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A man in Kerala has become the first Muslim to receive a doctorate in a classical dance rooted in Hindu mythology which is traditionally the preserve of women.
K.M. Abu, 47, has performed Mohiniyattam at more than 50 venues in Kerala in the past three decades and says that unlike some of his Muslim peers he had never been ostracised for daring to break with tradition in Hindu-majority India.
"It shows that the people are interested in the performance rather than the performer," said Abu, who teaches the dance form at a university in the town of Kalady in the sun-drenched state.
Mohiniyattam, which in the regional Malayalam language means "dance of the enchantress", depicts Hindu deity Vishnu assuming the form of ethereal beauty Mohini to seduce demons and win the nectar of immortality for the gods. Other storylines and characters have been added over the years.
The temple dance form is believed to have originated 500 years ago and is a solo recital with several parts played by the woman performer, usually dressed in a pristine off-white sari with a rich golden border. Abu said he tries out various costumes.
Abu is the only man among eight dancers to get a doctorate from the Kerala Kalamandalam, a major centre for the Indian performing arts. He wrote his thesis on the life of Kalyanikutty Amma, a 20th-century dancer who popularized Mohiniyattam.
The increasing participation of non-Hindus in traditional Hindu dance forms is being seen as a sign of religious tolerance in Kerala, a progressive state with a high rate of literacy.
"People have realised that art has no religion," said P.N. Suresh, vice-chancellor of the Kerala Kalamandalam.
But it was not always so.
Kalamandalam Hyderali, a Muslim singer famous for his association with the classical Indian dance-drama of Kathakali till his death in 2006, was often forced to sing from outside the temple while dancers were performing inside.