My parents took me to my cousin’s dance show when I was five years old; seeing her seven-year old self twirling around in a two shade blue skirt and blouse to a classic 90s AR Rahman tune, ‘Chinna Chinna Mazhai Thuli’, was when I decided that I wanted to do the same.
I wanted to wear the same outfit and twirl around to the same song. I wanted to be taught by that same teacher who taught my cousin. So within a month, in line with Vijaya Dasami to mark the celebratory end of Navaratri, my parents took me to my first Bharathanatya dance lesson – and there began a journey which has changed my life forever.
I remember the first year being tedious – a small 5 year old girl, with an obvious waddling gait due to the excess fat around her thighs, was expected to sit in Aramandi (one of the stances in Bharathanatyam) and perform Thattadavu and Nattadavu perfectly (the beginning set of steps to be learnt in Bharathanatyam), without complaining about the worsening muscle pains which were creeping into her legs the longer she held that position.
Yes, it was a struggle. But I fought through because all I had in mind was that desire to dance in that blue skirt. What at the time felt like a distant dream within a year became a near reality. Following the completion of my Grade 1 dance exam seven months after I had started, my Guru (dance teacher) gave the opportunity to perform a simple yet fun folk piece to the ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ song from the Hindi movie Lagaan at a local dance show. I will never deny how incredible that opportunity was. As the youngest and smallest dancer in the group, I felt on top of the world when all eyes were on me – that ‘small girl at the front’. Yes it was amazing.
I remember asking my mum soon after whether I could go earlier to dance class just so I could watch the ‘big girls’ practice. I wanted to be them. I wanted to be the girl who could do all those complicated dances with so much ease. This yearning only grew further when my Guru told my parents to bring me to one of her students’ dance Arangetram (debut solo performance). I was around six or seven years at the time. I knew nothing about an Arangetram. All I remember is flicking through the girl’s Arangetram brochure repetitively, staring at all the postures she had held for the pictures, in her colourful costumes. I came back home and every day I would go into my parents’ room, close the door, and try and imitate those poses in front of the mirror. The number of times my mum walked in to find me in a lopsided posture which at the time I believed I had absolutely nailed! I basically wanted to learn to do those poses. I wanted to be on stage, and most importantly I wanted to have my own Arangetram.
I started focusing myself more and more on dance. My Guru to this day calls me one of her most dedicated students. I have to admit that this was not solely because of me, but because of my parents – my mother in particular who believed in my potential as a dancer and pushed me to reach great heights in dance.
You might be thinking right now, so did I ever manage to dance to ‘Chinna Chinna Mazhai Thuli’? Yes I did, after two years of starting dance lessons, my teacher taught me the routine and put me in a group to perform that song in front of a crowd of 400. I was eight at the time. I walked into my first ever dance lesson with a drive to dance to that particular song, and within two years I got that opportunity. It was then that I started believing in myself as a dancer. I started feeling more and more involved and special as a dancer. I realised that if I could achieve what you might consider to be an insignificant dream, with continued hard work and dedication I had the potential to really start pushing myself. And so with the satisfaction of performing to that song in particular, I took dance more seriously. (Unfortunately the blue skirts were out of fashion at the time I performed; we had a new set of more glamourous costumes, so I was not going to complain!).
Each year I progressed through the grades of Bharathanatyam, whilst also doing several shows where I performed Bharathanatyam, Tamil folk songs and more cinematic numbers. In 2005, when I was 11 years old, my Guru and my mother had a discussion about my arangetram. My Guru was very supportive indeed, but my mother felt I was too young at the time to do it. But they had both agreed that I should have one within the next 2 to 3 years and so they had decided that in 2008 I would be having my Arangetram. With that in mind, towards the end of 2005 I started training by undertaking private lessons. With approximately 3 years of private training, at the age of 14, I had completed my diploma in dance with a distinction and performed my Arangetram – September 2008.
Things started to change massively after this. Like any traditional Tamil family, my family wanted me to show more focus on my studies. Dance became less of priority for them. I had stopped dance lessons completely and sat at home studying – all so I can work towards getting into university – which I am always going to be grateful for however much I complained at the time. Nonetheless, it was during these years that I struggled the most. Having spent nearly all my life dancing, I struggled to cope with the fact that I was not allowed to anymore. I could not carry on that way, and I felt very incomplete. I discussed with my mother the possibility of me completing my Post Diploma in dance and she agreed. So I spent the year after my arangetram preparing my dissertation on ‘Navarasas’ (the nine moods in dance), and continued practising all the dance items I had learnt to date.
My experience of completing that Post Diploma examination was incredible. It made me realise how much of an impact dance has had on me, and particularly Bharathanatyam. It was one of the best examinations I had sat, and the feedback I got from the examiners was something I will always cherish – they said they saw a passion and fire in me for Bharathanatyam that they had never expected to see in a girl born and brought up in England.
However motivating these comments were, I also had my more academic ambitions which I had to focus on, so after that, Bharathanatyam merely became something I taught small children, on a weekly basis. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved teaching and it is something I will definitely do when I’m older but I never felt complete. I always knew something was missing. And that is when university happened!
I got into university and then I really started valuing and realising how much I enjoyed dance! I started appreciating the beauty and complexity of dance even more, having started new styles of dance – Bhangra, Gaana and Bollywood, through which I have had some incredible stage experiences. My relationship with dance during the first two years was somewhat fragmented. After nearly two years of very little dancing, I restarted dance quite abruptly. Intense amounts of classes and training, particularly in Bhangra, led me to suffering from a foot fracture which put me on crutches for nearly a month and stopped me from dancing for nearly 6 months. As a result, I was very apprehensive to start dancing again. But I slowly got back into it in second year with Gaana. In third year I pushed myself further by restarting Bhangra and Bharathanatyam and continued with Gaana. My love for all three dance forms only grew further and I slowly started dipping my feet into Bollywood.
I became my worst critique; I wanted to be a better dancer day-by-day. I am immersed into an environment where I am constantly surrounded by individuals who want to improve as dancers. I started realising that the only thing that keeps me going through the long days at university is the thought that I have dance rehearsals in the evening. Yes I have gradually over the past 4 years at university become a dance-a-holic. My friends call me crazy. Yes I am.
What I have most importantly learnt is that being a dancer, or any artist for that matter, is about being part of an on-going journey of learning and experimenting and creating new things. The arts are limitless – there is never an end-point. I have learnt that boundaries need to be pushed. We need to set newer targets with every piece we choreograph. That is the least respect which can be given to the arts such as dance.
Respect it. Love it. Live it.