ends. Jairaj and Ratna, out of sheer helplessness return to Amritlal Parekh’s house within two days. Their helplessness is exploited by Amritlal Parekh. He imposes certain restrictions on the dancing practice of Jairaj and Ratna. He agrees to allow only Ratna to dance so long as she helps him in making Jairaj a man, who can be worthy of a woman. He always advises Jairaj to ‘grow up’ (p.166) and be a man. Strangely, after this sort of pact with Ratna, the old man disappears from the scene. It appears as if he has handed over his responsibility towards his son to Ratna. Ratna, thus, buys her freedom at the expense of Jairaj’s desire to become a dancer. Ambition and anxiety over-take Ratna. In order to prove herself as a dancer, she ‘destroys’ Jairaj by undermining his ‘self-esteem’ (p.188) as an artist.

In the second flash-of Act Two, the way in which this plan of ‘destruction’ has been executed is dramatized. Jairaj feels neglected and dismissed. He is used, he feels, as a tool, and as stage prop, or as choreographer to Ratna’s dance-items, but seldom as a co-dancer. Jairaj charges Ratna that he was deliberately given his ‘weakest items’(p.188) and was made to dance always in the shadow of Ratna. He was rated to be a mediocre artist. His desire, thus, to become a dancer is thwarted. Jairaj hopes to see, at least, his son, little Shankar as a dancer and wishes that he would dance the ‘tandava nrityam’ of Lord Shiva (p.185) right on the head of his grand-father, Amritlal Parekh, when he becomes a young man. But this desire of Jairaj is also not fulfilled, since the child dies. It appears that the ayah, in an attempt to keep the child away from weeping for his mother, administers an overdose of opium and unknowingly kills the child. Thus, in Jairaj’s opinion, Ratna is more responsible for the death of the child. Ratna was always, he alleges, after the name and fame as a dancer rather than discharging her duty as a mother, and as a wife.

But, then, Ratna also blames Jairaj for his mediocrity (p.190) and his addiction to alcohol (p.187). She holds Amritlal Parkeh also responsible for Jairaj’s downfall. According to Ratna, Jairaj’s downfall began from the day he returned to his father’s house. She charges Jairaj that he was always ‘a spineless boy’ who couldn’t leave his father’s house for more than forty-eight hours’ (p.132). For her Jairaj ‘stopped being a man’ from that fateful day onwards. For the past forty years Ratna has been holding this complaint against Jairaj. In fact, the audience get to know about this mutual disagreement between Ratna and Jairaj in their very first meeting with them in Act One. The play, in fact, opens with this distrust between them and continues to show it till the end of the play. Thus both of them distrust one another, and lead a life of misery. The unison and jathi that are required in any successful dance item, are lacking in their day to day life. But both of them agree that the sacrifices made to be what they are now, are too great (p.145). However, they exude the confidence that Lata, their daughter, needn’t go through all this since she is ‘talented’ and worthy of her profession. Ratna, once again, as is usual with her, tries to claim the entire credit for the success of Lata’s dance programme. She is of the opinion that the rare reviews on Lata’s performance are due to her ‘sweet-talking the critics’ (p.182). This view of Ratna is questioned by Jairaj, Lata really ‘deserved’ (p.183) the good reviews. The critics were, in fact, not doing Ratna any ‘favour’ (p.183). In this connection Jairaj suggests to Ratna that she has ‘at least a daughter to be jealous of’ (p.184).

The play ends with Jairaj’s admission that they were only human and lacked the grace and brilliance, and also lacked magic to dance like God (p.194). To be able to revise, protect and continue the art of dance, to be true, any art, the artist(s) should rise above the human weaknesses. Art will be well protected only in the hands of such artists.

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