Patruni Chidananda Sastry on expressionist form of dance, and how it can give a voice to communities
Patruni Chidananda Sastry believes that his expressionist form of dance can be used to talk about just about any kind of subject.
When you work for one of the largest accounting organisations in the world, PowerPoint presentations and long meetings are par for the course. That is unless, Patruni Chidananda Sastry, an expressionist classical dancer based out of Hyderabad, working at this accounting firm, happens to be making that presentation. When you step into that boardroom, you may see the presentation made in expressionism, a form that Sastry has adapted to Indian classical dance and has been working on for almost four years now.
Expressionism has been present in the arts – be it music, poetry, painting or dance — since the beginning of the 20th century. It is a very subjective and avant-garde style that expresses meaning through emotional experience than what is perceived as hard reality. Over the years Sastry has worked on evolving the expressionist form of dance to communicate in unconventional ways.
Communicating through dance
Sastry’s tryst with dance began when as a child of seven years and saw actress Ramya Krishnan express anger through dance in the Tamil film Padiyappa. Completely enamoured with the ability to express such emotions through dance, the musically inclined Telugu family that lived in Kharagpur, West Bengal, enrolled Sastry in Bharathanatyam classes with renowned Kalamandalam Venkitt, in Kolkata. Such was his dedication that twice a month, Sastry and his father would make the four-hour journey to Kolkata for two-hour classes. Sastry also learned Kuchipudi from Shivakumar Umashankar from Vishakapatnam, who came and stayed with the family for a while.
When in class V, Sastry watched Chitra Visweswaran, the renowned Bharathanatyam dancer, perform on stage in Kharagpur for the first time. Her performance was on the Hollywood film Godzilla. “My takeaway from this was that if the movie Godzilla can be depicted through dance, why can’t we do the same for other subjects that people find difficult to talk about,” says Sastry.
And that is precisely what he began to do in a short while. All through school, dance formed an integral part of Sastry’s life. Being a young boy and a classical dancer is not easy in a society where gender boxing is common. Choosing dance over physical training (PT) led to ridicule, as did what was construed as ‘spending time with girls’ in the dance class. Moving into college, Patruni was a victim of ragging too. Explaining how he began with tackling tough subjects, Patruni says, “In college, I was asked to present something for Fresher’s Day. Without a second thought, I presented a dance on ragging and did it in front of those who ragged me. A conversation began over my dance and the next few days saw anti-ragging posters up on the wall. In my second year, I was placed in charge of cultural activities and through dance, we began with speaking of alcohol and animal abuse”.
It is natural that as you grow older, the issues that get you thinking change along the way. And it did so too with Sastry. “There was always a question about my sexual orientation. Often for interviews, I would be asked about my hobbies and on hearing dance, inevitably the next question would be if I was married! We have fixed notions on gender roles and I kept facing those issues. I wanted to do something more than just talk about it through my classical dancing. I wanted my dance to be more inclusive,” recalls Sastry.
A chance performance at an NGO event with a focus on LGBTQIA issues set the ball rolling. Sastry began to research dance forms that would make a strong statement. Expressionist dance which evolved in the 1900s to counter the austerity of classical ballet was one such inspiration. As was Vogue, popularised in the 80s from being featured in a song by Madonna and which evolved to become a common form of expressionism in LGBT ballroom dancing.
“Expressionism is more subtle, uses /props and has restrictive hand and leg movements. I wanted to take this as a context to create something of my own, with my classical background and use it as a symbolic means. I did my first expressionist performance in 2016, two years after I conceptualised it. Titled Closet, this was on gender fluidity and was performed at a film festival”, says Sastry.
Encouraged by its success, Sastry went on to create productions such as the Pancha Pandhakas that talks of untold queer characters in Indian Mythology; La Nari, on why women suffer, La Sya, a journey of gender fluidity and more. Through #PAI – an explanation on lesser known acronyms that are part of the LGBTQIA community, Sastry educates one on what pansexual, asexual and intersexual are about.
Everything can be expressed through dance
Sastry has also evolved his expressionist form of dance to talk about subjects that go beyond LGBTQIA issues. He realised that sex education has always been given a backseat in the school system and evolved presentations that speak of the good-touch-bad-touch as well as the reproduction cycle.
Blending techniques of Butoh – the Japanese theater dance form — with Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, Sastry created a production that talks of how physical appearances are often the basis on which people are judged.
Largely a soloist, Sastry breaks down his dance with words. “Based on the performance, I may use a pre-recorded background explanation and or do the narration myself, before I get into the dance,” he says. This is how he has created a science-inspired dance where he explains the difference between conductors, insulators and semiconductors. This was also how he handled a presentation in a boardroom on an analysis of schools. The presentation was about understanding the percentage of people passionate enough to take up coursework for a credit in school, and why others may not.
“For this presentation, I created an understanding of the different classes – parenting, doodle making, etc, and enacted each one (the act of painting for doodling, caring for a child, etc). To show numbers, I used foot tapping counts”, explains Sastry. He understands that as a soloist he may have some limitations and is working on group dance presentations. He also realises that for the presentation of data that does not have a human connect, expressing can be difficult and is researching ways to do that.
A future of expressionism
Sastry continues to learn Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Padmashri Ananda Shankar. Faced with some natural backlash from classical dance proponents on his form of expressionism, he has been encouraged by his teacher to take forward his form of dance as his own, especially if he feels that through his learnings alone he is not able to express things the way he would like. It is this and having the advantage of doing something that no one else has done that encourages Sastry.
“I want to continue learning. I am using different elements from various classical dance forms now, but I want to master at least two forms, perhaps with an MA in Dance. I want to work on more vivid subjects, and teach this dance to people from across the LGBT community, sex workers and transgenders to give them a voice. I want to create an inclusive school and take these forms further into the public sphere and help people understand things better”, says Sastry.
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