"Jab humein dekhte hain, toh kehte hai ye saala nachaniya aa gaya. Iske lambe baal hai, bas shaadiyon mein naachega yeh (When they see us, people ridicule us, saying, here comes the dancer. He's got long hair, and he'll probably dance at weddings)."
Mithilesh Kushwaha gives us a story-of-my-life expression and ups the rage in his voice. "This is a really wrong thought process that we have to deal with every single day." Mithilesh is a teacher at the Michael Jackson Dance Academy in Karwi, Chitrakoot, and is passionate about all things MJ. And MJ = dance is the absolute equation in his head. But it is not an easy life choice for him. In rural Bundelkhand, where prime news stories are often, if not always, centred on droughts and farmer suicides and gaushalas and dacoits—not necessarily in that order—opting for dance as a profession is still quite unheard of. It's bad enough even if you relegate it to the hobby department.
It is as if Michael Jackson and his impossible dance moves are symbolic of an ambition that they all feel pumping in their veins...
Something that Ritisha Kesharwani, a student at the Academy, all of 12, can tell you about. She told us all about her favourite dance moves and songs—"Dil Disco Disco Kare Saari Raat Sajna" is a current favourite and she also mentioned a track worryingly titled "Do Peg Maar Aur Bhool Jaa" (!)—and while the joy in her eyes, her smile, can leave nobody with any doubt about her love for dance, there were other kinds of dynamics going on around her. Off-camera, we were privy to some friction between her and her mother, who watched from a distance as Ritisha gyrated and did a very cool flip right inside their house. Sanjay Kumar, the founder of the academy, and everyone's main man, puts it, succinctly, "My family did not support me back when I started. And they do not support me today either."
But Sanjay is something of a legend now. Deepak, one of the younger instructors at the academy, speaks with reverence as he tells us about "kitna kaabil banaaya hai humein Sanjay Sir ne (how capable Sanjay Sir has made us)." To him too, this way of life is about all things MJ—or "apne MJ", as he often says—and yet, it is so much more. It is as if Michael Jackson and his impossible dance moves are symbolic of an ambition that they all feel pumping in their veins even as they learn and teach Bolly-styled jhatka-matkas to say, "Ladki Beautiful Kar Gayi Chull." It is a burning fire in their bellies, and it is going to take them places. Literally. Mithilesh has a list, "Just 250km from here, you go to Kanpur, or then Delhi, and to Mumbai—people there understand. They worship dance."
I have learnt Kathak, and I have great respect for it. I also know hip hop, popping-locking, fusion, contemporary. But yes, [MJ] is the one I believe in." Sanjay Kumar, dance academy founder
"When I started", says Sanjay, "nobody understood what I was doing. Nobody here even knew what dance meant, what it meant to be dancing." The number of students who enrolled was in sharp contrast to this general Karwi emotion though: "Twenty-three," he says proudly, and adds, "on the very first day." Sanjay has since had students graduate and open their own dance schools. He has also broken through to that ultimate place that spells fame in our country, having acted as a "villain, a brother, a driver" in three Bollywood films. But Sanjay has a deeper understanding of glocal—it is why we find MJ wallpapers here, why they celebrate their icon's birthday every year on 29 August, and why kids as young as seven dream of moonwalking. Karwi might have rejected him in some ways, but for Sanjay, it is home, and it is here that his students learn of joy and heartache and back-breaking hard work. Just as he did, as he still does. And so he is in the midst of planning a film in Karwi, featuring locals in starring roles. Will there be a few MJ-inspired moves, we ask? He smiles and says, "My background is in classical dance, in the sense that I have learnt Kathak, and I have great respect for it. I also know hip hop, popping-locking, fusion, contemporary. But yes, maanta toh main unko hi hoon (he's the one I believe in)."