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Bharatanatyam as it is in Malaysia

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Principle of Tanjai Kamala Indira Dance School, Indira Manickam - Photo by TKI

KUALA LUMPUR: “I started learning Bharatanatyam at a very young age. From the time I knew how to walk I have been dancing, because I came from such a family,” says the principle of the well-known, Tanjai Kamala Indira Dance School (TKI), Indira Govindaraju Manickam.

Her mother, Ammaravathi Govindaraju was the first woman in Malaysia to do the ‘Kalakatashibam’, which is narrating a story via singing, while her grandfather, Sinniah was a dramatist or better known as a playwright.
Indira and both her elder sisters were very much into dancing since young, however her eldest sister passed away in an accident.

Following the loss of her sister, her grandfather took her and her second elder sister Kamala Govindaraju Ramachandran to Tanjavour, India where Bharatanatyam originated.
“My grandfather thought that was the right place for us to learn Bharathanatyam. We went to the Pichaya Pillai Bharatanatyam Vidyalaya which belongs to one of the ‘Naalvaar’ (Thanjavur Quartet-Four brothers contributed to the development of Bharatanatyam),” said Indira.

Those days, learning Bharatanatyam was through the ‘Gurukulavasham' system, where students stayed with their teacher's home to learn the ancient art.

This created a bond and better understanding between the teacher and student.

Indira and her sister Kamala had their ‘Arangetram’ (the graduation) in 1965, in Tanjavour Sangeetha Mahal (India's Hall of Music) and their patron was the Senior Prince of Tanjavour, at that time.

She said after the 'Arangetram' they returned to Kuala Lumpur and started their dance school TKI in Thambusamy Pillai Tamil School, Sentul.

“We really wanted to teach because at that time there weren’t many who knew what Bharatanatyam was. Not many knew the difference between Bharatanatyam and an ordinary dance. They just couldn’t differentiate them,” added Indira.
 
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The founders of Tanjai Kamala Indira Dance School, Indira Manickam (left) and Kamala Ramachandran (right) - Photo by TKI

When the Govindaraju sisters started the dance school, Indira admitted that the school did not receive much response. 

She said, people back then watched movies and wanted their children to dance like how the actors did. They expected their children to perform within few months of joining the dance classes.

“It was difficult to handle parents with such mentality. Before being able to perform one much learn all the fundamental system of Bharatanatyam, where the first they have to do all the footwork called the ‘Adavu',” explained Indira.

Adavus, are the footwork which simply means the basic steps of the dance. From there it moves on to the ‘Margam’ (syllabus) which starts with Pushpanjali, Allaripu, Jatheeswaram, Sabtham, Varnam and finally the Thillana.

Indira said later in 1968, she and her sister decided to emphasize on the ‘Salangai Pooja’ (dancing bells ceremony).

'Salangai Pooja' is part of the Bharatanatyam syllabus, where a student is required to complete all the 'Margam' and is only then allowed to perform her 'Salangai Pooja'.

It is basically a ceremony where the dance teacher would tie the ‘Salangai’ (dancing bells) around her student’s feet as a permission to perform.

“We told the parents if your child wants to perform she/he will have to undergo this course (2-3 years) and then have the Salangai Pooja.”
 
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Indira (left) and Kamala (centre) conducting the Salangai Pooja of their students, accompanied by their mother (right) - Photo by TKI

Normally the 'Salangai Pooja' takes place in a temple environment with live music, and as years went by the parents started inviting their friends and family.

This made them slowly understand the dance bringing more students to join the classes. This was how the dance gew in Malaysia.

Indira said sometimes students tend to prioratisetheir education and neglect the dance.

“Art is something which activates both sides of a person’s brains; this makes them much more brilliant. But parents failed to understand this,” added Indira.

However, those who understood this have done very well in both their studies and dance.

For those who have continuously learnt the art without any disruptions, are later further trained to perform their 'Arangetram'.

She also highlighted on students becoming dance teacher immediately after their 'Arangetram'.

“What are they going to teach?” she questioned.
 
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Indira (centre) with Datin Rosmah Mansor (2nd left), Datin Indirani Samy Velu (2nd right) and Datin Tina Subramaniam during the BAKTI members training - Photo by TKI

These teachers will only teach the Margam which they themselves learned for their Arangetram. Indira said before one becomes a teacher she/he must understand the dance first.

“One must understand the mythological story of the dance; you must know how to choreograph. It’s all how you imagine it and how you set the rhythmic pattern for the dance,” explained Indira.

Being in this industry for the past 48 years, Indira said she has seen the art come a long way. There are a lot of dance teachers now who come from various schools of teaching.

They have their own method of teaching but however, she said Bharatanatyam is the same; it’s just how they present it.

“Some teachers would have learned in Tanjavour like me, some would have learned from the Kalashetra, Panthanalloor or from Mysore,” said Indira.

She also said the future of Bharatnatyam in Malaysia is quite bright; in fact many dancers from other races are exploring more in this art too.

However she reminded that one should not forget the root of the dance because when it is diverted too much its origin might be forgotten as well.

This art also promotes the India culture and makes everyone understand the Indian culture better especially in a multi-racial country like Malaysia.

TKI was initially started at Thambusamy Pillai Tamil School, Sentul, and gradually spreaded its wings to Gombak, Jalan Ipoh, Brickfields, Petaling Jaya, Kepong, Klang, Kajang, UPM Serdang, Seremban and Johor.

Due to the growing number of students and adherence to quality training, classes are currently conducted at the Main Centre, Jalan Ipoh, and at other selected venues.

To date, the school has produced 17 thematic productions, 53 Arangetram, more than 1000 Salangai Poojai and numerous dance recitals. The school continues to generate excellent dancers and choreographers.
 
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Indira giving her speech during the dance drama 'Kannagi' staged by the Tanjai Kamala Indira Dance School last year - Photo by TKI