Dattani’s classic Indian drama
Tejwant Singh Gill
Dance Like a Man
by Mahesh Dattani.
Pages 74. Rs 99.

A file photo of students of the English Department, Panjab University, Chandigarh, performing in the play Dance Like a Man

Dance Like a Man is the best- known play by Mahesh Dattani. English is the medium of this modern Indian playwright. His forte lies in conceiving and consummating his writing in English, regarded outwardly foreign but inwardly native by the Indian people, particularly putting up in urban, more so metropolitan centers.

In the dramatic writing, Dattani is intent on achieving what Indo-English novelists have sought to realise in the fictional mode. Unlike Salman Rushdie whose achievement results in flamboyance, he remains focused. Rather than acclimatise the onrush of description and narration to the English idiom, he has to merge it into the gestures and gesticulations of his characters.

So far as this play i.e. Dance Like a Man, goes he composed it more than a decade back in 1995. Ever since then, it has been staged hundreds of times in India and abroad. Most of the times, its production has been remarkable. Highly skilled actors and actresses have performed roles, in the process to bring laurels to themselves and the playwright.

Its subsequent inclusion in Dattani’s collection, namely, Final Solutions and Other Plays won for him the coveted Sahit Akademi award for 1998. In the citation, he was applauded for his brilliant contribution to Indian drama in English. This lends enough credence to what has been contended earlier: right from conception to consummation and ever after for purposes of staging and studying, his original use of English has to be kept in mind. Rather, it is the focal point for launching upon them.

If exhortation to measure up to dance, by implication the artistic vocation, is the crux of the title, then the invocation of ambiguities flowing from life’s multiple directions, comprise the text, both in a complementary and supplementary way. In the traditional as well as the modern sense, their intrusion is spectral. If the longing to realise all human potential through dance, is the thread that runs from beginning to end, then the intricate web, the ambiguities weave, is there to snap it each moment, at so many places.

The leitmotif of the play comprises the intense longing two artists, Jairaj and Ratna, profess for Bharat Natyam, the classical dance, traditionally preserved by Davadasis. Per classical treatises on dance, it reaches acme when the male and the female dance in unison, the former embodying its vigour as from his feet it rises upward to his face, and the latter epitomising its grace descending from her eyes down to her feet. For realising the excellence of their vocation, it is essential for them to acquire training from trainers got residual with the passage of time and at present regarded ignoble, if not depraved as well.

Much against the wish of Jairaj’s father, they get married. The father, claiming to be a freedom fighter and social reformer, is essentially a manipulator. He convinces his daughter-in-law that her husband is merely a drag on her. This creates disharmony between the two that ends up in extreme bitterness. The feeling of being inadequate so overpowers Jairaj that he takes to drinking, all the time hoping that his infant son, fondly named by him as Shankar, will become a consummate dancer, like a man to dance Tnandav, Lord Shiva’s dance : "The Lord of dance, beating his drum and trampling on the demon."

As ill luck would have it, he dies in infancy because the nurse, in the absence of the mother, would drug him with opium so as to keep him asleep.

No wonder, Jairaj gets completely disoriented, so does his wife who does not reveal her discomfiture to that extent.

Of course, they have a daughter, Lata, who, they wish should become a world-renowned dancer. They know it for certain that for this purpose, manipulation, and not training, is required. They move heaven and earth for her to get an invitation from abroad for dance show in foreign countries. When they succeed in doing so, then the problem is of its projection in the press. Ambiguities posed by the administration, the press, their own inadequacies drain away all their energy. What remains now for them to realise is only this: "We were only human. We lacked the brilliance. We lacked the magic to dance like God." For this realisation, they have to examine their whole past, what embittered them against each other and how they tried to wreak vengeance. To show its dramatic inevitability, Dattani has several strategies at his command, of mimicry, evocation, reversal and word-coinage, which he puts to consummate use. Hence, its excellence as a modern Indian drama in English