Manu Master Man. Rebel. Guru
The Land of Plenty
Lush, fertile Kerala. Not just cloves and coconut, rice and pepper. But Mohiniyattam and Theyyam, Kathakali and Kalaripayattu… This land has been the land of stunning artforms, home to innumerable performing arts and performers. Little surprise then that young Abdul Manaf from Koolimuttam, near Kodungallur, was irresistibly drawn to a revered ‘nrittam’ or dance too.
For a young Muslim lad, even approaching classical forms of dance must have been difficult. Held back by one community, held out by another. But the love of classical dance — the precision, the grace, the theory, the bhakti — each aspect called out to him. He entered the portals of Bharatanatyam as an ardent student. Today, he is Manu Master.
Rebel All the Way
Born in the 1960s into a middle-class Muslim family, Manu was always obsessed with dance. His relative Aboobacker used to take the little boy to Kathakali recitals. Entranced, young Manu would jump across a compound wall every day to watch other children take dance classes. The kind Aboobacker enrolled him in Bharatanatyam classes when he was just 12 — a move which led to backlash from his extended family and community.
But Manu persisted. Interacting with maestros, rubbing shoulders with dancers and musicians. He learnt Kathakali, Kathak and Mohiniyattam, but his heart lay in Bharatanatyam. Manaf became Manoj — in any case, he was addressed as Manu, by the nickname his mother always used for him. He learnt from many masters. He travelled to Karnataka, and to Tamil Nadu to imbibe the nuances of the delicate and feminine Thanjavur style. He then travelled north, lived many years in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, before returning more than 30 years later, to his home state.
A dedicated scholar, he went outside of books and scriptures to absorb more. The southern temple sculptures showed him a possibility beyond how the art was structured today. Over time, Bharatanatyam has come to be performed with fixed upper torso, spectacular footwork, and no hip movement, but the temples were depicting an older and different version. So, Manu Master began to practice and teach the art with bhanga-bhangis — the provocative jutting hip. It is considered a radically transgressive innovation, but has flying in the face of convention ever stopped Manu?
Tantra and Natya