When Anusha Pillay, Reshma Chhiba and Panna Dulabh came together to co-found Sarvavidya Natyaalaya dance school, they wanted to shake up the dance industry, but still pay respect to the classical Bharatanatyam art form. Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form that originated in India, and has travelled around the world and found a home wherever the Indian diaspora has settled. The way that the art form is practised in South Africa is different from how it is performed in India, Fiji or Singapore. And it is in this space of possibility is where Sarvavidya locates itself.

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Anusha Pillay.

The name of the school is derived from the 1 008 names of Shakti, namely, Sarvavidyamayi. Sarva means everything, and vidya means knowledge. “It is this level of knowledge and teaching that we strive towards, where we are able to teach not only dance, but also music, language and visual art,” their mission statement reads.

Alongside teaching of classical Bharatanatyam dance, students take part in yoga, meditation and learn about Hindu mythology, to better understand the root of the dance positions. Students can start from age five, and there are a variety of classes to suit different experience levels. Currently, there are 75 dancers enrolled at Sarvavidya. The dance school operates from various studios and spaces around Lenasia, Benoni and Roshnee and has been in operation for the past eight years.

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Bharata Natyam is a classical dance form that originated in India.

“We do everything at the school, from sourcing costumes to sweeping the stage and packing up after performances. Panna and I have day jobs too but as difficult as it is, I don’t see us doing anything else,” says Chhiba.

One of the school’s highlights has been the performance of Shree 1: I am more than my body – a production using Bharatanatyam to explore gender-based violence in South African Indian communities. “Shree 1 was triggered by the murder of Karabo Mokwena,” said Chhiba. “With the senior and postgraduate class, we tend to have conversations about gender violence, and dance class is a place for the students to vent about issues they’re dealing with. When Karabo was murdered we were horrified, and I wanted to channel that into something. Then one of the dancers asked: ‘Why don’t we do a concert?’,” says Pillay.

By using traditional dance interspersed with English spoken word and poetry (usually unheard of in South African Bharatanatyam pieces), Shree 1 managed to “get to the heart of the issue”, said Pillay. “The school garnered a positive, if not slightly discomforted response to the production and I believe it facilitated community dialogue about gender-based violence using Hindu mythology and traditional dance in an accessible and contemporary way. Their upcoming performance of Shree 2: I am Shakti this September builds on Shree 1 and sees the dancers tackle pertinent issues such as colourism and generational divides in Indian womanhood today.

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Students can start from age five, and there are a variety of classes to suit different experience levels.

“Shree 1 and 2 are an Indian woman’s story – but it also moves beyond that. We [Indian people] hide behind culture, we hide behind religion. We hide behind values and morals. We mask patriarchy and we dress it up. But through dance we can shine a light on these issues and have these difficult discussions,” says Pillay.

Sarvavidya takes a dance form known for its beautiful costumes and displays of perfected Indian femininity then turns it on its head by imbuing [it with] a feminist standpoint to the ways they practise dance and teach young girls and women. As the Sarvavidya Dance Ensemble – which consists of the company dancers – assured me: this is more than a dance school; it’s a movement.

  • Shree 2: I am Shakti will be performed on September 15, 6pm, at Gandhi Hall in Lenasia. Tickets are R100 per person. To buy, email info@sarvavidya.co.za