There are certain stereotypes that we all ascribe to–think of a Bharatanatyam dancer, and the mind automatically conjures up images of a woman with a big bindi, beautiful kohl-lined eyes, draped in a bright Kanjivaram saree and jewellery to complement it all.
Here’s a different image.
Meet 35-year-old Charles Ma, a Bharatanatyam performer, and teacher who is a complete anti-thesis to all our stereotypes. A Bengalurean at heart, his ancestry is rather interesting. “My paternal grandfather is ethnic Chinese, and my grandmother is Nepalese, while my mother is from the North-East,” he begins.
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Born and raised in Bengaluru, Charles is fluent in Kanada and Tamil.
Charles spoke to me after a 16-hour long day, and not once during the conversation did his energy level dip. Passionate, determined, and outspoken, he talks about Bengaluru’s transition from a sleepy town to an IT hub.
When asked about his early initiation into dance and performing arts, he says, “I grew up in a conservative environment where my parents were of the view that boys don’t dance, but it was because of a few aunts in my family that I got the push and the confidence to go out and dance.”
Almost thirty years later, there is only a very slight improvement in this regard. He agrees, “There has been a change, but it’s just still just the tip of the iceberg.”
Growing up in a Tamil neighbourhood, he would walk into temples, speak, and eat, like everyone else. But he looked ‘different’ due to his mixed lineage. And he would only realise this when people around him stared at him long enough.
Exposure to Bengaluru’s pub culture and his sense of rhythm drew him to dance. He noticed that classical dancers inspired awe and reverence, emotions that he aspired to evoke in his viewers. So, he decided to learn Bharatnatyam.
Encouragement comes in all forms, but for Charles, it was inspired by a snub. “I was dancing at one of the discotheques in the city, where a theatre director saw me and chose me for one of his productions. But a senior classical dancer said that I couldn’t do it.”
He paid no heed to the comment but had to pursue the art form, just to prove to himself and the critic, that he could.
Thus began his tryst with the art form. Charles says, “Bharatanatyam is like a lover who demands generous love, constant attention, single-minded focus, commitment, hard work and most importantly, a sense of deepened spirituality.”
Two decades since he began learning this form after being told that he couldn’t, he has come to teach others. His class has 40 dance enthusiasts from different age groups, where the youngest is five-years-old while the oldest is 35.
He tells me that one of his older students will be performing her ‘Arangetram’, the debut solo-dance performance, in November.
And he continues to push boundaries, by learning the various styles the art offers–from Bollywood and contemporary to classical dance.
“Getting up every morning to teach and learn the art form is very satisfying for me,” he says.
Individuals like him help break the stereotypes that we all cherish. He concludes, “I have now begun to look at dance in its purest form. I am doing it for art’s sake and not because it brings me any accolades or awards, and that is so liberating.”
If you are in Bengaluru and would like to either learn Bharatnatyam or watch Charles perform, check out his Facebook page.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)