The chatter of excited women in their forties, fifties and some older, livened up this one salon in Alwarpet, as they went about getting their makeup and hair done. The scene reminded one of restless, eager children preparing for their school annual day celebrations. It came as a pleasant surprise that they were dressing up for a Bharatnatyam performance. Further probing revealed they were students of Athma Laya, a school that welcomes women to pursue their unfulfilled dream of learning dance, irrespective of their age!
Mala Bharath, the founder of Athma Laya, has been involved with Bharatnatyam since the age of five and it has been a constant in her life. She continued to perform even while holding a job, leading her coworkers to wonder how she managed it. Many of these women had abandoned their Bharatnatyam lessons when they were younger due to various reasons and would wistfully wonder if they could dance again. This was about 30 years ago when there was no concept of ‘me time’ for women or support to pursue their passions.
Giving women something to look forward to
“I kept hearing this refrain from different women and it was at the back of my mind. After a personality development course and meditation camp with Infinitheism I began to feel I had to venture out on my own. Yet, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That’s when a cousin who worked in the same organisation as I did, came in and announced that she had joined an aerobics class. That got me wondering why I shouldn’t start off a course for Bharatanatyam. I knew that women were familiar with the stories of gods and goddesses that the dance form involved. This would give women of all ages the opportunity to learn what they missed out on. That was the starting point,” shares Mala.
She went on to create her first program consisting of 12, two hour sessions that combined dance and meditation, open to all women above twenty. When asked why she restricted the course only to women she says,”Things have come a long way since I started. Back then it was rare for women to do something for themselves. There were very few ways for women to destress. Sure, they could go out but only for a purpose that suited the family. So my idea was to give them something to look forward to, something they enjoyed doing.”
Corporate programs to workshops
Seeing the demand for these sessions in corporate workplaces she created programs such as, ‘Happiness within you’ and ‘Shakti is the key’. These were five session courses Monday to Friday in the evenings, as the women couldn’t spare too much time. The happy faces at the end of these programs were an affirmation to Mala that she was doing something right. And she kept going. To ensure more people have access to the opportunity she started Udbhavam workshops where she took one topic and taught simplified steps that suited women across age groups. “I always emphasise that even just moving is dance. Moving our hands and legs physically is a kind of freedom and one we are not used to as we’re expected to behave and mind societal norms. This approach attracted many and we had around 120 to 140 women participating in these annual workshops.”
‘Learn dance in a month’
Athma Laya’s progress over 25 years has not been easy. When they started it was the age before social media burst on the scene. To interest students, Mala dropped off Athma Laya cards in various stores in the locality. Initially she held her classes in Infinitheism office, then moved until finally settling in at RA Puram. She structured a weekly class which promised that one could learn dance within a month. Choosing small songs of 3 to 4 minutes, she simplified the choreography to make it easy to pick up the moves. “Try happy movements and you’ll begin to feel happy,” she says. Athma Laya’s purpose was to bring joy to women. It was not focused on technical perfection of the dance form. Even if her students were unable to express with their faces, she encouraged action and immersion in the feelings they were trying to emote.
Teaching adults vs children
“Adults join our classes of their own volition. Whereas with children you can’t be sure whether they’re interested or they’re being pushed by their parents. Women signing up for our classes come with their own challenges. The groups are a mix of professionals, entrepreneurs and homemakers and they have responsibilities. Also women being the core of any family they ensure everyone else’s routine goes on. But when someone else needs them the first thing that gets cut is their personal time. For example when someone falls sick or there’s a wedding in the family, they are not in a position to come for practice. So I tell my team of teachers that they need extraordinary patience with our students. No matter how many classes they miss they need to feel welcome at Athma Laya,” says Mala.
Public dance performances to online classes
With onsite classes in Chennai, Bangalore and Atlanta, Athma Laya’s network has grown over the years. They also have students from across the world, an opportunity that the COVID lockdowns forced them to explore through online classes. When she started off, Mala’s vision for Athma Laya was only to give women a space where they could learn dance and enjoy themselves. But what happens after the students have been with them for a year? What next? That’s when the idea to put her students on stage popped up and they followed through to perform their first ‘Dance Hour Nite’ in 2014. “We expected around 35 to 40 students to participate but we got over 70 instead! The number has steadily grown each year and in 2019, we had 130 women performing on stage. Just to give an example of our dance drama themes, one was Nadhi, Naadu, Natyam (Rivers, Nation, Dance) where we explored the connect between the three,” explains Mala.
Mala’s dance journey
Mala Bharat started learning Bharatnatyam on the insistence of her mother. Her guru was Kuthalam Ganesh Pillai who had so much love for art and was selfless in sharing that knowledge. When he passed away while preparing her for her Arangetram (first public performance), she had the first ‘adult conversation’ with her mom, who gave Mala the choice to continue to pursue dance by herself if she was interested. That’s when Mala decided to continue and with the help of her guru’s daughter managed to perform her Arangetram. Soon she started training with Dr.Saraswathi (or Saraswathi aunty as she fondly calls her) and enjoyed dancing for 32 years under her tutelage. Along with other students Mala enjoyed performing many television programs and dance dramas which also involved extensive travel. Being a good student she managed to ace her studies too, carrying her books along and preparing for exams on train journeys.
Change, one step at at time
While Mala’s objective of starting off Athma Laya may have been to encourage women to discover joy through dance, there have been other welcome outcomes. She’s delighted to see the friendships blossoming because of Athma Laya. “Making friends at this age is precious,” she says. “Many homemakers and entrepreneurs working from home do not have a regular space to meet. I’m glad Athma Laya provides this chance for them to meet other women and to get a new social life that keeps them energised. And there have been happy tales of change in the their families too. We had a 78 year old retired school principal as a regular student. Initially she would have to prepare food for her husband and ensure all her household chores were done before she traveled by herself to class. As her spouse saw how much she enjoyed the classes he would order food for himself and also offer to drop her. Sure, these are small steps but then they make a big difference,” she shares.