When you think of an Indian classical dancer, the first vision is that of a graceful woman with big eyes and long hair. Now, imagine someone with oriental features, a masculine body and a strong physique, passionately engaged in Bharatnatyam. Not many of us can visualize that easily. Charles Ma, however, knew what he was up against right from the start. From being called the ‘young white boy’ at a dance class, Charles has broken all myths associated with Indian classical dance and has made his mark in the Bharatnatyam community. With 15 years of professional experience across various dance forms, Bharatnatyam for him, is a dance form he calls his life’s purpose and true calling.
Being part-Nepali, part-Chinese with North-east Indian roots, Charles found himself growing up in a Tamil community within the city of Bangalore. “I’ve always identified myself as a South Indian”, he says. “People around me were curious to see a boy with oriental features speaking Kannada and Tamil with ease”.
Although dance wasn’t a big part of his school life where he would perform occasionally, it was only during the late 90’s when the city was going through a catharsis of sorts, that provided Charles with the opportunity to be ‘discovered’ as a dancer. He had his first tryst as a professional dancer in a ‘song and dance’ musical which was choreographed in a contemporary style. In the practice sessions, Charles discovered how much he was attracted to Indian classical dance as a number of steps in the routine had nuances that left him enraptured.
Yet, when he was told that he wouldn’t be able to learn a dance form like Bharatnatyam due to his body language and personality, Charles took it up as a challenge. Given his looks, it became a test for him to constantly break the mould that he was cast in and destroy any pre-conceived notions that people held onto.
Charles breakthrough moment came in the form of a dance performance at the IIT Chennai Cultural festival, ‘Saarang’.
This was around 8 years ago and he was one of the few male Bharatnatyam dancers. All of the other dancers were South-Indian girls. Adorned in a simple cotton veshti, he believes that it was not his personality but his confidence and presence on stage that defined his dancing. “In Classical dance, there is a lot of importance given to Bhakti and Shringara, so I did care about my looks but thereafter it became more about how I felt, the emotions.”
Dance is about discipline. Having realised that early on, Charles focused his entire energy on living with a sense of positivity and embracing the physical, emotional as well as spiritual discipline that Bharatnatyam embodies. “It is hard being a dancer, but it is also inspiring because it’s hard.” Classical dance has not just been a physical transformation for Charles, but a spiritual journey as well.
“My path has been very lonely in many ways. Every artist is lonely, but I had to work harder to swim against the tide. I feel like my body and mind transcend into something else with Bharatnatyam”, says Charles. He forgets his own image and physical appearance when he dances. “My body comes to life” he adds, as he tries to find words to explain the connection and peace he feels while performing on stage. As his energy transcends to the audience, he loves being completely in the moment, knowing that classical dance has helped him merge all aspects of ‘being’- body, mind and soul.
From being a student to a teacher
A few years ago, Charles hit rock bottom due to various personal and professional issues, but he bounced back. “Dance had given me a sense of dignity and taught me that hard work never hides itself. I lived with hope in those few months, feeling and believing that dance will get me through. There are many ways to catch ‘an escape road’ but when you are stuck in circle of arrows, the only way left is to rise above!” From then on, I felt centered like a rock”, he says
Today, Charles has started teaching and he finds it very fulfilling. Speaking enthusiastically of his students, he says,” I wish I could teach them not just to dance, but to ‘feel’ the various layers of emotions. I know I cannot put fragrance into a flower, but I can nurture the flower so that it blooms.”
Driven by kindness, Charles is charged with passion to take his love for Bharatnatyam to greater heights. He hopes to also share this beautiful dance with his students and create a world of dance with no stereotypes, because dance indeed transcends boundaries of race, colour and religion.