Underneath the rectangular foyer of the Sri Subrahmanyaswamy Temple in Secunderabad, four-year-old Ananda Shankar Jayant was distracted from her prayers when she noticed a woman with a big red bindi and jasmine in her hair climbing the stairs towards her. She grasped her mother’s pallu as the two women spoke. “Your daughter has lovely large eyes, you should enrol her at my dance school," said the stranger.

Thus began Ananda Shankar Jayant’s tryst with mudras, ghungroos, rhythm and grace.

As I waited for the Padma Shri awardee to return from office—she is an Indian Railways Traffic Service officer—I found myself absorbed in a Rayana Giridhar Gowd painting in the living room of her lovely Hyderabad home. Titled Amma, the painting shows baby Ganesha sitting on his mother Parvathi’s lap. The goddess’ skin here is nut-brown, her hair is tucked into a homely bun and her sari is almost tribal.

Behind most successful artistes are mothers with aspirations. Ananda’s mother, too, had wanted to be a dancer—the outbreak of World War II didn’t allow that.

So, during a vacation in Chennai in 1972, Ananda’s mother, a violinist, took her daughter to the Kalakshetra Foundation, established in 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale. Ananda, then 11, was offered a scholarship for six years and left St Ann’s High School in Secunderabad to pursue Bharatanatyam, veena and philosophy; she continued to pursue her studies through correspondence. “Life changed in a flick! I had to exchange pinafores, ponytails, ‘O father thou art in heaven’ for salwars, oiled plaits and the Gayatri mantra. The biggest challenge, however, was that I had to give up my studies and take up dancing full-time," she says, switching on the floor lamps.

“From an early age, I understood that dancing was an expensive art form. I needed a job to sustain my art so I took my studies (seriously) along with dance," says the 53-year-old. “The dormitory lights would go off before 10pm and I had to sneak to the common room to catch up with my correspondence. Once, while preparing for my pre-university exams (in 1976), I was caught."

The dancer lists a bunch of teachers who believed that studying on the side would dilute her focus, but she now holds an MPhil in art history, a PhD in tourism, and a government job. For her, dance, history and academics have gone hand in hand.

At the age of 17, fresh out of Kalakshetra, Ananda hired the playground of a high school in Secunderabad and began giving dance lessons. She started with six adolescents. She now runs a dance school called Shankarananda Kalakshetra, which has three centres in Hyderabad. Someday, she says, she hopes to create an institute that will allow her students to learn their art and pursue their academic interests as well.

Ananda has used dance to express herself and push boundaries. She has performed around the globe. In June, she performed at the Busan International Dance Festival held in South Korea, accompanied by a 10-member troupe from her school. They also performed at the first India-China (Chengdu) International Yoga Festival, which was held in Dujiangyan over five days from 17 June. In September, she will return to South Korea to perform at the 2015 One Asia in Dance, organized by the Asian Dance Culture Institute there, as part of its Asia Ethnic Dance series.

Her contribution to contemporizing classical dance is well known. In 1992, for instance, she performed an interpretation of Richard Bach’s best-selling novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a modern-day parable on life, love, freedom, and the attainment of perfection. Ananda paired the movement-oriented performance with English narration and music ranging from jazz to progressive rock. In 2006, her production Dancing Tales… Panchatantra sought to attract a younger crowd; she made sure “there were no wigs, no funny make-up nor tails".

“When people talk about contemporary dance, I feel puzzled. The term doesn’t make sense in the Indian context. In the West, contemporary arose as a reaction against the classical style. Here, we abstract and use what we have been trained in, push its boundaries, and play with the content. In India, contemporary dance is not a reaction against the classical, but a derivation of the classical," she says.

In 2007, the Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam exponent received the Padma Shri award. The following year, she was diagnosed with cancer.

She wasn’t surprised with the mammogram results. “I expected it, but it still came as a shock. I was angry and confused, but I knew my dance couldn’t stop or suffer. A lot of the credit goes to my family, who didn’t treat me like a patient. In our country, the moment you fall sick, you are treated as an invalid and that needs to change." Ananda is married to Jayant Dwarkanath, a theatre artiste, and they have an 11-year-old Labrador named Justin Iyengar.

Ananda’s journey through cancer formed the basis of a moving and inspirational TED talk in 2009, just after she finished chemotherapy and treatment—TED is a non-profit that offers short inspirational talks by individuals from around the world. “Like all dancers familiar with the Navarasas, I thought I understood bhaya (fear). But that day, I learnt what fear really was. The real fear was, ‘How will I stay away from dance?’ instead of, ‘How will I fight cancer?’ As my husband Jayant and I drove home from the clinic, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I asked him if this was the end of my dance. Jayant, who is perennially positive, said: ‘No, it’s only a hiatus. After the treatment, you will be back to doing what you most love’. I like to use the word conqueror instead of survivor for myself," she said in her TED talk.

Four hours after her surgery, as the anaesthesia wore off, Ananda dragged herself out of bed, changed out of hospital clothes, and put on lipstick and kohl. “I didn’t want to feel that I was a patient," she says.

She has been the convenor of Asha, a breast cancer support group that is part of the Ushalakshmi Breast Cancer Foundation in Hyderabad, since it started in 2009—they discuss all things related to cancer, such as chemotherapy, diet, hair and wigs.

Post-cancer, the thrum of life continued. Apart from the usual dance tours and rehearsals, Ananda helped edit a book, Attendance—The Year-Book On Dance, in 2014. Currently, she is working on an application that will help students practise their dance accurately with beats. She has developed this desktop app with the help of one of her students, who works with a multinational IT firm, and hopes to launch it by the end of the year.

“If you have too much time, you end up wasting it. Sometimes you will be forced to compromise on an art form if it becomes your livelihood. A job buys you freedom. In some ways, I enjoy my art because of my job." We ask her how she manages the stress. “I don’t cook," she answers, throwing her head back, and laughs.

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