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Taking the road less travelled...

Nothing irritates a non-stereotypical kind of person like stereotypes do. That's why American born Justin McCarthy dreads questions like "How do you like Indian food?" after over 15 years in India. But, discovers <145,4>ANJANA RAJAN, not only does this Bharatanatyam exponent have more on his mind than spicy food and the lousy weather, he is also a hardcore Delhiite.


Justin McCarthy... . many ways to fruition.

IRRITATING AS Justin McCarthy finds stereotypes, it is fun to watch him demolish them. While many of our brethren would sell their birthright for the bliss of American citizenship, Justin has given his up for an Indian passport. As a student, running round Delhi between dance, music, Yoga and Sanskrit classes, one of his favourite amusements was watching the latest "dishoom-dishoom" Hindi film. Diwali mithais, phulkas with ghee, Justin was game for them all.

A decade on, Justin McCarthy, Bharatanatyam exponent, teacher and choreographer is recognised for his more thought-provoking pursuits. Reflecting on his growth from dancer to choreographer, Justin says, "If you look at the Carnatic music repertoire, it is full of masterpieces, like those of Muthuswami Dikshitar, Thyagaraja, and others, and also 20th Century masterpieces, but for Bharatanatyam I didn't seem to recognise the same quality and quantity of masterpieces." Also, despite deriving complete satisfaction from Bharatanatyam, he still felt that "theoretically, the style is complete, but practically, we are seeing the dance through the filter of the repertoire."

Even so, his early ventures were within the traditional repertoire, and he has choreographed several Jatiswarams, Tillanas, Padams and other solos. This in itself was not an unusual accomplishment for a trained dancer, since the repertoire established by the famous Tanjore brothers leaves unlimited scope for artistes to choreograph new material within a format.

Justin's uniqueness perhaps stems from his ability to see the art in perspective, both for the elements it contains and also with respect to other arts. "I found myself taking the expected form and playing with it," he says, taking the example of the element of mei adavu which he might extend. He might also draw from the choreographic treatment of nritta - non-interpretative dance - found in other forms he has learnt, like applying the uninterrupted flow of the Odissi Pallavi to a Jatiswaram.

His first ensemble work, produced in the early 1990s, was `Madurai Kanchi,' a poem from the post-Sangam period of Tamil literature whose "completely secular" character attracted him. "Maybe I was a little weighed down with the religious content of the traditional repertoire," he says, referring to classical dance's emphasis on mythology. In Madurai Kanchi, he enjoyed the opportunity of choreographing scenes such as a dream sequence, soldiers getting drunk, even a traffic scene with elephants and chariots.

Averaging one new production a year, with themes ranging from phases of the moon to Raghuvamsham, and the energy phenomenon in physics to the legendary Krishna devotee Andal; with musical sources from Egypt to Italy, Baroque to Hindi film songs of the 1930s, Justin remarks cheerfully, "I don't know what I'll do next. Now I've done all the things I always wanted to do!"

Beginning his pursuit of Bharatanatyam in1977 at `The Way of the Dance' school in California under Lesandre Ayrey and Mimi Janislawski, Justin travelled to Chennai to learn under Subbarayan Pillai for a year. From 1980 to 1990 he trained under Leela Samson at Delhi's Bharatiya Kala Kendra, the institution where he has taught for the past decade. A reputed pianist who performs regularly, he finds that teaching the piano helps subsidise his dance, which, as most discover, is the rational economist's nightmare.

Justin has also made a diligent study of Carnatic music. Being a musician allows him to compose the music for his choreographic works and have more meaningful dialogues with accompanying musicians. It also puts him in a position to compare, and he observes that while music can be a lifelong pastime for one's own satisfaction, dance somehow needs an audience. Also, that perhaps it is easier for musicians to overcome ego hassles than dancers and actors, since the latter identify so much with their own body!

Fluent in Hindi and French, he can charm open the doors of the wariest Tamilian stranger with his Tamil, but he laments he cannot speak it as well as Hindi. To be able to interpret ancient Tamil poetry, a challenge even for those born to the language, is something he dismisses as routine!

That's no surprise however, since by now we are free of preconceptions about Justin McCarthy.

Photo: Sandeep Saxena.

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