KUALA LUMPUR: “Don’t enter the house.”
This was how Indira Manikam and her older sister Kamala would often be greeted whenever they visited relatives in India during breaks from the dance school they attended in Thanjavur, where they were learning the classical art form of Bharatanatyam.
Their grandaunt would even pour a bucket of icy well water over their heads before they entered the house.
“They didn’t like that we were dancing. They looked down upon us. They said we were coming from a place that the devadasi come from,” Indira, 71, recalled, referring to the temple dancers of ancient India who were also prostitutes.
Despite the opposition, Indira, who was brought to Thanjavur by her grandfather when she was nine, has earned her place as one of Malaysia’s most prolific Bharatanatyam dancers and teachers.
Her 60-year track record is impressive: more than 1,000 students, over 30 dance dramas, countless dance shows, on top of numerous awards and accolades.
In October, Indira was the proud recipient of the Anugerah Tokoh Seni Budaya Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur from Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara and the ministry of tourism, arts and culture.
This, she told FMT Lifestyle, validated her decades of hard work.
“This is the first time I have received an award from the government. When they called my name at the award ceremony, I was shocked. I had happy tears,” Indira said, calling it the “will of God”.
Criticism from distant relatives notwithstanding, talent and creativity actually run in Indira’s family. Her mother was the first woman in Malaysia to perform the Kalakatashibam, a storytelling tradition that involves singing.
Her grandfather, meanwhile, wrote and directed plays inspired by Puranic stories, a genre of Indian literature, during the Japanese occupation.
But the family had had no Bharatanatyam dancers, which is why her grandpa brought Indira and her sister to India, having witnessed her talent and love for dance from as young as age two.
Looking back, Indira revealed that her life may have taken a different path had it not been for her mother’s intervention.
Upon returning to Malaysia after five years in Thanjavur, the youngest of four siblings continued her secondary education while teaching Bharatanatyam on the side.
Indira intended to study medicine after secondary school and become a doctor. She’d even been offered a scholarship to pursue medicine.
“But my mother said no. She said since I’m interested in dance, I should just continue in that. I was very disappointed at the time; I felt my mother had deprived me of another career,” she reflected.
In 1966, her father and grandfather set up the Tanjai Kamala Indira Dance School for her and Kamala to teach traditional dance. The school would go on to be listed in the Malaysia Book of Records in 2016 as the longest-operating training dance school in the country.
Today, Bharatanatyam is “part of me and if not for it, I am nobody”, said Indira, a mother of three and grandmother of two.
Interestingly, she met her husband in one of her classes. “I was teaching two of his nieces. He saw me but I didn’t see him. He talked to his family and a marriage was arranged, as it was in those days,” she fondly recounted.
Indira is grateful for her supportive husband, who encouraged her to persevere when her first dance drama production faced challenges a week before opening night.
He would also look after their kids while she taught Bharatanatyam classes. “I couldn’t even go out with them during the holidays or bring them to the playground. But he would. Thank God I have a very understanding husband.”
These days, Indira spends her time with her grandchildren, watching cartoons together and playing with them. But her active lifestyle continues: exercise in the morning, some work at her husband’s veterinary pharmaceutical company, and daily dance classes from 4-10pm.
To aspiring Bharatanatyam dancers, Indira would like to remind them that it is a “divine art”.
“God has given this to you, so love the art. It will make you a better person.
“And dance all through your life,” she advised. “Just because you get old or married, it doesn’t mean you can no longer dance.”