For Zakir Hussain, Spirituality Brings Self-acceptance

Photography: Kirthika Soundararajan

Thith thai tha tha

I hear the pleasant jangle of anklets set to motion and peep in awkwardly to check if I’m at the right place. Zakir Hussain, seated on the floor, is almost done with his class. With a warm smile, he asks me to step in. I sit down on the floor opposite to him. Dressed in jeans and a white shirt, he comes across as rather laid back and unassuming.

 

Zakir asks me what made me pick him for my personality profiling project. I’m no Bharathanatyam cognoscente, I told him, but I’ve always admired the dance form. And so one Margazhi festival day I got to watch his dance recital in my college. It was a scene from the Mahabharata, where Dusshasan disrobes Draupadi in the royal court. A common subject, but there was a catch: the dancer was male, and he played both Draupadi and Dusshasan. I’ve never seen a more seamless storytelling before. The audience was transfixed. Later, after the recital, the Principal of the college introduced him to us. He was Zakir Hussain.

 

I was intrigued. A male dancer, from a traditional South Indian Muslim family, who has devoted his life to Bharathanatyam. Must have been quite a journey to where he is now. Zakir chuckles, amused at my observation. “There’s no difference between a male and a female dancer in Bharathanatyam,” he says. He adds that male dancers have to make sure they carry themselves in such a way that they don’t come across as feminine. He works out every day and makes sure his team maintains a good physique too. “It’s part of the aesthetics,” he says. “It’s just like Bollywood. No one wants to see an unfit, out-of-shape hero.”
Over the 20 odd years as a Bharatanatyam dancer, Hussain has won admiration and recognition: he was honoured with the Social Recognition Award in 1994 by Sri R. Venkataraman, the President of India of that time, and with the Kalaimamani Award by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 2009, to name a couple. In recent years he has gained respect as an expert in Vaishnavism. I ask if his being of a different faith created roadblocks, initially.
“No,” he says. “Everyone I met has welcomed me with open arms,” he insists.

 

Zakir doesn’t just stop with choreographing his dance recitals: he single-handedly designs the costume and jewellery, the props and lighting effects. He counts among one of his best projects Cinderella, a fusion of Western and Bollywood dance forms, which he choreographed himself. He says he was inspired by Delhi’s Kingdom of Dreams. “We had LED walls for the background, including the side wings. The lighting effects on the side wings were meticulously coordinated with that of the background walls. No one in Chennai has attempted a project of such a big scale. We spent up to Rs. 12 lakhs on costumes alone.  If we’d pushed ourselves a little more, we’d have produced a movie,” he laughs.

 

Facing opposition from his family towards his passion for Bharatanatyam, this fibre technology graduate from Salem decided to put his foot down and follow his dreams after graduation. He says Andal, the 7th Century Alwar saint, drew him to Vaishnavism.
“I see Bharathanatyam and Vaishnavism as tools to unearth the purpose of life. As a means to find God within me. I call this Vaishnava Sufism,” he says.
“My Vaishnavism is not about waking up at 4.30 a.m. and reading the Thiruppavai. It’s not about performing sandhyavandhanam (prayers performed three times a day) and chanting hymns. At the same time, I abstain from meat and liquor. These are purely my values, beliefs. I don’t force my values on my circle. For me, it has been a journey in self-acceptance. I am like any other human being. I have my share of flaws. And I’m happy being me. I feel accepted by Andal. And that’s all I care about.”
Who introduced him to Andal, I ask.
“She found me,” he smiles enigmatically. He says he worships Andal throughout the day—”She’s always there at the back of mind. Even when I hear a cuckoo sing, I remember a verse written by her on the song of cuckoo birds, and contemplate about her state of mind when she wrote it, wonder why she chose the words she did… For me, Andal is a way of life.”

 

Zakir performs recitals of Andal’s stories and begins his recitals with a prayer to her. “I was the first to bring in Andal’s stories, around 10 years ago,” he explains, “now many dancers have started doing it, and they tell me I inspired them.”
And this is not the first time Zakir has led by example. For instance, he used colourful costumes and jewellery at a time when people were still sticking to conventional colours, and was criticised for it. Now, costumes have gotten so colourful that “every thread, every stitch seems to be of a different colour”. His style has found acceptance now.
This, Zakir claims, is his biggest achievement: inspiring people to think out-of-the-box.
So what’s next, I ask him.
“I want to upgrade my audience. I want my audience to come in with a certain level of knowledge. My performances are nuanced. I want to make them learn more. And this need helps me grow. I push myself to come up with new stuff. I want to give to my audience what Christopher Nolan does to filmgoers”, he says earnestly. “Life would become monotonous, and I, complacent, if I stop wanting to learn and grow.”

P.S. I interviewed him as part of my assignment at college. I’ll publish more of my write-ups subject to approvals from lecturers. I’d love to hear how I can improve my skills! Do leave your comments on this post.

Published by Kirthika Soundararajan

Journalism student. Loves animals. Aspires to write about history, art, culture, and people.

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