Children who live outside urban settings seldom get an opportunity to learn or even watch Bharatanatyam. But dancer and teacher Karuna Sagari V. is changing that through her rural outreach programme.

It’s a windswept afternoon in Anaikatti. Twenty children sit cross-legged on the cold brick floor of Vidya Vanam School’s open-air hall. Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher and director of Bhakti Natya Niketan (BNN) dance school, 23-year-old Karuna Sagari V. sits opposite them, her expressive eyes closed as she dances a tree sleeping in a gentle breeze. “Pluck the flowers that fall from the tree,” she tells the children. Backs arch up, taut arms stretch out and a dozen imaginary flowers are plucked, some off the branches, some off the ground, and some more from the tree’s top. “What will you do with the flowers now?” asks Karuna. Some of the boys place one behind an ear, the girls tuck it into their hair and one girl cups a flower in her hands, closes her eyes and takes in a rich fragrance. Every movement reflects the 10-year-olds’ comfort in speaking Bharatanatyam’s articulate language, and their versatility in interpreting it. It’s class as usual in BNN’s Rural Outreach Programme.

Make it accessible

“Classical dance has become a privilege enjoyed only by the elite,” says Karuna, “And right from BNN’s conception, we wanted to break those barriers and take dance back to the villages.” The Programme began in 2008 with Karuna teaching the children of Vellalore town. In 2010, it grew to incorporate the tribal children of brick kiln workers in Anaikatti and now includes the children in and around Eachanari. “Not only do few children from the villages learn classical dance, their access to viewing dancers perform too is extremely limited,” adds Karuna, who graduated with honours from the Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai. Hence, Karuna often performs in villages, under open skies. “Once, in Poochiyur, I danced to a 1,300-year-old Tamil poem before children who’d never seen Bharatanatyam before and they understood the meaning of the dance so beautifully! There are hundreds of such Government schools across our villages, where dance and art are never prioritised.”

Karuna’s approach to dance emphasises teaching Bharatanatyam as a language first.

Dancing out language

“Right from the first adavu, children are taught the abhinaya for ‘words’, such as the mudras for trees, birds and water. In the beginning, they dance out basic ‘sentences’ such as ‘I went to my house yesterday’. Over time, they graduate to interpreting poetry through Bharatanatyam,” says Karuna. Interpreting text is a collective brainstorming affair. Rarely does Karuna choreograph entire pieces for her students to imitate.

“In our times, why is Bharatanatyam still talking about Nature, and about the fight between good and evil? These stories must have a relevance in our current lives. And that relevance can be brought in without diluting classical dance because mythology offers a space for debate. We perform a piece only if children are thoroughly convinced of the story and of its depiction,” says Karuna.

BBN’s Rural Outreach Programme runs over and above its centre for urban children in Coimbatore city. This way, Karuna hopes not just to work for rural children herself but to sensitise her urban students to the issues rural children face.

The beginnings were sown right at BNN’s annual summer camp which was partially conducted with the children of Anaikatti. “It opened the urban children’s minds to how their counterparts far away live,” says Karuna. The camp was also the site were both urban and rural children were taught to hand-make their chellangai and garlands. It is also BNN’s principle to dance only in simple cotton saris, without expensive accessories, following the age-old Kalakshetra tradition. “I want to make classical dance accessible to the urban poor as well, even as a viable profession,” says Karuna. Her helper’s daughter, Priyadarshini, once a student at BNN, now teaches there professionally.

Learning to focus

Karuna knows not every student who passes through her doors will become a professional dancer though. “Some of them are born performers, others want to learn the skill of teaching and some others have an excellent sense of rhythm (nattuvangam), so we enhance the strengths that they come with,” says Karuna.

For those who don’t take up dance professionally, Karuna says the approach gives them a sense of direction and most importantly increases their sensitivity of observation, from the way clouds move to how leaves rattle, for they must express the same nuances in their dance.

She adds, “Even if my children go on to become Collectors or Secretaries, if they nurture and promote dance and art, that in itself is the victory.”