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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gender Dynamics in Mahesh Dattani's "Dance Like a Man"

Nalini Narayani Subramania Iyer


20 February 2014

Contemporary Critical Theory/MEL 232

Anil Pinto


                    Gender Dynamics in Mahesh Dattani’s “Dance Like a Man”


There is no original or primary gender a drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.

—Judith Butler


Demarcations of gender are becoming flexible/ambiguous as it is, be it in terms of roles, inclinations or beliefs. Where is the line to be drawn for a woman or man? Is there something, an origin or a starting point may be, that is especially manly or from which the woman deviates? This has been a strong matter of debate for long and still is.


Cixous in“ The Laugh of the Medusa” finds the need for separate writings that stand for the masculine/feminine distinctly, so that each can write the gender he/she experiences subjectively and not speak for one another. Except as knowledge for exchange she advocates a clear need for separate writing. But what is this separation? How can it be distinguished as particularly male/female? Based on this framework the play is discussed.

A two-act play, Dattani’s “Dance Like a Man” is the story of three generations, set in Tamil Nadu, who stand for the dominant beliefs and sensibilities of their times and shows how they markedly differ from each other.




Vishwas and Lata are in love and would like to be married and therefore the scene opens with Lata getting Vishwas home, to meet her parents, so that things could be taken to the next level. In the beginning of the first act it is quite clear that Lata has the upper hand in the relationship and Vishwas is the “pliable” one. A cultural unconventionality !!!


In the dialogues they share, gender dynamics is almost frictional and very palpable.

It starts with the discussion of Lata’s Parents’ profession. “Dancing!!!”


When Lata mentions that her parents have gone out on an emergency; without caring to know what it is, Vishwas remarks


 “Only doctors and firemen go out for emergencies. Dancers stay at home till its showtime….”(3)


Here there is a condescending tone, when Vishwas finds out that Lata’s father too dances. The profession is clearly shown as having feminine attributions and therefore does not occupy an important position in the daily affairs of the world.

The next section occupies the dialogue on coffee. Vishwas is not sure if he wants coffee and chides Lata on not being able to make tea, and warns her that as North Indians, his family would expect her to make tea every day. This shows more of a cultural difference of daily preference, than anything else, yet the kitchen space has already been set as the woman’s space in the family dynamics.

There is the clear mention of the men being pliable in this case, be it Ratna’s husband (Lata’s father) or Vishwas. Therefore there is the constant rebellion that is seen in the women trying to reverse and take over. Taken this, the characters are unconventional as the women are seen as portraying stronger roles, even in terms of career in one case.

Amritlal as the fiery freedom fighter and the epitome of all that was considered masculine is introduced in this act. Even when just taking his name, his attributes exude terror and fear.

So masculinity here takes over an almost demi-God status and all alike are respectful of it.

Even when Vishwas is going around the house and making comments on the wood and the general strength of the building and the contents inside are referred to as weak and old (worn out),it’s almost as if the situation at home is being depicted, that the exterior might veil what’s inside (Jairaj’s effeminacy)


      Lata. “ ….the pages will crumble if you touch them”  (11)


Amritlal’s splendid brocade shawl, that he wears when important people come to meet him, in stark contrast to the books and other items of dance, depicts raw masculinity and its wearability pointing towards ‘a man of the world’. The shawl plays a role of , one can say, personified masculinity in the play and this fact is reiterated when “Vishwas wears it ,and mocks an imaginary Jairaj as Amritlal Parkeh and admonishes him for his taste in dance. Even Jairaj for that matter, when re-thinking old times and his father is seen as wearing the shawl. This helps understand that the shawl stands for ‘the man’, or the concept of masculine and all that it holds dear .



Next we see Ratna and Jairaj, enter and witness Vishwa’s little mock act of the two and the embarrassed silence when Vishwas realizes that they had seen the whole thing. Then the fight between Ratna and Jairaj ,indicated a sour past between the two and how Ratna seems very prone towards ignoring Jairaj,in everything she deems dear to herself and Jairaj is having to correct the “my(s) to Ours(s)


“ Ratna. ‘This has never happened before in all my life.

  Jairaj. In all our lives…” (15)


It is unclear at this point as to why she seems bent on talking of only herself to the exclusion of her husband, but the slips strongly suggest a desperate need to detach from her husband and thereby indicating an unhappy married life. Only later does it become clear as to the why of it and  the gender implications thereof.

