Swarna Sahasra is a Mohiniyattam Dancer with close to 2 decades of experience and exposure. Swarna runs a dance school in Chennai besides being a freelancer who teaches at three other branches of hers in the city. Here is a candid interview with Swarna Sahasra.
When did you start learning dance?
I started learning at the age of 4.5 years. My mom was a dancer. She saw me dance. I used to assist her in classes and slowly the interest grew. At the age of 6, I joined Kalakshetra. I was not eligible so they had a test for me and I did pass with ease. And, I went on to become the youngest diploma holder in Kalakshetra history. I never had a formal Arangetram. At the age of 12, I performed at the Chidambaram temple. Later, I danced alongside 1000 dancers with Dr Padma Subramanian, who was then one of the most respected dancers in the fraternity. I have had a great respect and admiration for Meenakshi Srinivasan who till today is my favourite but I haven’t danced for her.
When did you get introduced to Mohiniyattam?
At the age of 8 or 9, I got introduced to Mohiniyattam at Kalakshetra. It has a Kerala influence. I was intrigued by the dance and style and since then I developed the interest for Mohiniyattam.
Who was your Guru then?
Gopika Varma was my guru for 10 years and today I am her senior most disciple. I have performed across the world. I did Nattu Vangam for Ms Gopika Verma for 5 years and have done more than 2000 stage performances so far.
Tell us about your education a bit:
I was never serious into studies. I was always interested in dance & art and Chidambaram Natiyanjali was more important to me than anything else. I successfully completed high school but did not go to college. At that age, any parent would want their child to study further but my mom was very supportive of me pursuing my dance career though the entire world was against our decision. During my adolescence, my mother accompanied me for classes. We used to live in T Nagar but my classes were in Tiruvanmayur and had to commute quite a distance for the same. Later, we then moved to Tiruvanmayur for my dance classes despite my parents having their workplace in T Nagar. I must admit that my mother has sacrificed a lot for me and my well-being. If not for her, I may not have continued my dance classes and passion for the art.
Did you learn Bharatnatayam?
Yes, I did learn. My first Bharatnatayam Guru was Srimathy Vasundra Thomas. I was 6 years when I went to my dance class. After completing 5 years, the President of India then, Mr R Venkatraman and C V Chandrasekhar presented me with the diploma. Since then, I have performed with leading Bharatnatayam dancers including Srimathi Uma Murali, Madurai Muralidharan, and Shobana.
Did you learn any other form of art too?
Yes, I learnt Carnatic Singing too. When I was a child studying in Kalashetra, Charulatha Mani was my singing teacher. Besides, there were 6 teachers for singing but I never showed interest then. After learning and researching about dance, I developed the interest for singing. In fact, every creation or dance production needed music hence the interest for Carnatic singing. I go to my singing classes at least once a week for about 3-4 hours. Sriram Parthasarathy s currently my Guru.
When did you start teaching dance?
I started teaching while I was in High School. My family friend’s daughter insisted I take class for their daughter after seeing one of my performances. When I started teaching full time, the word spread in the market and after high school graduation, I had about 35 students.
Today, there are plenty of dancers and/or musicians who travel abroad to teach. Have you taught abroad or do you have the interest too?
Yes, I went to Singapore once for a brief period. There, the students displayed a lot of interest towards Bharathnatayam or Mohiniyattam, either because of peer pressure or thanks to their parents’ interest. It was a good experience and exposure for me to teach students from different walks of life and I would cherish it till date. Though the experience was great I still felt at that moment, that it would be great to return to India and start my own centre(s) and teach more students, collaborate with more teachers and promote this art form.
Tell us about your students in India?
Sandhya Thiagarajanmurthy, a 9th grade student completed her first arangetram under my teaching on October 23rd 2016. The entire arangetram was conceptualised by me and we named it Krishnaarpanam which focussed on different life stages of Lord Krishna, from being a baby to adolescent to adult stage. We started preparing for the arangetram 1.5 years ago. The performance was at Sivagamy Pettachi Auditorium in Chennai. Sandhya’s parents were very happy for their daughter and felt emotional after her performance.
You teach dancing, you sing as well, do you want to take singing as part of your career?
I do not want to take singing as my soul career since there is a lot of interest in dancing. But having said that, if someone gives me a chance to sing, then I don’t mind.
Do you sing in your own dance classes?
When I teach dance, I do not want others to come and sing or I do not wish to play a CD for my dance classes. I myself would like to sing.
How many dance classes do you take in a week or daily basis?
Today, I have classes daily. I teach in 4 centres for 60 children.
Tell us about your new centre in Neelankarai:
We have qualified teachers who come and teach Carnatic, Indian Instruments and Indian Music. Yoga is taught by Dr Bhuvaneshwari, my mom, who is also therapeutic yoga specialist concentrating in ailments. We have nearly 35 people coming to the Yoga sessions. Soon, we plan to expand and rent this space to people who want to teach other forms of art. We are also happy to rent the centre to photographers for their photoshoots. It would be also great to see people renting this space for casual meet ups and/or screening movies as we have a small home theatre too.
What are your future ambitions?
I am not very ambitious and would like to take one step at a time. At the moment, my focus is on developing this centre and teach many more children as possible.