“Accept, respect and love yourself. Once you do that, the world will follow,” says Eshan Hilal, India’s first male professional belly dancer. He also teaches the dance form, is a fashion designer, gender-fluid model and a motivational speaker who gives TED talks.
So how did it all start? A 7-year-old Eshan would groove to hit Bollywood numbers and imitate Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman and Madhuri Dixit’s dance and expressions. It was all fine. But the moment he discovered Kathak and wanted to learn the dance form professionally, his parents were perplexed that he was interested in doing feminine moves. Young Eshan was fascinated by the Lucknow gharana of Kathak and purchased ghungroos. His parents abused him and denied paying the fees of Rs 500 for his dance classes.
“I would stand outside a dance school, watch others and learn. In Delhi, there’s a place called the Golcha cinema hall where they would sell secondhand books. I purchased a book on Kathak and learnt furthermore, until one day when I happened to meet a guruji. He taught me Kathak and didn’t even ask me to pay,” reminisces Eshan.
Eshan soon came across some videos of male belly dancers online and was awestruck. He became interested in belly dancing and as expected, his family boycotted the idea. “We are from a conservative Muslim family and my father told me that we belonged to the community that got entertained and that we don’t entertain people. But since I was young, I always wanted to be an entertainer,” he shares and adds that he briefly left dancing to concentrate on fashion designing as his parents were a bit more accepting of it.
From being called derogatory names to being physically abused, Eshan says he had a horrible childhood. “I never understood what was wrong with me. I never had anyone to look up to or talk to. Parents shouldn’t put barriers, they should understand their kids. They must at least discuss their children’s dreams before saying no,” says Eshan, who was a contestant on the dance reality show Dance Plus 3 on Star Plus and even walked the ramp at NIFT cultural festival.
Eshan’s parents still don’t support what he does. “I don’t hate my parents for never understanding me. I know that we love each other. All I wish is they would evolve with time and change their mindset. Even parents can be wrong sometimes and that’s okay,” he says.
For instance, after watching one of his performances, a mother in the audience came and told him that she would try to understand her child better. An old man watched his mujra and belly dance fusion and said, “Beta, I thought you would ruin Umrao Jaan for me but within five minutes of your performance I could see that you’re a true artist.”
Apart from dancing, Eshan loves doing embroidery, painting and listening to old Hindi songs. He talks to school kids about gender stereotypes and does workshops. “I am just a bearded man, wearing a skirt and following my heart,” he says. The talented 27-year-old wants to showcase his fusion of belly dance and Kathak on international platforms in the future.
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