Sarvavidya Natyaalaya shows resilience and determination in a challenging and underfunded arts industry, writes Youlendree Appasamy.

A familiar smell greeted me as I walked up the stairs of a small South Indian temple in Lenasia. It was incense, and it added an air of comfort to the proceedings. I was due to meet with the co-founders of the dance school Sarvavidya Natyaalaya, Anusha Pillay, Reshma Chhiba and Panna Dulabh and the school’s company dancers in Lenasia during a dance rehearsal for their upcoming production Shree: I am Shakti. The school practices Bharata Natyam, an ancient and classic dance form that originated in India. “But,” Anusha Pillay reminds me, “Bharat Natyam is a dance style rooted in spirituality, and not just rooted in traditional forms. India is not the keeper of this dance form.” The school operates from various locations across Benoni, Roshnee and Lenasia, and sees children from age five and upwards learning this traditional dance form.

Thinking through the art form without boundaries has allowed the school to grow, and challenge themselves in terms of choreography, production concepts and the role they believe dance to fulfil. “Within the Indian society dance is seen as something that makes you ‘marriageable’, so once you graduate, it’s another box to tick off. But we hope to teach young women in this dance school that as long as there’s passion for what you do, and a willingness to learn, that there is no age limit,” Anusha Pillay says.

She is a testament to this notion – Pillay has accumulated over 40 years of experience dancing, and shows no signs of slowing down. Dulabh has been dancing for 31 years, and Chhiba for 27. Their individual and combined experience in the art form makes for a rigorous dance school that offers holistic dance practice, subverting the notion that the dance form is only valuable in increasing a woman’s standing for marriage. Besides learning the classical Bharata Natyam positions, students take part in yoga, meditation and learning of Hindu mythology, to better understand the context of Bharata Natyam. “This art form will consume you and refine you, and you will become a better person through it,” Pillay explains.

Chhiba and Dulabh share Pillay’s sentiments and notes how difficult it is to keep the school running on minimal budget with grueling hours – but the school has been open for eight years, and with 75 students enrolled this year and one to two productions annually, Sarvavidya shows resilience and determination in a challenging and underfunded arts industry.

“We do everything at the school, from sourcing costumes to sweeping the stage and packing up after performances. Panna and I have day jobs too but as difficult as it is, I don’t see us doing anything else,” says Chhiba. Pillay adds: “It keeps you going because you realise how many lives you touch, and you realise the potential of what you can do with this traditional art form. And I think that’s where we are as a school now. We’ve taken on issues affecting women and young girls and pushed it outside of the traditional box. It makes it a bit more difficult to do choreography and teaching, because we’re not falling back on the easy stuff. But then – where’s the challenge in that?”

The production Pillay refers to is Shree: I am more than just my body, a searing and discomforting but necessary production that shifted how the school approached Bharata Natyam performance, as well as making their commitment to dismantling rape culture and addressing violence against women, especially in Indian communities, clear. The concept of using a Bharata Natyam performance to explain issues of rape, intimate partner violence, widowhood and more, felt right to both the students and Pillay, Chhiba and Dulabh. The pieces were workshopped with the students, and incorporated these lived experiences into the show – making it accessible to the audience, and painfully relatable to all involved.

“It was such an emotional experience to take part in – to the point where, after we performed on stage, we’d feel tears well up. And the sad thing about it was that either students at the school have experienced some form of abuse or they know someone who has. And that made the experience really real and relevant, and it made it very uncomfortable at points because these aren’t things that we talk about in a public space. We talk about it in private, in hushed tones,” said Kavisha Pillay, one of the Sarvavidya Dance Ensemble (company dancers) students.

The room nodded in agreement with Kavisha, and some noted how the audience reception was different to their usual performances. It’s what often happens when you talk about gendered violence in public – a tense silence, contemplation on complicity, and sometimes, a form of catharsis.

“I think art is something that has the potential to [cause discomfort as well as to heal. There were so many women, older women who came and shared their experiences afterwards and said it was a moment of healing – they felt empowered to talk about their experiences. So many dancers came to us and said: ‘One day I’ll tell you my story’,” said Chhiba.

Although the school took a “huge, huge risk” according to Pillay, there was no way Sarvavidya felt they could not address this social issue. Kavisha continued, stating how tackling gender-based violence and abuse through dance is another form of activism – and that dance can be used as a transformative tool for the community and one’s own experiences with abuse and violence.

“The activism that Indians have participated in has been political activism in the 80s and 90s and when we got our freedom everybody just ‘chilled out’. It’s interesting to see how dance can be this form of activism, especially for the young kids in the school. Because it’s not only about protest and being on the streets, but it’s using this art form in a political way. And as activists this is fun for us, as its a new medium to express ourselves using what we love to get the message across.”

That undercurrent of rebellion and feminist consciousness runs through Sarvavidya – and I get the sense that the school is a place for open and frank discussion and debate between different generations of women. Chhiba relayed a story of a young woman in the intermediary class who came to her for help. “She excitedly said ‘Akka [older sister], I’m doing this debate about patriarchy and gender norms so can you give me some points?’. I wished at the age of 15 I had someone to talk to about these kinds of things.”

“And that’s another thing about our school is that our teachers don’t just teach us to dance,” added Kamenthea Naidu, another company dancer. “They teach us life. And the girls in our schools are confident and assured in themselves. You’re surrounded by women you admire and are progressive. You learn to be yourself.”