One Step at a Time

02 May 2017

A chartered accountant on weekdays, Sheela Raghavan Tan dedicates her weekends teaching underprivileged children the art of Bharatanatyam dance.

Sheela Raghavan Tan calls herself a cross-cultural product; she first learned the art of Bharatanatyam dance at the age of six through her Indian-born mother before receiving formal training by professional dance teachers in Bangalore, India. For the uninitiated, Bharatanatyam is one of the major (and oldest) classical Indian dance forms originating from Tamil Nadu. Previously performed for religious events in temples, the art form is now also regarded as entertainment.

After honing her skills in India, Sheela returned home to Malaysia with the clear intention of putting her talent and experience to good use – teaching Bharatanatyam to children, minus the premium participation fees.

Sheela has been practising Bharatanatyam for 44 years.

 “I want people to see the dance but I don’t want money to be the deciding factor because that’s what is killing arts in this country,” remarks Sheela, who believes the arts should be accessible to everyone. “When I came back here, I found that rich kids will have no problem enrolling in dance classes; there are a lot of classes and teachers around. But if you’re from an underprivileged community, there is no way you could afford it. Dance lessons are a privilege, which they shouldn’t be.”

Determined to break the mould, Sheela then founded the Mahavidya Dance Theatre, a non-profit organisation that promotes the ancient traditional dance of Bharatanatyam. According to Sheela, it all began with a phone call from a friend 15 years ago. “She was doing programmes with a temple such as literacy and computer programmes. So she said, ‘can you come and teach them something?’ I said, ‘why not?’ So it kicked off from there.”

For almost two decades, Sheela has spent her Saturdays teaching children the art of Bharatanatyam in Bangsar’s Sri Nageswari Amman Temple for free. Throughout the years, Sheela discovered that learning how to dance not only improved her students’ ability to perform but also, their confidence. “You see, when you have confidence, you can do anything. It is the lack of confidence that pulls you down. Dance has a lot of self-expression involved, so it helped them build their confidence,” says Sheela.

On top of helping them be more graceful in their movements, Bharatanatyam is also an ideal platform to instil moral values in children as the dance moves are based on stories with positive messages.

“Little children like to jump. So, dance gives them an opportunity to jump in a disciplined manner,” explains Sheela, adding that dance allows the children to play and learn at the same time. “When they relax, they become more receptive to what the dance tells them. That’s where you imply the idea of discipline in their learning.”

“This is what I feel is lacking now in today’s curriculum. It is too punishing – not compatible with a child’s mentality. The current school system is done not in the spirit of learning. It is just to get the syllabus out of the way.”

Hence, Sheela believes dance should be incorporated into the Malaysian school system to nurture self-development. The seasoned Bharatanatyam practitioner tells us that many of her students from underprivileged backgrounds go on to further their studies at local universities, which she credits to the self-confidence they develop under her tutelage, giving them a more positive outlook on life.

Performances aren’t just limited to the classroom or small-scale venues either; Sheela’s students have performed for Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA) and ThinkCity’s Arts on the Move initiative, which showcases live public performances at Masjid Jamek LRT station. Serious in her mission to make the arts accessible for all, Sheela also has long-term plans to train up her more senior students to become instructors and teach other underprivileged communities Bharatanatyam.

Mahavidya Dance Theatre’s philosophy is simple: to promote performing arts to everyone regardless of age, background and physical capabilities. A student only needs to bring his or herself and a strong sense of dedication to Sheela’s classes, whose participants range from long-time students who’ve been under her tutelage since childhood to even middle aged individuals new to Bharatanatyam.

“If you are artistically inclined, your race or gender should not be a limit for something that you enjoy,” says Sheela. “Without fine arts, without culture, the population would be much more limited and separated. We would become a more harsh and intolerant society. Art counteracts everything.”

Mahavidya Dance Theatre is open to performing for events in exchange for donations to support their programmes. Sheela and the group can be contacted through Mahavidya's Facebook page.

By Nor Atikah Abdul Wahid

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