Dance with Yourself

Karuna Sagari hailed from a family known for its refined taste. Her 90-year-old family home is located next to the famous Rathina Vinayagar Temple at R. S. Puram in Coimbatore. An imposing icon of Nataraja and Sivakami were ready to bless the visitors. The Lord was decked with eco-friendly ornaments that was offered by the nomadic craftsman Olaiyya. The icons of the four prominent Shaivite saints, Appar, Samandhar, Sundarar, and Manickkavaasagar were found supplicating in front of the Master of dance, Nataraja.

The lively icon of Goddess Lakshmi added to the divine prosperity of the living room. Portraits of Karuna Sagari's grandmother, Swarna Somasundaram were found decorating the walls. The dancer’s grandmother had been a renowned Shaivite scholar and musician. The mother Dr. Neela Venkatachalam continues to take forward the legacy left behind by her mother-in-law. Karuna Sagari's father Aravind Venkatachalam is a chartered accountant cum entrepreneur. He has been producing several technological products over the last many years.

Karuna Sagari took the team members of the Verandah Club to her dad’s office. The huge office space was full of paintings and pieces of art. Aravind Venkatachalam had been collecting artwork over the years. He had taken care to promote local artists. A finely sculpted piece on the wall was from a talented craftsperson from Thumbampatti near Salem.

The dancer was draped in a traditional cotton saree, and she surprised the Verandah Club team by stating that the saree was older than her. Energetic Karuna Sagari had preferred to learn karate during her childhood and had not paid much attention to dancing. Her own domestic atmosphere had been quite interesting. Karuna Sagari’s grandmother Swarna used to share stories from the Indian epics, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata.’ The music of ‘Thevaram,’ ‘Thiruvasagam’ and ‘Thiruppugazh’ used to be constantly present at the home during the growing up days of the dance lover.

Sounds created by the cymbals at home and the jingles of her mother’s anklets had built a lot of cultural intricacies into the young girl who had just followed her grandmother. While Dr. Neela was the primary teacher, Senthil Kumari happened to be the first dance teacher. Circumstances and destiny made Karuna Sagari to learn the foundations of dance no less than four times.

The dancer’s first tryst with dance happened under the teacher, Dananjayan, in Kerala. Karuna Sagari moved over to Kalakshetra in Chennai at the age of 15 and her next couple of years were quite interesting. The dancer-teacher construed, “My artistic experience for four years at Kalakshetra made me. Today, I feel proud to say that I am a product of this wonderful institute. Kalakshetra has everything and it is up to a student to assimilate what interests one. Atthai (Aunt, referring to Rukmini Devi) had been responsible for setting up this institution and her spirit seemed to permeate throughout Kalakshetra. I kept reading about her and this made me get connected with her. Atthai had passed away in 1986, but her spirit continues to offer inspiration to the teachers and students at the institution and also outside.”

Karuna Sagari appealed by quoting few more captivating things about the temple of arts, “Kalakshetra was more than words. The institution was home to several international students, and we were all blessed with teachers who had been moulded with principles by Rukmini Devi Arundale herself. The founder had ensured that Kalakshetra had the best of technologies while maintaining the tradition. Atthai, the institution builder, had left no stone unturned. Her approach to life had been aesthetic and Kalakshetra was thus unique in every sense.”

The team was surprised to learn that Karuna Sagari had not performed an Arangetram (A public performance meant to introduce a trained dancer to the world). She however remembered an informal dance debut that she presented at the Shivalokha Nadar Temple at Vellakoil which was attended by over 500 devotees. The achiever had really worked hard for the program. She had been her own musician, producer, and director. It had been a big moment for her.

Karuna Sagari’s family supported her to discover the more in her. She usually adorned herself with her mother’s costumes. “Yes, I must say that the grand sarees belonging to my mother are quite helpful. It is only during the subsequent years that I began using cotton sarees and other fabrics. Bhakti Natya Niketan was formed when I was just 19 years of age. I continue to contact my teacher, Sheejith Krishna. My current mentor is Malavika Sarukkai,” smiled the dance teacher.

