Haren’s Odissi: On leading a double life and pursuing his passion


KUALA LUMPUR, April 11 — It’s not every day you come across a classical male dancer let alone a young one who is trained in odissi, the oldest Indian dance form which originated in eastern India’s Odisha. Meet Harenthiran Pulingam, Sutra Foundation’s dancer who recently took on the lead role in its successful production of Ganjam. Trained under distinguished classical dancer, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, Harenthiran (better known as Haren) was intrigued by the world of dance at age nine when he saw his aunt dancing. As the first male grandchild in the family, his parents, Pulingam Santhanam and Thean Molizh Sockiah, were reluctant to send him for bharatanatyam classes but relented in the end after much persuasion by their headstrong firstborn. Seven years ago, the 31-year-old joined the renowned dance company in Kuala Lumpur and it has been “excitement all the way”. During his time there, Ramli, whom the dancers refer to as Master Ramli, gave Haren a scholarship to study bharatanatyam and odissi. “Bharatanatyam is sharp whereas odissi is lalitya — the lyricism that forms the essence of odissi,” said Haren.

Haren recently starred as the male lead in ‘Ganjam – photo by S. Magendran

To date, the dancer has held most of the main male roles in the company’s productions, namely Krishna Love Reinvented, Vision of Forever, Spellbound and most recently, Ganjam. “Master Ramli gave me the opportunities but it’s based on your interest and hard work, anyone can dance but you have to take it seriously,” Haren said. “It’s more than just moving your hip and head. It’s about your heart…you have to feel the dance or else it will look fake.” While it’s no secret that Haren’s passion for dance has opened a lot of doors for him, the Old Klang Road resident is just as comfortable in and out of the spotlight. Everyday, seven days a week, Haren wakes up before sunrise to open his family’s wet market stall in Brickfields. They only close to celebrate Deepavali.  It’s a double life that many find hard to believe, some even think the accomplished dancer is pulling a prank when he tells them he cuts chicken and fish on top of delivering vegetables. “People always ask me ‘Are you really working in a wet market?’ and I tell them, ‘Yes and what’s wrong with that?’”  His parents have been running the stall for the past 20 years and upon finishing his Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) examinations, Haren has been helping out ever since. “I’ve been told I don’t look like a wet market vendor but it doesn’t mean I have to wear my market boots to Sutra,” he said.

31-year-old Harenthiran Pulingam works at his parent’s wet market stall by day and takes on lead roles in odissi productions by night. — Picture by Razak Ghazali

A day in the market might be hard work but the comedic element sets in whenever classical Indian dance enthusiasts recognise him. “A customer asked me if I was a dancer and I said no at first but when he said I resembled a dancer in the Ganjam programme book, I had to come clean,” laughed Haren. Working at his family’s stall could not be more perfect as it allows the full-time dancer a flexible schedule, enabling him to go on tour with the dance company. So far, Haren has travelled to Washington and New York, where his talent was spotted and he was asked to perform a duet with the Battery Dance Company’s senior female dancer.  From today until April 21, Haren, along with Ramli and seven other dancers, will showcase Ganjam in the Indian cities of New Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Rourkela and Berhampur. With Hindu mythology serving as inspiration for most classical Indian dance forms, Haren said travelling to the birthplace of odissi as well as reading the basics of these ancient texts have helped him understand the art form better. Whether he is portraying a demon, a devotee or Lord Shiva, there is no role too difficult for this adventurous learner.  “I would love to play a girl’s role,” he said. Although it is common for male dancers to play female roles, taking on the lead female role has never been done and Haren reckons it will be a good challenge. For him, dance has become his panacea. “I always feel happy after dancing,” he said. “I just leave everything behind and when I come back, I feel as though there is no problem too big — dance helps me deal with things positively.” That same spirit kept him going as a young boy when the girls in his dance class were less than kind. “They used to make fun of me because I had to wear makeup yet, I danced better than them. “Let’s see who’s better on stage”, he would tell them. Asked if he sees himself dancing forever, an earnest Haren provided a reply that will make Nataraja, the Hindu lord of dance, proud.  “I’m a strong believer of karma and it’s my fate to dance,” he said.