Saturday, May 7, 2016

Guru Manoj- a dancer’s defiance for quality

   An aged man with thick grey beard, balding pate and scrawny body appears in a dance pose photograph, and a big crowd of Facebook buffs follow in flocks. The unusual picture is shared by thousands, quite unbecoming for a photo which has little sensational value. There was something ravishing. Cute as it is, this is a Bharathanatyam pose and the generation which cheered by ‘likes’ and shares in Facebook had only vague clues. This is classical dance? Yes, but no glitter and dazzle of jewelries, no shiny pajamas, no make up, no eye shadow, nor pointedly focusing bindi. The sexagenarian has a scanty loin cloth, a red shawl draping his shoulders and another piece tied around the waste.   But there was something quite appealing even to the untrained eyes of the Facebook crowd.

     This picture-perfect stance is of dancer Guru Manoj, displaying one of his favorite poses or karanams.   Guru Manoj had not been a regular name amongst South Indian dancers or teachers until recently when the Guru Pooja award was bestowed upon him by Kerala Sangeeth Nataka Academy. His popularity was limited to his dear disciples who had clear and deep respect for his choreography and teaching methods. As to his true nature, shunning away from limelight was a solemn rebellion to fulfill a life consigned and devoted to dance.

   Defying the norms was not a choice in life for Guru Manoj. It was a necessity, which provided a wholesome survival edge. Born as Abdul Manaf to a lower middle class Muslim family in a small village, building a life in Bharathanatyam needed constant struggle. Derided by his own family and conservative saviors of Bharathanatyam culture, Manaf had to have a makeover for fulfilling his passion. Manaf became Manoj and the identity shift was more than a pursuit of happiness, an event beneficial to dance per se as evidenced by later history. The prodigy was beyond control. Local training was extended to a lengthy interlude  in Madras with  tutelage under K. K. Sarasa and later by none other than Chitra Visweswaran. A stint with Vempatti Chinna Sathyam provided training in Kuchipudi which expanded his choreographic potential and competency.

  Once back in Kerala he had to battle again with his own identity- the religion he was born in. Moreover he was increasingly becoming an unpopular teacher just for his unwillingness to compromise on quality. Training students  just for youth festival competitions (a survival skill much need for  dance teachers both  for popularity and for  monetary advantages) was not the major trail he would step on. He would make dancers, not competitors and his style and perfectionism manifested in his students did not conform to youth festival conventions. The fertility rate of quality in Kerala soil was-it is even now- meager and Manaf aka Manoj had to flee. His venture was to travel and settle in Bhopal, starting afresh with a new dance school, Navachethana.  If  Kerala was not congenial, Bhopal was supportive. Kerala lost this ecclesiastic harbinger and until now remained generally unknown.

  At Navachethana through various productions he expanded all the knowledge and training he acquired from the great masters, but with distinction. His effective training in Kanatic music, veena and mridamgam  all enabled him to win over novel challenges. His approach to dance was mainly cosmic, the choreography with underlying  realms of the technical, the philosophical and the perceived aesthetics. He experimented with the surrealistic themes much before other dancers ventured into such meanderings.  In productions like The Rhythm of Universe he projected the transitions of the eternal, perpetually designed rhythm  based on beats of four (thalam  chathurasram)  of the universe into its human altered version of three beats and five beats.  Such abstract expositions are rare in Bharathanatyam or other Indian dances. His “Jalagaatha’ or Song of Water  had bearings on issues facing Indian life regarding the availability of this elixir of life. But he had a strong footing on form rather than content. The explorative power steered him to novel choreographies stoically grounded on structural designs and style, let it be rare varnams of Papanasam Sivan or unknown Krithis of  Thanchavoor Quartet.  His earlier research on karanams did not take off because of lack of resources and support but he needs to be credited for one of the first to embark on this subject. Currently his research extends to comparative studies on Bharathanatyam baanis or schools of style.  

      The inner deeper aspect of dance is the explorative passion for Guru Manoj. “I am an ardent devotee of Thantric philosophy” he confides in a soft but firm voice.  Thantra has the  basis on the  ever pervading concept of ‘Sivam’ and Siva evolved as the emperor of dance.  “The approach to life by Thantra has similarities with Sufi philosophy” he affirms. Sufism has the elemental methodology of unison with the divine by  repeated body movements.   “And  Tantra had a lot to contribute to Indian dances. Take the example of mudras (hand gestures). The nonverbal communications by mudras could have the origin in Thantric techniques. It is a medium to communicate with the divine, and thus dance merges with this pathway” he elaborates.

 The Facebook junkies who swarmed Guru Manoj’s photo posting would have had some inklings about this, although quite unknown to them. That is why they found something beyond natural in his exquisite poses. Of course Indian dance has the elemental core of a perspective where human body is an assemblage of geometrical parts each part moving or positioning with respect to others. Guru Manoj has integrated this into his life style.  “Guru has dance rhythms in each and every movement of him, let it be dance or not. Even when he picks up the phone he manifests a rhythm” his disciples acknowledge.  

  Guru Manoj is defying the gender identity conventions set for Indian dances. The popular methodology of dance appreciation involves enjoying the young, beautiful feminine figure, the dance element being extraneous.  When Guru Manoj, with a frame of an aging man, strikes a pose his physical body disappears and a mystique dance design pervades in. There is nothing effeminate. Not even masculine. Just pure dance, the geometry and the philosophy made transparent.

(Photo courtesy: Santu Brahma)