Dance Like a Man — Mahesh Dattani

Mahesh Dattani’s play “Dance Like a Man is one of the best plays written by an Indian in English. He is one of the finest and most prominent playwrights in India. He is the first playwright in English to have won the ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’.

He choses topics which are usually never being spoken about in society. Such topics are always debated in society and are usually seen discussed in his plays and exhibited on the stage in a very good manner.

The stage has all the technicalities which take the play to a different level. Mahesh likes to play with lights and this has different connotations attached to it, which when one reads finds it difficult to imagine. There is a difference in the book and the play that is performed on stage or theater.

The characters are usually Indian and have some problem which are not socially unacceptable. Dattani comes here and shows how the society and the idiosyncrasy of individuals work.

“Dance Like a Man” the title itself suggests that a man is supposed to do the work which suits the man and not pursue their career in anything else which makes them less of a man. Here, literally the title means to say that the protagonist’s father doesn’t want his son to become or behave like a woman and that he should not pursue his career in dance.

Dance Like a Man is a two-act stage play. The story revolves around three generations, their personal ambition, their sacrifices, their struggle and compromises, internal conflict and the way they cope up with life and dance being the major topic of discussion in the house as it is a topic of debate between the father and his son and daughter in-law.

Dattani in the very start of the play puts a question on a man’s identity and his sexuality. The title itself suggests so. The play deals with the self and the significance of others in a manner of gender specific roles assigned by the society and how if you deviate from it, you are being sidelined by the people and the society.

Character list-

  1. Jairaj (husband)
  2. Ratna (wife)
  3. Amritlal (father)
  4. Lata (daughter)
  5. Vishwas (son-in-law)

Plot and Analysis-

The story revolves around three generations. Jairaj and Ratna want to develop their career as a dancer. Dance for them is not only their passion but also their life and soul. They want to develop their careers in this field. The stereotypes of gender roles are set in the society and in spite of that Jairaj goes on to pursue his career as a dancer. This is the twist that the playwright gives to the stereotypes associated with ‘gender’ issues that view solely a woman at the receiving end of the oppressive power structures of the society. The play flips open in the opposite gender’s point of view and shows that even men can be a part or a victim to such circumstances by being oppressed, and suppressed by the opposite gender and society.

Jairaj and and Ratna have to live within the domain of the ‘patriarch’ Amritlal, father of Jairaj. Dance for Amritlal is a profession of a prostitute and which is why he cannot accept his daughter-in-law learning it and is unimaginable for his son to learn it and make career out of it. Mostly this is also because he was a reformist and people would laugh at him for Jairaj’s actions and his reputation would be sacrificed.

He cannot tolerate the sound of dancing bells in his home and his son roaming around with the tinkling of bells in his leg during the practise session. His father also hates the effeminate guru that comes to their house and also the long hair that he and his son both have kept. So Ratna goes onto learn the dance from a lady who lives in a brothel. Amritlal thinks that the temples have slowly turned to brothels as they practise dance there. He forbids Ratna to visit the old devdasi who teaches her the old forms and techniques of ‘Bharatnatyam’ which were slowly extinguishing.

Here there are subtle signs that learning dance and having a guru like that would definitely make his an effeminate man which suggests the idea of homosexuality though it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the text.

As he cannot accept his son pursuing his career as a dancer, he tries all the possible means to stop him from seeking his ambition. He removes them/ disowns them from his house and his property, not giving them a single penny to survive.

Jairaj, leaves and take Ratna along with him. But the results are disastrous. They stay at Ratna’s uncle’s house and he tries to take advantage of her and so they leave the house only to return.

The quote said by Amritlal to Jairaj to restrict him from dancing,

“A woman is man’s world is considered progressive,

but a man is a woman’s world is considered pathetic.”

He then later makes a deal with Ratna. He says that he will allow her career to take off only if she helps him pull Jairaj out of his passion and make him a more ‘manly’ man.

The character of Ratna can be called as that of a selfish one because she agrees to her father-in-law’s demands and also considers that there would be one less person to compete with. She constantly misguides him and plays with his emotions in spite of being his partner. Though Jairaj was a male member, he never forced his opinions on anybody and istead of that Ratn would always dominate and take decisions for herself, for him and now their daughter as well.

She wanted her own career to proper and so she is willing to sacrifice her husband’s career in the process. She was blinded by her passion so much so that she joined hands with Amritlal. This subtly displays the relationship she herself shared with Jairaj which was more for her own personal motive than anything else. She married him because Jairaj himself was a dancer and he would never stop her from dancing even after getting married. Had it been that she would have married another man, there was a possibility that she would be deprived of her career and her passion and she would be helpless.

When Jairaj possibly knew about her motives, the purpose was already achieved, that he was a failed dancer and that he did not make much out of his life. He had become an alcoholic. She constantly took advantage of Jairaj’s love for her and being his wife. She pushed him into the world of dance and also knew that he was not a great dancer himself, to reach the amongst the top dancers, that he was just a mediocre one. She was responsible for Jairaj’s undoing as a character as well as a dancer.

Ratna here did not stop but went on to make her daughter Lata, also a Traditional dancer. She used her daughter too, to earn fame and money all over the world. She schemes and manipulates and uses all her contacts to put her daughter’s career on the right track right from the start. She also uses the contacts to get appreciative reviews for her daughter’s performance. Lata here is seen as the younger Ratna who succeeds with the help of her mother.

Later, in the play Jairaj blames his wife for their son’s death as she wanted to be successful and she had left him home along with a nanny. The nanny had given him a sleeping dose so that he would stop crying and that she could also sleep peacefully but unfortunately, she gave it too much in quantity which ultimately led to his death. Jairaj blames her for his unsuccessful career.

Dattani uses the technique of Traditional Dance as a medium to portray the conflict of gender issues in the play. Hence his plays are relevant and will be relevant even for years to come. Amritlal would never accept his son becoming a dancer, Ratna misguided him, Jairaj was blamed to be not being a man enough to earn and support his family. All these things led to the circumstances that show how gender stereotype works in the Indian society.

One can ponder upon the following themes seen in the play -

  1. Gender discrimination
  2. Ambition — for woman or man?
  3. Men dancing — inacceptable
  4. Sufferings
  5. Suppression
  6. Social construct
  7. Stereotypical attitude
  8. Misleading for one’s own benefits

Conclusion-

The play “Dance Like a Man” poses serious questions on the reader’s mind. It makes one think and rethink about how our actions are shaped according to the society and how one accepts them without questioning. This conditioning which is done right from the childhood and it is nobody’s fault. The rules were made according to the society then and it is impossible to stay put on them even now especially when the society is constantly evolving. Personally, I feel that the rules should be mended according to the situations and time period. The characters are shaped in such a manner that one cannot term them as a proper white or a proper black character. It displays shades of gray.

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