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She sees the real shakthi in underprivileged girl child
- G Ulaganathan

December 24, 2018

For the pretty, talented Bharatanatyam dancer Nehha Bhatnagar, the world of dance is not just for making money and achieving fame. She strongly believes that she should share her knowledge with the children who cannot afford to learn any style of Indian classical dance.

Having learnt Bharatanatyam from a renowned guru like Saroja Vaidyanathan in Delhi, and performing as a solo dancer in many cities, one thing that worried her was the same faces and people who came to witness dance and marked their   presence in the air- conditioned auditoriums in Delhi. She realised that there are hundreds of young girls who cannot even enter these auditoriums but were very talented. They lived in bastis, slums and colonies and their parents were  basically daily wage earners. “They also have a dream in their eyes. But who will give wings to their dreams? I realised that I need to give something back to society and the best way is to teach dance to these underprivileged children,” she says.

So, four years ago, she founded the Sarvam Foundation and the main aim was to bring out the real ‘shakthi’ in the girl child. Besides continuing to dance, she is also training young girls from the Delhi colonies around Chatarpur on the outskirts of the metropolis. For these young girls, it is like a rebirth as they go to government schools, and on their return home, they would have normally been busy in doing day-to-day chores and helping their parents. But, now they see a bright future as cultural ambassadors of India and mastering any one of its classical dance styles which can put them in the limelight soon.

‘Sarvam Shakti’ began under a tree in 2012. Nehha launched the Sarvam Foundation that year. The foundation was set up to promote performing arts in fresh and innovative ways. “At Sarvam, we strive to bring audiences from different backgrounds to watch and appreciate India’s rich performing arts culture.Coming from no lineage, no family or friends in the arts, it was a lonely place for me -- no backing, no support, no guidance really. I always enjoyed dancing but I knew it was a tightly knit community of the same people who supported or watched the arts.”  While Nehha was busy giving shape to the foundation, giving TEDx talks, she started teaching Bharatanatyam to marginalized, underprivileged girls under a tree. These girls had no identity per se - they were just adding to the statistics in the numbers of poor people we have. Classical arts would never reach them. And, thus began the journey of empowerment.

What began initially as a platform to curate and promote senior artistes soon transformed and expanded to the Sarvam Plus programme, geared at teaching life skills to the underprivileged girl child through the classical dance forms of Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kuchipudi. Sarvam expanded its operations to the urban villages of Kishangarh and Rangpuri Pahari surrounding Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. In this bold venture, both Nehha’s parents Capt. Devendra Bhatnagar and Hemangi D. Bhatnagar have been strong pillars of strength for her. Capt Bhatnagar was in the Merchant Navy for many years and has seen the world. Hemangi is the anchor for Nehha and she treats every child who is coming to learn dance as her own daughter. Right from taking care of their health by personally preparing nutritious juices and taking care of their security until they reach home safely, she spends a lot of time with these children. Currently 26 girls, between the ages 10 and 16, are learning different styles of dance, taught by equally passionate gurus who are keen to pass their knowledge to these budding dancers who are totally committed.

The various dance modules help the girls with skill building, developing confidence and enthusiasm, firing their imagination, teaching hygiene, learning about nutrition, our heritage and discipline, exploring new avenues, and of course, dance. “We endeavour to instil self-worth. On weekends all of us gather to do yoga, learn about hygiene, nutrition and bond. We involve the parents in their journey, counsel them and have them attend various performances where the girls participate,” says Nehha. Some of the older students are now training girls in the lower economic pockets of Delhi, through associations with NGOs like Katha.

Sarvam has participated in the Brave Kids Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, for four consecutive years now. For a month, four or five girls go to Poland, stay with local communities in small towns, meet and interact with other children from various countries. Last year, they got to visit Slovakia as well. In the Brave Kids retreat cum festival, each year 120 kids come from 20 countries for three weeks  to Poland or Slovakia or Georgia or Ukraine where they spend time giving  performances, staying with host families and interact with each other. It is truly a global village ( The one month stay brings these children closer and each of them teach kids from other countries what they have learnt from their teachers and gurus.

“The boys from Uganda were performing Alarippu -- a basic piece of Bharatanatyam. We saw young boys and girls from Brazil and Russia to Moldova and Indonesia sit in vajra asana and padmasana, because of what they learnt from just sitting with my girls -- not in course of teaching, but just observing!” Nehha says. She calls the Sarvam children the young cultural ambassadors of India. These children also want to aim high and have big ambitions---Jyoti, who is the daughter of a pressvalah (ironing man), wants to be a police officer. Laxmi, who is just 11 years old, wants to do Ph.D in Bharatanatyam.

There are three sisters learning dance - Raveena, Karishma and Lakshmi. Raveena learns Kathak, Karishma Kuchipudi and Lakshmi Bharatanatyam. Raveena and Karishma were also the ones to tour Poland in 2016 and 2017 with Sarvam. They have picked up some Polish and also can sing a Polish song as well apart from dancing Polish folk dance.

Nehha is hoping to support 100 marginalized girls by 2020 through the foundation, and expand activities to other parts of the country. “I believe that the arts should keep one bound by culture but shackle-free. There is a dire need in today’s world for empathy, love and other such intangible miracles that ancient traditions can address and through it, heal. I want this healing to be accessible to all.”

What makes Sarvam Shakti special is the unique life that the girls experience. In every way they defy what it means to be both economically poor and a girl. “Girls from poor families lack a wholesome diet that is required for cerebral functioning and energy for dance. If we want our girls to truly shine, we need to focus on the content of their food. At Shakti we are conscious of the nutritional intake of the girls. Each day, after rehearsals, every girl is provided with a Flax Seed fortified snack, a fruit and raw vegetable juice. The juice comprises of a whole range of detoxifying ingredients like beetroot, carrot, celery, basil, gooseberry, lemon, spinach, curry leaves, moringa, parsley, turmeric, thyme, apple, mint, bottle gourd, coriander and lemon. Initially it was tough convincing the parents and the community. My mother and I had to go to all the government schools in the neighbourhood and talk to teachers, and convince them.Then when we went to their colonies, we had to face hostile crowd. ‘You want to make my daughter a nautchwali?’ they would ask angrily.”

“Slowly they became friendly after we showed them some films on dance and, gave them a pep talk. Now the situation is totally different. Every parent wants his or her child to join Sarvam and learn dance. From the initial 4 or 5 students three years ago, now we have 26. Though boys also wanted to join, we conscientiously kept the classes only for girls. According to me girls represent shakthi and that is the motif for the Sarvam Foundation,” Nehha says.

Ulaganathan Ganesan is a senior dance critic based in Bengaluru.

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