'Art has no religion. An artist is an artist.'
It was in the late 1950s that an 11-year-old Hyder Ali joined the Kerala Kalamandalam to learn Kathakali music, and Kathakali is an art performed in temples.
It is said that a Hindu and a Christian paid his fees as his family could not afford the fees.
Though he could not perform in many temples because he was a Muslim, there were also stories of how a temple pulled down the compound wall of the temple and extended the stage so that Hyder Ali could perform during the temple festival.
No singer can match Yesudas's devotion to Lord Guruvayoorappan but he still has not been allowed inside the Guruvayoor temple as he is a non-Hindu.
Yes, nothing much has changed from the days of Hyder Ali.
Otherwise, a Bharata Natyam artist named Mansiya would not have been denied permission to dance at the Koodalmanikam temple in Kerala.
The reason for the denial was, she was a non-Hindu.
Her being an artist of repute did not matter to the temple authorities; only the religion she was born into did although she did not follow any religion now.
After studying Bharata Natyam at Madras University, Mansiya, a performing artist and a teacher, is pursuing her PhD at the Kerala Kalamandalam.
"Why did I criticise Islam? Because they said dance was Hindu art. Now, somebody from this side tells me that this is solely their art, and I have no right to perform. I cannot accept it," Mansiya tells Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com.
How did you get attracted to Bharata Natyam as there are very few people from the Muslim community who perform classical dances?
My Umma (mother), a devout Muslim, got attracted to Bharata Natyam after she saw some girls dance on TV, and took my elder sister Rubiya to a classical dance teacher.
I grew up watching her dance and naturally I was also drawn to the art.
In the early days, more than our interest in the art, my parents were interested in us learning classical dance. Both of us loved the art form, and we enjoyed dancing.
We followed Islam because we were born into it. And we were very religious and did namaaz without fail. But my parents never discriminated against people on the basis of any religion.
I read that you and your sister had to face a lot of discrimination from your community because you two danced...
We were ostracised from Islam because we danced.
We used to perform Kathakali in temples in those days.
They said, because we performed Hindu forms of art, we could not be a part of Islam.
That was how they kicked us out of the religion then.
In those days, we were extremely religious. So, it hurt us very badly.
Were you in a difficult situation to choose between the art you loved and the religion you followed?
Yes, it was difficult.
People from the mosque came to our house and told us that if we gave a written apology, they would take us back. But we had to stop dancing. Or else, they said, we had no place in the religion.
After they left the house, the three of us -- my Uppa (father), my sister, and I -- sat down and took the decision that art was more important to us and not religion.
Uppa asked us whether we would take art with us all our lives. We said that was what we wanted.
Another reason why we took such a big decision in our lives was because of what we had to endure after our Umma's death.
When our Umma passed away, they did not let us have her kabaradakkam (burial in the burial grounds) at the mosque. We had to finally bury her at her ancestral home.
When the committee members came to our house asking us to write a letter of apology, they threatened us that without any support from the mosque, both of us would never have a nikah.
They also said, 'if you do not want to have the same kind of death your Umma had, you should stop dancing and write an apology.'
That was the last straw. We decided not to have any religion. We chose art over religion.
We then decided to donate our body to the medical college after our death.
You married a Hindu, a violinist.
Yes. My sister also married a Hindu, a Tamil Iyer from Chennai. He is not an artist.
Did your neighbours also isolate you from learning dance?
There was a time they had stopped talking to us.
It is not the same situation today. I still live in the same place, and I run a dance class here.
Around 100 students from the neighbourhood study in my dance school.
So, I want to believe that things have changed for the better and the neighbourhood has learned to accept me!
Do you have Muslim students also?
No, I don't have any Muslim students!
After the way the Muslim community treated you, you chose art over religion. Classical dance is an art you perform mostly in temples. Did you have to face bad experiences from the Hindu community also?
They were very helpful and at all the temples I had performed, I was respected as an artist. And I have had performances in most of the temples in Kerala.
