Grace and finesse mesh as T Sandhya wields her Silambam staff and shows the moves to her students at the grounds of the Pudukottai Palace in Tiruchi. Dressed in Bharatanatyam costume, she commands attention not just as a martial arts teacher, but also as a dancer.
“People often wonder why I chose to learn Silambam (the ceremonial folk art of stick-fighting), karate and Bharatanatyam simultaneously. After all, how could martial arts ever be compared to a classical dance? But if you observe carefully, all three have a certain ‘nalinam’ (elegance),” says Sandhya.
The 23-year-old started training in Silambam and karate under her master Karthik Raghunath, who also taught her Bharatanatyam, when she was in senior school. “My master is my mentor and like a foster father to me, who has guided me all along,” says Sandhya.
She followed up the home-based dance training by joining degree programmes in Bharatanatyam at Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts, Tiruchi. Among her Masters course projects was a comparative study of 20 ‘adavus’ (gestures) of Bharatanatyam and Silambam.
Sandhya is currently pursuing an M.Phil in dance from Tamil University in Thanjavur, where she is researching five folk dances — sakkai attam, ettukutchi attam, oyilattam, kolattam and karagattam – of Tiruchi district. “Every folk dance has variations that are intrinsic to the region, which is interesting to observe,” says Sandhya.
She is also skilled in parai drumming.
Busy as a bee
Sandhya’s days are packed with lessons for others and herself.
Starting with Silambam classes from 6am to 7am, she commutes to Thanjavur for her Bharatanatyam studies at 9am. She sets off for karate and dance classes soon after returning to Tiruchi in the afternoon, and is busy with practice sessions until 8pm. “I teach from Monday to Saturday, and on Sundays, I seek out masters to upgrade my own knowledge of dance,” she says.
She teaches Silambam and dance to children of two government schools for free, while charging nominal fees for private lessons.
“I feel performing arts make students from a socially disadvantaged background more confident, especially when they get to share a stage with others from more privileged families. Only your skills matter in any performance,” says Sandhya.
Sandhya has taught Silambam to 100 students, Bharatanatyam to 80 and karate to 70 so far.
Enrolment in Silambam classes has gone up after the Tamil Nadu government designated itas one of the games to be included for the 3% sports quota recruitment in government departments and public sector undertakings.
Children’s behaviour is influenced by their day in school, says Sandhya. “The lockdown has turned many kids into phone addicts. Even a short warm-up makes them winded up, so I have had to adjust my teaching methods.”
Her own goals are to learn sakkai attam and lezim dances this year and do well in her ettu kutchi attam lessons.
“I am proud to see my students do well in state competitions, because I feel my efforts have paid off. All the scoldings and tears during rehearsals are worth it,” she laughs.