Spending a day at the dance academy in rural Uttar Pradesh that runs on sheer passion, tinged with rebellion and the drive of youth. Oh, and Michael Jackson.
“Jab humein dekhte hain, toh kehte hai ye saala nachaniya aa gaya. Iske lambe baal hai, bas shaadiyon mein naachega yeh. (When they see us, people ridicule us, saying: ‘Oh look, here comes the dancer. He’s got long hair, and he’ll probably dance at weddings.)”
Mithilesh Kushwaha gives us a story-of-my-life expression and ups the rage in his voice, “This is a really unfair thought process that we have to deal with every single day.”
Mithilesh is a teacher at the Michael Jackson Dance Academy in Karwi, Chitrakoot, and is passionate about all things MJ.
And MJ = Dance is the absolute equation in his head. But it is not an easy life choice for him. In rural Bundelkhand, where prime news stories are often, if not always, centered around droughts, farmer suicides, gaushalas, dacoits – not necessarily in that order – opting for dance as a profession is still quite unheard of. It’s bad enough if you relegate it to the hobby department.
Ritisha Kesharwani, all of 12 and a student at the academy, can tell you about this. She told us all about her favourite dance moves and songs. And while the joy in her eyes and her smile left no doubt about her love for dance, off-camera, we were privy to some friction between her mother and her. Her mother watched from a distance as Ritisha gyrated and did a very cool flip right inside their house.
As Sanjay Kumar, the founder of the academy, puts it, “My family did not support me back when I started. And they do not support me today either.”
But Sanjay is something of a legend now. Deepak, one of the younger instructors at the academy, speaks with reverence as he tells us about “Kitna kaabil banaaya hai humein Sanjay Sir ne (How capable Sanjay Sir has made us).” To him too, this way of life is about all things MJ – or “apne MJ”, as he often says – and yet, like everyone else, it is so much more.
It is as if Michael Jackson and his impossible dance moves are symbolic of an ambition that they all feel pumping in their veins even as they learn and teach Bolly-styled jhatka-matkas. It is a burning fire in their bellies, and it is going to take them places. Mithilesh has a list, “Just 250 km from here, you go to Kanpur, or then Delhi, and to Bombay – people there understand. They worship dance.”
“When I started”, says Sanjay, “Nobody understood what I was doing. Nobody here even knew what dance meant, what it meant to be dancing.” The number of students who enrolled was in sharp contrast to this general Karwi emotion though: “23”, he says, proudly, and adds, “On the very first day”. Sanjay has since had many students pass from the academy and open their own dance schools. He has also broken through to that ultimate place that spells fame in our country, having acted as a “Villain, a brother, a driver” in three Bollywood films.
But Sanjay has a deeper understanding of ‘glocal’ – it is why we find MJ wallpapers here, why they celebrate their icon’s birthday every year on August 29, and why kids as young as seven dream of moon-walking. Karwi might have rejected him in some ways, but for Sanjay, it is home, and it is here that his students learn of joy and heartache and back-breaking hard work. Just as he did, as he still does. Currently, he is in the midst of planning a film in Karwi, featuring locals. Will there be a few MJ-inspired moves, you ask? He smiles and says, “My background is in classical dance, I have learnt Kathak, and I have great respect for it. I also trained in hip hop, popping-locking, fusion, contemporary. But yes, maanta toh main unko hi hoon.”