March 26 is a big day for Tulasi. The dancer from Ernakulam will perform her arangettam at Kalakshetra, Chennai. “I never dreamed of this. It has been four years since I have been at Kalakshetra and the journey has not only made me a better dancer, but a better person as well,” she says, over the phone from Chennai. After the morning’s classes, she had just reached her room.
Dance first came to Tulasi as an opportunity to try something new. It then grew to become an interest and then, a deep-rooted passion. Today, Tulasi’s life is devoted to dance. Brought up under the care of Valsalya Bhavan, a home for girls run by Don Bosco, Tulasi found her true calling under the guidance of Shyamala Surendran, the founder of Dharani School of Performing Arts. “I had no idea about dance except the fun steps I used to do with friends. But it was only after I started learning classical dance that I began to understand what dance was about,” she says.
Shyamala first met Tulasi at the care home in Vaduthala. “She was bright and showed interest in learning,” she says. Teachers from Dharani would visit the home and take classes for the girls. Tulasi was one among the 20-odd girls who were taught Bharatanatyam. She was just 10 years old then. After she completed her Plus Two, Shyamala suggested that she join Kalakshetra if she wanted to take up dance seriously. Tulasi attended the interview and got through. Though Dharani took care of her educational expenses for the first year, Tulasi earned the Government’s scholarship in her second year at Kalakshetra. The costumes and jewellery required, however, are still provided by Dharani.
After the girls at Valyasalya Bhavan turn 16, they are sent to Vimalayalamwhere they can pursue their studies or get vocational training. Those interested in continuing dance had to go to Dharani to learn and Tulasi attended classes without fail. On holidays, she would be at Dharani ready for the day’s lessons, says Shyamala.
T. K. Sadasivan, who has been associated with Valsalya Bhavan as a co-ordinator, took the initiative to speak to Dharani about conducting dance classes at the care home. “Unless they are given an opportunity, the girls may not even realise they have such talents within them. Since Dharani does a lot of work for financially backward students, they were only too happy to teach the girls at the home,” he says.
When Tulasi learnt that she had cleared the Kalakshetra interview, she remembers feeling intimidated. “It was an overwhelming feeling. I had never stepped out of the convent all my life. And the only people I had interacted with were from my convent. Going to Chennai felt like stepping out into the unknown,” she says. She shared her apprehensions with Shyamala, who instilled confidence in her. “If it weren’t for her, I would not have reached where I have. She told me I could do it and she told me I was good enough. That is when I decided to take the plunge.”
At Kalakshetra, the four-year diploma is an intensive course comprising theory as well as practicals. “I took time to adjust not just with the routine at the centre, but also with the people. Gradually, I came to terms with my new surroundings and realised that it is an opportunity few people get and that I should use it properly.” For Tulasi, who describes herself as shy, always the last to speak in a group, the four years at Kalakshetra was a transformative phase. “The teachers pushed me to do better. Though I used to get very upset, I learnt that their only interest was for me to do well. Today, my personality has changed remarkably. I feel I can do anything,” she says.
She would like to do her post diploma too at Kalakshetra. “But that depends on my performance this year,” she says. This programme would be in-depth, including elements of choreography and teaching.
Sulai Singh, a social worker, who has been associated with Valsalya Bhavan for many years now, feels proud of Tulasi’s achievements. “I’ve known Tulasi and her younger sister for years now and it feels like a personal achievement when they do so well for themselves. All we need to do is to support these children to help them realise their potential.”
Tulasi wants to teach and perform. “When I started out, I had no such ambitions. But, today, I know what I want to do,” she says.
Shyamala will be one among those who will be present at Tulasi’s arangettam . “Dance and music should be accessible to all and that was one of the founding principles of Dharani. What we get to see here is a mad craze for youth-festivals. The beginning and end of dance are these festivals. I just tell my students to aim higher and see and experience dance in its spiritual purity,” she says.