Sangeet Natak Akademi award is yet another feather in the cap of performer, choreographer, art activist and civil servant Ananda Shankar Jayant.

A big golden Labrador playfully bounds around Ananda Shankar Jayant. “His name is Justin Iyengar,” she says as she reaches out to pet him. Laughingly, she adds, “He came with the name Justin, but we added the Iyengar bit for my husband.”

Sitting in her elegant living room at her home in Film Nagar, she exudes vivacity even after a long day at work. She talks, keeps an eye on Justin and plays the perfect hostess, making sure the refreshments are in place. Multi-tasking is definitely her forte; after all she manages to balance her job with the Indian Railway Traffic Service along with Bharatanatyam.

Ananda was destined to dance. She tells the story of how at the age of four on a visit to the Subrahmanyam Swami Temple in Marredpally with her mother, a lady came up to them and told her mother that Ananda must be taught Bharatanatyam as she had large expressive eyes. That lady, Sharada Keshava Rao became Ananda's first guru.

There has been no looking back since then. “Dance consumed me,” says Ananda. From the age of 11 to 17, she attended Kalakshetra in Chennai. Ananda praises her mother for taking such a decision. Her mother pulled her out of mainstream education, put together the finances necessary and took her to Chennai and made sure she got into the prestigious school for dance. “She saw I had a passion and fed it.”

Now a choreographer, performer and art activist, Ananda has also had the honour of performing at TED India and is a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in Bharatanatyam.

Ananda has choreographed and put together a number of dance productions. They have ranged from the classical to the experimental. For her dance has always been a tool of communication, “another language I speak.” However, she says, “Many a time, I couldn't relate to dancing something based in the 17th century, whilst living in the 21st century.” So in 1999 when gender issues had perturbed her, she used dance to express herself and raise questions. The product was What About Me? “I juxtaposed contemporary issues with myths and legends,” says Ananda.

Her more recent Dancing tales…Panchatantra, brought to life popular fables with fun and humour incorporated. She included Kuchipudi in the choreography. She says, “This production is a window to involve and bring in youngsters.”

Her passion for dance never let her forget the practical side of life. “I always found time for my studies; and I did my matriculation on the side while at Kalakshetra,” she says. Later, even while teaching Bharatanatyam in Hyderabad, she managed to do her B.Com through correspondence. “I went from pinafores and pig-tails to paavadais and bhottus,” says Ananda. “I wanted to experience college life.” And so she took time out from dance, to do her M.A. from Osmania University.

While at Osmania she sat for the UPSC Civil Service Exam, “because all my friends were taking it.”

She was selected in the Indian Railway Traffic Service. “I always knew I had to have a job,” says Ananda. “Something that will put dal-roti on the table.” It was a pragmatic decision to have a proper job as this would make it easier for her to have time for dance later in her life. She says, “I would never have to compromise on my passion.” She always tries to put in one hundred per cent whether it's her job or running her school for Bharatanatyam.

Her tryst with teaching Bharatanatyam began at the age of 17 when she performed at a fundraiser at Keyes High School in Secunderabad. Her mother was a teacher there. Several parents who saw her perform asked her to teach their children Bharatanatyam.

From those first five or six students, she now has a school of dance, Shankarananda Kalakshetra, with 100 to 120 students and a couple of teachers to help.

In today's world of MBAs and engineers, she says, “Every child should be given the opportunity to learn an art form. Because in times of crises the art is what keeps you going.” And in her time of crisis it was dance that rescued her.

Dance for her is passion at one level but also a spiritual journey at another. It was because of this that when she was diagnosed with cancer in July 2008, she was able to tune out the cancer. Throughout the diagnoses and treatment, she kept dancing whenever possible. “I refused to drown in self pity, I refused to go there,” she says. “I wanted to get on with it, put it behind me.” She kept her focus on dance and for her the cancer was just one page in her life that she wouldn't let impact the rest of her life. “During the ups and downs with chemotherapy I always had the support of my husband, mother-in-law, sister and friends.”

The cancer conqueror spoke about the experience when she took part in TED India. She also had the honour of performing a Kuchipudi dance, Simha Nandhini, which she recast for contemporary stage. The dance was a metaphor of her journey through cancer. “Performing at TED was an amazing, fantastic experience,” she says. “I wouldn't trade it for anything else.”

Talking about receiving the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award in Bharatanatyam, she says, “Being selected by peers and gurus is such an honour. When they select you it is a huge approbation of your work.” She dedicates the award to her husband who has been a huge support to her and been there throughout her fight against cancer.

A cause close to her heart is that of reviving the Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi. “Whenever I get a chance I talk about it,” she says laughing. “But on a serious note, it has a huge role to play. The next generation of artistes in Andhra Pradesh need such a support.” She stresses that the Akademi recognises state artistes and can provide them with many opportunities.

Another important cause to her is reviving dying art forms. She plans to do this by starting an institution like Kalakshetra in Hyderabad.

Along with passing on knowledge of various arts to future generations there would be an integration of the arts at the institution. “We cannot allow our heritage to die out,” she says. “Pockets of art have to be identified, practitioners must be found and these art forms must be documented and carried forward.”

But, all this takes time, money and resources and she hopes to be able to do it in the future. For now she has plenty on her plate with her dance school, travelling and choreography keeping her busy.

On Rukmini Devi Arundale

While a student at Kalakshetra, Ananda had the honour of interacting with the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale. Besides her dancing, Ananda was also doing her matriculation on the side, due to a mix up her dance exam at Kalakshetra coincided with the economics exam which she had to write at another location. Not knowing what to do, Ananda was sitting and crying. Rukmini Devi, who was fondly called ‘Athai' by her students, happened to come across her weeping.

Ananda remembers that Athai had the timing of her dance exam changed to ten in the morning – the first time that had ever been done in the history of Kalakshetra. She also organised for a bus to take Ananda to write her economics exam.

Watching the way Rukmini Devi handled herself, choreographed dances and the way she used music and colours in her performances were all valuable lessons for Ananda. “Athai had a vision for Indian dance,” says Ananda. “And it is because of her that many of us are dancing today.”