At just the mention of Bharatanatyam, Varun Khanna aka Dancing Dentist on social media, gets visibly happy and ecstatic. He firmly believes that dance is a sadhana (deep practise), the intimate language of the soul, as much as it is a way to engage with the physical world. It is thanks to dance that he was able to go on an inward journey, which allowed bigger truths about himself to surface, some of which he could observe, and eventually accept — one of them being his sexuality.
A disciple of the duo Rama Vaidyanathan and Saroja Vaidyanathan, Khanna will be performing tomorrow at Chandigarh’s iconic Tagore Theatre. The production, choreographed by Rama Vaidyanathan, is called Nar ‘O’ Narayan, celebrating the life of Krishna, and will be staged ahead of Janmashtami day. “It will attempt to present Krishna as a transcendental, yogic being through verses by six Sufi poets from across the country,” Khanna says.
It was another of his guru’s famous productions, Ardhnarishwara Ashtakam, which Khanna had performed at various festivals including the 10th Chandigarh Pride Parade at Sukhna Lake this year, which he calls as his ‘tipping point’. It was this that helped him come to terms with his sexuality. The concept of Ardhanarishwara, of course is a half-male, half-female form — of the god Shiva and goddess Parvati — as one being. Performing in this production at various venues over the years made him accept his feminine side, he notes, adding that, those who ridicule gays for being effeminate should understand that the world has originated from the conjugal union between Purush (man) and Prakriti (woman).
By day, Khanna is a dentist, extracting teeth and fixing dentures in his clinic in Chandigarh. After he’s done for the day, he yearns to don his dhoti and ghunghroos to dance, and to also teach a couple of students. Like his guru, he too is interested in contemporary retellings of famous epics, through his performances. Khanna has performed at prestigious festivals, including the Kinnar Mahotsav 2022, and in 2021, was conferred the title of Kalashree by Ganesh Natyalaya.
Ahead of the upcoming performance, Khanna talks to Lounge about the intersection between dance, medicine and his identity as a gay man. Edited excerpts.
Tell us about your relationship with guru Rama Vaidhyanathan. You ran away from home in the third year of college to learn from her.
I first watched Ramaji dance in Chandigarh. Despite Bharatanatyam being a classical form, Ramaji’s innovative choreography brought a certain freshness with which I could relate immediately. I mailed her, and received a very warm response the very next day.
Two years after that incident, I met her in Delhi's Khan Market with my nani. I kept rambling on about the dilemma of learning from her in Delhi or joining my classes in Panchkula (near Chandigarh). “I accept you as my student. Come to me after you have completed your studies,” she told me. This faith in me diverted my attention from studies to dance.
With no family support back then, I boarded the train to Delhi without informing my parents. It was late in the evening that my family realised that I was missing, and my father drove down to Delhi to take me home. On the way back, he said, “If a legend can recognise talent in my son, then who am I to stop you?”
Quite a few dancers belong to the LGBT community. I know a male friend who had to face the wrath of his Kathak guru when he refused to get sexually involved with him. How conducive is the dancers' community to alternate sexualities?
Times have been changing, and sensitive dance teachers are happy to teach those who value learning over anything.
You mention finding a couple of your seniors from medical college, living in heterosexual marriages, but secretly using Grindr. You belong to a family of doctors, who in most cases, internalise the homophobia (from their college years) without even knowing it. How has proximity to medicine affected accepting your sexuality?
I wasn't sure of my sexuality back (in college). I was attracted to boys, but having no name for it, I attributed it to their personality, or to whatever that I lacked then. Once as a child, my father saw me draped in my mother's dupatta and dancing to an item number. The expression on his face tightened. Later, when my family realised my orientation, they never expressed their distaste openly, but would drop subtle hints.
More than the medical colleges, I think society at large is to be blamed for the dual lives of homosexuals. Nobody marries while they are in medical college. But it can't be denied that a certain openness and sensitivity in medical colleges—when students are actually fiddling with their unusual attraction patterns—might help them make informed decisions and even support people around them.
I am reminded of the film Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) in which actor Ayushmann Khurrana's character, who is representative of a macho man, behaves in a rather puerile manner when he realises he has been in love with a trans-woman. Tell us more about gay culture in the region. What differences do you find in the gay culture of smaller towns and bigger towns?
Confused, discreet, and looking for sex. Afraid of being caught, they would work out and grow beards. Metros usually have broad-minded people, trying to accept themselves and understand others and their cultures.
What are your future goals as a dancer and dentist?
I like to live in the present. One can't say much about the future, but I think I'd like to balance both dance and medicine and do both of them nicely to inspire people who might wish to do something more.
Kinshuk Gupta is a poet and writer from Delhi.