Sunday Shillong speaks to dancer and artist Shayan Nath on his journey and the importance of de-gendered spaces in art

To fit or not to fit within a box is often a dilemma we are all faced with. Some, however, choose to follow a different drumbeat.

Such is the story of Shillong-based dancer, painter and make-up artist, Shayan Nath.

Born and brought up in Shillong, he has been learning dance at Gitanjali Dance Academy for the last four years. His journey has had its share of ups and downs.

We spoke of how dance started, followed by art and more recently, his rising popularity as a make-up artist.

The Beginning

Shayan was 3 or 4 years old when dance found him. He would observe his elder sister practising at home and he picked up the choreography. His mother noticed this and encouraged him. “For the first time, I took part in a competition dressed as a woman. I won. That was the start of my dance.”

From then on, he took part in different dance competitions in the city and always came back home with prizes. He was appreciated by the people around him. Things, however, changed once he entered middle school. People reminded his parents of his gender, telling them to get him enrolled in singing classes or learn the tabla instead. How can a man dance?

“I regarded dance as dance; rather than being limited to a specific gender. Back then, I did not understand what they were saying,” he says. Things got worse when he faced bullying in an all-boys school, be it peers or adults – in the form of jokes.

He reminisced about how that experience shaped his understanding of gender. He internalised the comments to the point where he stopped dancing. “I built walls around me where no one could reach out to me and vice versa.”

His parents felt the pressure and he wasn’t allowed to dance at all. Shayan felt something was missing in his life but he was yet to figure it out. He lived in the in-between spaces – one of deep longing and sadness.

That’s when art entered his life. He discovered how much he loved drawing. In grade IX, that love deepened. But dance never left him. Watching reality shows on dance made him emotional. “I remember how tears would come out automatically when I watched the dancers on these shows. I should have been there.”

The Self-Aware Artist

Shayan views the relentless bullying as “unintentional” – the people lacked awareness and they have been shaped by society as well. Perhaps, art has shaped his nuanced observation.

On processing societal perception, he says: “Now I am aware of my rights. As a kid, I thought it was normal. I processed it like any other child.”

The constant shaming also affected his academics. He channelised his frustration through art.

The rebel in him arose as he secretly got enrolled in a dance school – Neliz Dance Academy in Laitumkhrah. The fear of getting caught was real. This, in turn, affected his confidence on the stage. He remembers how his legs would tremble.

It took Shayan some time to accept how others viewed him. Once he did, it was liberating. Looking back, he says, “I was really strong and overcame this period.” Art helped him in this regard.

He thanks one of his school friends, Biswajit Das, who noticed he was aloof in school. Das had his group of friends but made it a point to sit with him on the last bench. “He just wanted to make me feel comfortable. I flunked in class IX. In a Bengali household, this meant repercussions. I was in Class X when Biswajit introduced me to his friends and that helped me tremendously.”

Credit also goes to his teacher, Anjana Chakraborty, who noticed his talent and told his mother to get him enrolled in an art school. He was in the ninth grade then. He joined Nritya Malancha in Laban. This made him very happy as he looked forward to this change.

Here too, he took a break for some time because of school. In 2018, he completed his Masters in art.

Back to Dance

He would always observe the dancers of Gitanjali Dance Academy, dressed in the graceful and classy Bharatanatyam attire.

For him, 2016 was a defining year. Monica Chanda, the dancer-teacher of the academy was looking for a male dancer and he joined the team. Before this, there was a three-day workshop on contemporary dance. He wanted to join the workshop but could not because of academic commitments.

He had little knowledge of this dance form then, but picked it up within a short time. “I felt like I have everything in life.” Slowly, he came out of his shell. “Dance is always my education. It has profoundly shaped me. What it has given me cannot be expressed through words.”

Shayan recalls how one of his uncles once helped him financially for a dance exam, adding: “He used to watch dance reality shows with me. I told him about a particular exam and he agreed to give me Rs 2,000. This was a big thing for me.”

Years later, one of his teachers said, “I used to scold you as a kid. Now, I know you will go a long way.”

Shayan says: “The power of words is tremendous. It makes or breaks your spirit.”

His mother wanted to support him, but circumstances made it difficult for her. He does not blame his parents because he understood the societal gaze towards a male dancer. The negative comments made him even more stubborn. “People respond differently towards negativity. It only made me adamant.”

After giving his 12th boards, he wanted to shift to Mumbai but three of his friends filled up his college form. “I completed my BCom from Umshyrpi College, which has no relation with what I do,” he chuckles.

Mumbai called him again when he applied and won a scholarship to Shaimak Davar’s Dance Academy. That year he got a job in Army Public School. Finding himself at a crossroads and Mumbai being an expensive city, he chose the latter. He quit the job later to focus on his passion.

The Make-Up Artist

Shayan says how make-up chose him rather than the other way round. He would observe his mother as a kid. “I was so fascinated with how make-up can change your look. I saw the lipstick, for instance, like paint. I thought it was for everyone. I don’t know how and when it became just for women.,” he says.

Pooja Debnath, one of his art students, later approached him to do her bridal look. While he was initially sceptical, he dived right in. The marriage was in Jail Road. People gave rave reviews. Two days later, another prospective bride called him. That’s how his journey as a make-up artist started.

He does not see these forms of expression as separate entities; rather they inform and “blend into each other.”

A Rich Inner World

“To be able to surprise yourself is the biggest gift of life,” Shayan says.

He does not consider himself to be ambitious in the conventional sense. “I go with the flow. Small, achievable goals are far more important for me. I am still confused and discovering myself.”

On the art front, his paintings have been sold out for almost three years now. His clients are from Shillong, Delhi and Bangalore among other places.

On gender stereotypes, he says: “Even after 10 layers of make-up I don’t see myself as being different. I am still Me. My world is not necessarily always gendered.”

As our conversation came to a close, the takeaway was a sense of irony in his journey. He was stopped from pursuing the very things that have brought pride to the family. “From my first salary, I got gifts for my family. I saw pride in my father’s eyes and that was a powerful, overwhelming feeling.”

His message for people who feel restricted because of society: “Love and respect yourself first. Only then will people accept and respect you for who you are. Just believe in yourself and do what you want to do, despite the many obstacles along the way. No one can take anything from you, because it is You.”

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