Up until the age of 11, Sai Venkat Gangadhar from Hyderabad had never heard of a dance form called Kuchipudi. This made sense, seeing as how, growing up in the slums of Mastan Nagar Basti, close to Jubilee Hills, he never had access to the internet, or other facilities to give him exposure to the outside world. His father is a driver, and mother a domestic worker, who work hard to keep their four-member family, cramped together in a small room, afloat.
So when you look at the grace and ease with which Gangadhar’s body now moves, it’s hard to tell there was a time when he didn’t even know of this dance form’s existence. The professional dancer, now 25, imparts free lessons to children from slum areas in the hope of giving them better opportunities like he had. To get here, he had to fight his father’s resistance, for he wanted his son to pursue conventional fields such as engineering or managing.
Today, his tale reads of inspiration and hope renewed.
Finding something to believe in
When Gangadhar was 10 years old and studying in Class VII, his family decided to move from their native home in Rajahmundry to Hyderabad, 435 km away, in search of a better livelihood. “I was studious and excelled in academics. But our poor financial situation never allowed me to explore the career options that I could pursue,” he tells The Better India.
Gangadhar says that a year later, in 2009, Anitha Reddy, a member of Women in Networking (WIN), an organisation run by businesswomen to help the needy, and Sandhya Raju, a promoter of Kuchipudi, reached the basti to organise a dance workshop for slum children.
“Organisation members frequented the area to help children by giving them books, free food, and any financial aid for education. One such occasion came when they informed me about a dance workshop,” he recalls.
Gangadhar, with 120 kids from the settlement, assumed they would be introduced to western dance steps. But they were pleasantly surprised when the lessons began. “There we learned its name – Kuchipudi. The first day was followed by a three-month rigorous training, after which only a little over a dozen students survived,” he says.
Around 15 students qualified for the professional training at Sandhya Raju’s Nishrinkala Dance Academy in Banjara Hills. After years of training, in 2015, Gangadhar and Lakshmi V became the only two to qualify as professional dancers. “We followed the art by keeping faith in Sandhya. We were sincerely learning and absorbing everything that came through teachings,” he says.
In 2015, celebrities from the field were invited for a Kuchipudi dance event at Birla temple where he was performing. After the event, the rangapravesam ceremony was conducted, which entitled Gangadhar’s transformation from a student to a professional.
The qualification earned Gangadhar a job as an assistant teacher at the dance academy. The earnings from this helped him support his family. However, as he completed his graduation in commerce in 2017, followed by an MBA in 2019, the pressure of choosing a better-paying profession started building.
“My teachers and mentors always insisted that I focus on academics and choose a conventional profession that would earn a better income than dance, enough to support the family. But I wanted to pursue dancing. In fact, even when I was pursuing MBA, I bunked classes to go dance. My father was against it,” he says.
Gangadhar adds that he struggled to make the decision. “I tried to give a conventional career a shot, and attempted the civil services examinations. But I failed. Meanwhile, my wish to pursue dance, choreograph, and pass the art to the next generation never faded. I had invested ten years of my life in Kuchipudi and given my 100% for it,” he says.
Eventually, Gangadhar declared to his family that he wanted to pursue dance as a profession. “Years of learning provided me an exposure to experts, and I attended Ted Talks and met people who were sensitised about pursuing alternate careers. My parents had not been made accustomed to these things – they had spent their lives working for rich people and struggling to earn a few thousand rupees. They had seen our neighbourhood plagued with all kinds of addicts. They just wanted a better life for me. I don’t blame them,” he notes.
Gangadhar says that his father has still not entirely accepted his career choice. “He still believes that dance is a hobby or distraction from mundane life, but cannot become a profession. My mother and younger brother Srikanth have been supportive throughout,” he adds.
He has performed for some prestigious events including the Young Dancers Festival at Sangeet Natak Academy, the Pongal Dance Festival organised by Shrikrishna Gana Sabha, and the Gandharva Male Dance Festival, among 40 others. Gangadhar took admission to pursue a masters in performing arts in Kuchipudi from the Hyderabad Central University, and will complete the course in June 2021.
‘Kuchipudi is lucky to have Gangadhar’
Watch students of Gangadhar learning Kuchipudi
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With Lakshmi, the dancer spends weekend mornings teaching Kuchipudi to 25 slum kids for free. “The objective is not to create dancers alone. We aim to distract the children from addictions,” says Lakshmi. She adds that the choreography revolves around themes such as substance abuse, addictions and other problems prevailing in the slums. “We hope it helps change the mindset,” she says.
Gangadhar’s mentor, Sandhya Raju, says he has extraordinary talent, and his devotion and sincerity for the dance are unmatchable. “Gangadhar helps us create new dancers at the academy. He was one of the 120 students who had no social, cultural or economic connection with the dance. His talent could have allowed him to make a career in any field of his choice. But he dedicated himself to the dance,” she says.
Sharing an instance to show his sincerity, Sandhya says, “The children used to assemble at an assembly point at Jubilee Hills. They were picked and driven to Banjara Hills for the classes. But one day, Gangadhar was late. Owing to the delay, we left. But 40 minutes later, he reached by running a distance of 4 km, ensuring that he did not miss the session.”
“I have not seen a person as pure-hearted as him. I would say that Kuchipudi dance is lucky to have Gangadhar,” Sandhya says.
Edited by Divya Sethu