“One needs a mentor for it is possible to get lost over time in various extensions of the art. While Sheejith sir broke my boundaries, Malaka (Malavika Sarukkai is fondly addressed as Malaka) has been making me grow further. Both helped me to unveil my mind and broaden my vision. I did a lot of Sangam poetry with Malaka. One will be surprised to learn that I am her third student in so many years!,” exclaimed Karuna Sagari.

She further continued to share her views, “Knowledge and analytical skills are important because they aid in instilling the academic rigour in a person. This realization made me take up a master's course in Tamil. I further wanted to study more on dance and Tamil poetry, and this thought drove me to Heidelberg University, Germany. I was fortunate to do a thesis on ‘Tholkappiyam’ (Early Tamil text) under the guidance of scholarly teachers. Their approach to our language, tradition and dance amazed me and taught me how to perceive a text from outside-in perspective.”

Bhakti Natya Niketan has trained 100s of students and there are six teachers in the dance academe. Karuna Sagari was very clear about the future of her students. She ensured that they learn dance in a wholesome manner. The students were made to visit temples, practice mindfulness, acquire physical fitness, while building stamina. She wanted them to evolve into complete human beings. The talented teacher had facilitated a dozen arangetram-s thus far. She ensured that the children in her august institution take a year to prepare before staging an arangetram. Interestingly, the arangetram of Rithika had been the first crowd funded program.

Karuna Sagari and her team had the clarity that one-size does not fit all. They analysed and understood each student before putting them through their regimen. They were apparent that a combination of exposure, training, and dedication was important. Students were motivated to compete with themselves, and the evaluation was not based on comparing one dancer to other, but with their previous performances. The teachers offered a 90-minute class, and the first thirty minutes were devoted to exercises. Physical issues were given immediate attention. The team of teachers at the institute also took care that injuries were best avoided, and solutions based on student’s fitness and stamina building were provided.

“Online classes have been quite challenging, but we have innovated a lot. Individual attention is being paid and the teachers are all eyes and ears during the program. Teaching purifies the Manas (Mind), Vacha (Speech) and Kaya (Body). Shruthi (Knowledge), Yukthi (Understanding a particular child) and Anubhava (Experience) are important for a teacher. Our teachers have drafted individual working programs for each one of the students. Of course, we must remember the fact that the foundation should not be altered while tailoring a course to bring out the best in each student,” added the communicative teacher cum dancer.

The eminent dance teacher had done her first sanchari at the Darukavaneshwarar Temple on the outskirts of Trichy. This ancient temple relates to the story of Shiva as Bikshadanar. The Bhakti Natya Niketan has been hosting the Bikshadanar Utsava at the Perur Patteeswarar Temple in Coimbatore.

 The institution sourced the jewellery required from the Nagarkoil region. The creative teacher ensured that monotony is broken in every aspect connected with the institution founded by her. Even the uniforms were made attractive. Bagru prints (Same prints in different colours) were used to add innovation to the uniforms used at Bhakti Natya Niketan.

The annual camps conducted by Karuna Sagari are complete workshops. They have been going on for over a decade. Experts and craftsman like Olaiyya were invited for the purpose of making the camps fruitful. The DNA of Karuna Sagari was full of music. Her grandaunt Salem Jayalakshmi was a renowned musician. The dancer’s mother and her grandmother were part of the aristocratic Suramangalam family from Salem. They had learnt the dance from the best of teachers of their time.

Karuna Sagari’s production on the river Noyyal (Central tributary of River Kaveri in Tamil Nadu) is quite popular with the lovers of dance and environmentalists alike. One can be assured that the genealogy of the dancers will be taken forward by the amazing dancer-teacher Karuna Sagari.

Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu is one of the founding members of the Verandah Club Pvt. Ltd. He is a leading columnist, historian, jeweler, entrepreneur, and a heritage enthusiast who is earnestly working to revive the past in the light of the present. Experiential learning about the history of Coimbatore is his main course of interest and he is also a panel member of many colleges in the city.

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