Then for a while there is the heated discussion between Jairaj and Ratna about Shreenivas who has broken his arm and cannot accompany Lata for her performance as her mridangist. When it comes to finding and alternate solution, Ratna is far from trusting her husband  and calls her husband incapable of doing anything significant with the following words


Ratna.   “….You are a spineless boy who couldn’t leave his father’s house for more than forty-eight hours.” (21)


At this juncture the whole foundation starts to expose and the gender conflicts come to the fore. Ratna admonishes her husband for not being able to take care of her without his father’s financial support, and by doing so,sort of backs the notion of him being not equal to a man. Though at this point it is not clear, later in no unclear terms it is found that even Ratna (at the influence of her father in law) starts to believe that dance has made her husband effeminate and boneless, depriving him of the courage of a man. More of this will be discussed later.


Jairaj (on what his father thought of him) “The craft of a prostitute to show off her wares-what business id a man have learning such a craft? Of what use could it be to him? No use. So no man would want to learn such a craft. Hence anyone who learnt such a craft could not be a man. How could I argue against such logic?”


Here it’s evident that Jairaj was mocked to be more like a woman for having inclinations towards what was considered then an art for women and that too of the lowest stature in the ladder. And Jairaj’s question in the end sort of emphasizes the indecisiveness he suffers from throughout the play. He wants to be a better dancer than his wife at the same time does not know how to stand his ground as a man in his father’s eyes. Dance and effeminacy are intertwined throughout. And Jairaj suffers from a crisis between what he wants and what is expected of him as a man.

Here the body and the celebration of it is seen as womanly and as belonging to her sensibility. She writes her body differently and when a man uses the same way,he is as out of place and condemned.

When there is a flashback towards the young Jairaj and Ratna, Ratna seems to be approving of her husband’s love for Bharathnatyam and even cites that she married him for his passion for dance, though agrees that she primarily married him as he would allow her to dance after marriage. But later when when Amritlal tells her why it is important to pull Jairaj out of dance, she ,though does not tell out, is clearly moved by the idea.

Here it is made quite palpable that though she married Jairaj, so that her career wouldn’t stop, she would rather see her husband play his gender in the society and be her ‘man’aka protector than spend the day with her, competeing in dance.

Due to pressure from his father to give up dancing, Jairaj leaves home with his wife only to come back in two days. This shows how dependent he is on his father for money and protection, thereby taking up nothing more than the role and importance of a household woman himself.


Amritlal (To Ratna).”  A woman in a man’s world may be considered as being progressive. But a man in a woman’s world is Pathetic” (50)


Here when they come back and Jairaj has gone to his room , Amritlal is quick to point out to Ratna that Jairaj can never be as good as she is at dancing as she is beautiful and also better than him in grace. Thus he claims grace and beauty to be a womanly trait .

This is close to why Cixous think it imperative to have a different body language even in writing for men and women separately. One in the other’s sphere is not good .Especially, for the man who has the Freudian fear of the feminine and the abhorrence in becoming like her, which the woman in turn does not go through.

In the climax all loose ends are tied. In the flashback of the last encounter between the young Ratna and Jairaj, just before finding out the death of their son, Ratna makes it apparent that though she regrets how its turned out, even she always felt that Amritlal was right about him being boneless and had to be changed and that she wanted him to be what her father-in-law expected of him and protect her and the child.

Was she afraid to see herself, in his eyes? As Cixous puts it, a perpetual hatred for womanhood by woman herself created by the man? There is almost a suggestion as if the theme propounds that there has to be a clear mark between what a man has to do and what a woman is expected to perform. Though Beauvoir argued that women have been defined by men, in course, men have defined themselves and created a marked distance between who they are and what they are running from.




In the end, it is clear that the both are able to solve their differences as man and woman ,only after their death in heaven,(Surrealism used to portray transcendence of bodily differences).This puts forward that as man and woman, there is always separation at one level or the other and inevitably comes out and a complete transcendence can be gained only after death.






Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb 2014. <>.


Dattani, Mahesh. Dance Like a Man. 1. Navi Mumbai: Penguin Books, 2006. 1-74. Print.


"Feminist and Gender theories." Sage Publications. 312-380. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <>.

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