Even at the Melpathur auditorium in Guruvayoor, I did many performances, and my students also had their arangetram (a dancer's first public performance) there.
I thought only Hindus are allowed inside the Guruvayoor temple...
The Melpathur auditorium is not inside the temple premises. So, we could dance there.
Did you ever feel angry because we still have some temples in Kerala where non-Hindus are not allowed?
No, I have never felt angry or had any ill feelings.
They have been very courteous and respectful to me all the time.
See, I learned dance steps even before I learned to write ABCD. So, Krishna and Siva have always been there within me.
Naturally, there is a desire in me as an artist to see them closely and worship them like Yesudas Sir wants to pray at the Guruvayoor temple. But not even once have I forcibly tried to go inside.
I don't believe in any religion. But I believe in God. I am of the opinion that belief in God and belief in religion are two different things.
So, you see God as a supreme power?
Yes, a power, the power that guides me, the power that gives me confidence when I am down, the power that is present in my art.
My strength is my art and practicing my art is my puja.
Just before we perform, we touch the stage in obeisance. That's because the stage is our temple and what we perform is our God.
If I am going to dance in a temple, before every performance I pray to the deity from outside and prostrate in front of Him.
It means I am bowing in front of the supreme power; in whatever form it is and wherever it is.
My art, which I carry with me all the time, is my God and the stage where I perform is my temple.
It was reported that you were an atheist.
I am not an atheist. I have no qualms in saying I am an atheist if I am one.
I write 'no religion' whenever I have to fill in a form. I have no religion, but I am not an atheist. I believe in God.
After my Facebook post, I have been branded an atheist.
I am not disturbed by the allegation. I am disturbed because people did not understand what exactly I wanted to express, that is, art has no religion or caste.
I worship my God through my art, through my dance.
If I don't internalise a Krishna or a Siva, how can I dance on a stage or teach dance to my students?
Why did you write a Facebook post on the way you were treated by the Koodalmanikam temple? Did they treat you badly?
They now say that only Hindu artists can apply to perform there. But when I applied, I didn't know this.
Had I known, I would never have sent an application. How can I when I don't follow any religion?
Can anyone categorise artists as Hindu artists and non-Hindu artists?
I have always been saying that art has no religion. An artist is an artist. He doesn't need any other prefix.
When art itself is a religion, a belief, how can you classify artists based on something else? You may be a Hindu artist, but are there not many other caste classifications in the Hindu religion?
In my Facebook post, I had asked, should they not be looking at the quality of the artist and not the religion the artist belongs to?
At Koodalmanikam, why did they choose you first if they knew you were not a 'Hindu artist'?
The selection process went on for more than a month.
I was chosen after following all the procedures and the notice with my name also was sent out.
A week later, they called me and said, 'because you are a non-Hindu, you cannot perform here'.
I said, 'Sir, I am not coming there to worship at the temple; I am coming there for a dance recital.'
The next question was, 'Are you not married to a Hindu? Have you converted to Hinduism?'
I said, 'When I have no religion, how can I convert?'
Before hanging up, he said, 'Sorry, non-Hindus cannot perform here.'
Did you feel insulted as an artist?
Yes, it was insulting.
If they had said, the quality of my dance was not good, I would have accepted it gracefully.
But the reason they cited, that I was non-Hindu was insulting to me as an artist.
If that was the case, they should have informed me earlier, not after printing my name in the notice.
It is high time such outdated notions change. Why did I criticise Islam? Because they said dance was Hindu art.
Now, somebody from this side tells me that this is solely their art, and I have no right to perform. I cannot accept it.
Have you ever faced anything of this sort before?
No. See, I have had the maximum performances in temples.
After this incident, all those temples and even tantris are calling me voicing their support.
I am saying the same thing Hyder Ali master said decades ago; that art has no religion.
Unfortunately, nothing has changed even today.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com