The clanging of the ‘nattuvangam’ resonates with the synchronised thumping of more than a dozen pairs of feet. Dressed in purple and blue, the children elbow one another in the cramped room, but they snap to attention when their guru dances to the invocatory song.
The room is small and in a ramshackle tenement, but the clutter does not hamper the passion with which Ponni, a transgender, leads her students. “I want to be as graceful as her,” says 12-year-old R Supriya, trying to perfect her mudras in front of the mirrors that line one side of the class.
Located in a slum in Vyasarpadi on the outskirts of Chennai, Abhinaya Nrithyalaya is the outcome of Ponni’s 20-year dream. “I’ve wanted to set up a dance school for slum children since my childhood in Tuticorin when I was rejected by a dance class because it was open only to Brahmin students. I used to secretly stand by the window and watch them dance,” recalls Ponni, who underwent a sex reassignment surgery in her 20s.
Ponni’s secret hideaway was discovered by the dance teacher who was moved by the young boy’s passion and inducted him, much to the dismay of his parents who were anxious about his effeminate behaviour. “I knew I was different from others. Dance helped me come to terms with my sexuality,” says Ponni, who completed a BSc in Maths before pursuing a three-year diploma course in Bhartanatyam at the Government Music School in Tuticorin.
When she was given a government loan of 1 lakh, Ponni’s decision on how to use it came instantaneously: She would start a dance school. Trying to convince parents to send their children to her class wasn’t easy. “I somehow got four students. I wasn’t keen to advertise as I knew my appearance would be a problem,” says Ponni. More children enrolled after she performed in a neighbourhood temple with her students.
“The students’ parents were our biggest support. They told us that the art and not the sexuality of the teacher mattered,” says Anjaly, another transgender and Ponni’s former student, who now assists her. Asked which mythological character she likes to essay, Ponni says, “Krishna — he is naughty and full of life. Playing Krishna always lifts my spirit.”
Ekatha Ann John