PERSPECTIVE Teacher-choreographer Shivakumar believes he was destined to dance and his productions aim to promote high ideals.

Dance was not in his blood. His mother wanted her boy to become an engineer. His Thevar clan in Devakottai was aghast at the very thought of the boys taking up dance. But his father put the 12-year-old in a Madras school. And young Shivakumar found himself spending after-school hours at family friend and dance guru Chandra Dandayudhapani's home until someone came to fetch him. Her classes mesmerised him. He could not stop his feet tapping out taiya-tai. So began secret lessons from a loving guru. In time young Shivakumar became proficient enough to conduct her classes, and obtained further training from Guru Malathi Srinivasan.

The family's financial need forced Shivakumar to take up a data entry processing job after class 10. For seven long years, "I managed to survive hell only because I had the solace of dancing after 7 p.m." Too shy to make many friends among the dancer community, the boy did find some inner strength to brave family opposition in opting to continue with his passion. "Father remained supportive. He did not want me to get into the politics of aggression in our native region."

Blessed by gurus

Being awarded the Iyal Isai Nataka Manram fellowship in 1999 was to gain in confidence. Greater encouragement came from gurus Narasimhachari and Vasanthalakshmi. Shivakumar recalls emotionally, "They not only honed my dancing skill, but also helped me make the right decisions in life."

Slowly, the boy began to get opportunities to work in ensemble presentations. Even sabha secretaries showed kindness to the quiet boy. Participation in group shows and teaching began to offer some returns. Training in nattuvangam under Guru Seetharama Sarma was another breadwinning source.

Shivakumar admits that men are discouraged from taking up dancing as a profession because the odds are stacked against them. Corporate sponsors and sabhas are reluctant to support male solos, even when they readily appreciate the performance of the same boys in group shows. Yet, "If you are good, audiences pack the hall, irrespective of gender." Escalating costs however have made Shivakumar regretfully stop seeking solo shows.

The turning point came with a U.S tour (2004) organised by Portland-based Jayanti Raman's company to dance in the dance drama 'Gajamukha.' Conducting lec-dems and workshops in several American cities was a bonus. Shivakumar took the plunge into full-time dancing. A U.K tour (2005) with 'Women are from Venus' made him more resolute in this decision.

His inter-caste marriage happened only because his father insisted that it was his last wish to see Shivakumar wed his disciple Shailaja, whose trustfulness proved a boon through years of struggle. "Her own family background of hardships had turned Shailaja into a management expert!" the husband remarks. Shailaja is a regular performer in dance artist Shobhana's ballets. Daughter Dhvani shows precocious talent, surprising guru Narasimhachari by singing a khanda nadai varnam at age three.

Parents did the canvassing

Shivakalalayam was launched in his Tiruvanmiyur home in 1999. Today, the original four has risen to 80 pupils. "I did nothing, all the canvassing was done by the parents of my disciples." There are few boys on the roster. "Boys come mostly because they want to do something for school day or college culturals. Only when they realise that dancing does not affect their 'masculinity' do they continue seriously with it."

The teacher-choreographer in him finds a use for all the styles he acquired including the contemporary ("I worked with Chandralekha, Nina Rajarani and Narendra Kumar"). His dance dramas aim to promote high ideals. 'Sange Muzhangu' showed that people can do good deeds at any age. "After all, the real purpose of art is to make us better human beings."

Shivakumar teaches talented, economically deprived children free of charge. He recently performed an arangetram for the daughter of an auto rickshaw driver. Ironically, the guru himself never had an arangetram. What could be passed off as a 'debut' happened in Chidambaram, where, as a boy, with tears running down his face, Shivakumar suddenly found himself singing, reciting, and dancing Natesa kauthuvam in front of the sanctum. Those tears still tremble in his voice as he recalls, "I knew then exactly what Nandanar felt."

That night, as he tossed in bed, young Shivakumar heard a voice saying, "Your life is in dancing." Dream? Illusion? Hallucination? The boy took it as destiny, and found the guts to live by it.