Small sacrifice for the arts

  • Metro News
  • Monday, 15 Jul 2019

Sheela’s senior students assist her in teaching dance. — Photos: RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

WHEN bharatanatyam dancer Sheela Raghavan was approached to conduct free dance classes for underprivileged children, she said yes right away.

That is how Mahavidya Dance Theatre started some 18 years ago at the Sri Nageswari Amman Temple in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

The 52-year-old accountant, who runs an accounting firm with her husband, single-handedly manages the non-profit organisation.

She said her students’ passion for dance kept her going.

“Back then, the temple already had classes on religion, Tamil and thevaram (religious songs) every Sunday morning, where my friend volunteered. It was suggested that I start a dance class.

“Initially, there were only 10 girls of around six years old, and sometimes only two turned up, but I was consistent in having classes every weekend. My friend even brought food to encourage the girls to not skip classes.

“The children’s interest in dance grew stronger after their first performance in front of an audience,” said Sheela.

She said although they only managed to dance for three-quarters of a song and the audience had to be coaxed to clap, it meant a lot to the children and boosted their confidence.

“After that, they started to attend classes consistently,” she added.

The mother of three believes that children must not only be taught academic subjects in schools but also the arts.

“Children need to develop self-esteem and it can only be done through sports and fine arts,” said Sheela.

She suggested that the Education Ministry add drama classes in the curriculum to encourage students to come out of their shell and learn teamwork, cooperation, respect and understanding.

She said her joy was seeing seven of her students progress to a level to teach others.

“The seven students have been with me for over a decade and are regularly invited to dance at events. They are also committed to teaching dance and paying it forward.

“I can arrange for such lessons in Klang Valley and the only requirement is consistent attendance,” she added.

Sheela said taking up bharatanatyam could be an expensive affair.

“Fees vary and the outfits for performances can be expensive. The dancers also need elaborate accessories and make-up to complete the look.

“Since I do not charge a fee for dance performances, I set up a donation box at the event. The money is used to buy the necessities. Some parents contribute too.

“I am lucky to have retailers supporting us by giving a big discount for sari and a student’s mother, who is a seamstress, helps to make the attire for a fraction of the market rate.

“I buy accessories in bulk from India when I visit my family there,” she added.

Sheela said there were currently 15 students under her tutelage.

“I hope more people will initiate art lessons for free to make it available to more children.

“The benefit of learning the arts may not be immediate and you may not reap monetary benefits, but it will give the children a healthy form of self-expression.

“Corporate bodies should also be encouraged to support such initiatives, perhaps in the form of tax relief,” she suggested.

For details on the classes, visit Mahavidya Dance Theatre’s Facebook page.

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