“Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man, said Rabindranath Tagore. But sometimes, just sometimes, one can be forgiven for wondering whether children are His way of testing our patience.” – Meera
I looked at the group balefully. But the look was wasted. For they were busy playing, fighting, talking and, of course, complaining to whoever would hear, without bothering even for a second that they were themselves cause for complain.
They were doing what they are meant for, what they are best at: playing, fighting, talking, complaining…
And I try to prove that I am doing what I am best at – getting them to coordinate steps and create a wow moment on the floor.
In this battle of wills, who will win is a question no one can answer. It is like sitting on a roller coaster ride, I may go up, or they. But whether they win or I, in the end, victory is theirs.
The Tiny Tots
Meet my combatants, all of five-year young. Students of pre-primary – LKG and UKG – at Vruksha Montessori School in Chennai. After nine months of their teachers struggling to make them learn the three Rs, I join them to teach the students D – that is, Dance for the Annual Day for three months in a year.
The school being a Montessori, the children are used to sitting on the floor, walking to the shelves to pick up ‘materials’ and ‘work’ with them. Most of the times, what work they do is dictated by their whims and fancies, and their teachers, ‘aunties’ really, prod them gently to take up different kinds of work. They do it if there is a promise of a smiley, a star, an ice cream or something similar. And if they don’t feel up to it, they loiter till one of the aunties nudges them to be more focused.
And, oh, they get to sleep for 15 minutes after lunch.
And, one more thing. Only when they turn five do they even start staying after lunch.
So imagine this sleepy bunch of 12 out of roughly 90 students, used to working playfully with aunties who are generous with their praise and affection, being rounded up suddenly at a time when they would like to spread their mats and stretch a while to face a stranger who was going to tell them to work as a team! Their other classmates get to learn from their regular teachers at a more convenient time. They get to swing and sway.
But in I walk with grand plans of making these slightly-older-than-toddlers into ace dancers. Don’t blame me for it. Their teachers want it for them too. So they pick out the most promising lot and hand them over to me, trusting that I will be able to create magic with them.
Being a highly responsible person, I take on that responsibility and aspire to take them to great heights that the children cannot imagine. The reality? They really do not imagine great heights. They have their eyes fixed on the ground and prefer to be in the present. Crying, laughing, joy, sorrow are all momentary emotions, each one fleetingly capturing their hearts before the next one takes over.
I had taught 5-6 year old children when I was myself only 13 years of age decades ago (is it really decades!). The song given to me then was ‘Phule Phule Dole Dole…’ All the children needed to do was sway to the music; not hard if it is Rabindra Sangeet.
Then, I got to do an invocation dance with lamps for kids under six at Vruksha school a few years ago. What dance! I made them move in different formations so that the lights would show up beautifully in different patterns. The children were also closer to six, ready to step into primary. So they understood formation, coordination, spacing…
When I was called in 2012 to teach the under-6 again, I was sure it would be a walkover. But it was not a simple invocation dance that they wanted. Ever seeking variety, the principal and the pre-primary teachers had more ambitious plans for their children. And hence the need for an outside teacher, a dancer, who could make those plans fructify.
Debuting with Sticks
“Teach them kolattam,” I was told.
Kolattam! My eyebrows shot up and I pursed my lips lest unsuitable words slip out.
Kolattam is the south Indian version of Dandiya Ras – performed by ladies wielding the sticks and moving around rhythmically, clapping others’ sticks, sitting down, getting up, moving in patterns…
My head reeled when I thought of the children I would have to teach – would they even come up to my knee level? What if they hit each other, by mistake, or deliberately?
I believe I am an extremely positive person, looking at the brighter side of life. But as I dealt with these 12 young girls, my life seemed a big question mark. Usually, in the pre-primary programs, all the children are taught dances where they face the audience and two teachers face the students, sitting on a chair near the edge of the stage. The teachers dance to the tune and the students copy them. I constantly tease the teachers saying they are more interesting to watch than their students. But the students are so young that they need it probably.
That, though, was not an option for me. Kolattam is performed in a circle at least partly. Then there is the mandatory weaving, there is the pair formation, the alternating between sitting and standing… You know, as many possibilities as you can imagine. All with the sticks clapping and without hurting the others.
“You are asking for the moon,” I cautioned myself. “Let’s at least try,” I thought.
Like in any group, there were the shy ones, the distracted ones, the indifferent ones and the smart ones. Theory of Constraints by Eli Goldratt says focus on the weakest link. Which one do I focus on, I asked myself in moments of frustration. One girl started crying when I singled her out for missing a beat constantly. For if you miss the beat, the dance piece gets beaten out of shape. I snapped at a teacher who tried to intervene and soothe the girl.
Oh, how I hated myself! But the worst part? The children didn’t. The next day they assembled again to go through the drill without complaint, repeating some of the mistakes. The girl who had cried avoided looking at me, but she fell in step to the beat.
Still, on the day of the show, I went with no expectations – I was too scared even to expect anything, good or bad. I wished I had some mechanism to guide them if they made a mistake. I hoped they would look at me, sitting near the stage front, in case they fumbled.
The lights dimmed, the music played, and the girls trooped in in a straight line, dressed gorgeously in silk pavadais, hair neatly tied, flowers dangling, jewellery to match the attire, sticks firmly in their hands. They went from one step to another smoothly and finished with relish, leaving me and the audience stunned. Neat, coordinated, astounding – the kolattam from three years ago still remains etched in my mind as if it happened yesterday. Despite working with them closely, or maybe because of it, I had not seen this coming.
Don’t underestimate the children, they taught me that day. If we believe, we can make it happen, I assured myself though I had been the first to doubt their ability to perform.
Next year, a Bhangra was planned. Definitely easier than kolattam, I thought smugly.
But of course, every time the bar is raised. This year, I had to deal with six boys and six girls. One of the boys had not even started staying back full time yet and would do so after a couple of weeks, I was told. Really? My already large eyes popped. And till then, I just imagine him there…?
It was a mixed age group too – near 5 and near 6 year olds. At that age, the 12 month gap is steep. The six year old girl was a natural dancer. The boy too thankfully seemed quick to learn. But as the ages dropped by months, all the old issues surfaced. But no, I will not bore you with either the pain we teachers went through or how the children delivered in the end. For they did, and had the audience clapping with them to the beat of Bhangra music.
What I will mention though is this young girl whom I almost didn’t notice because she was quiet, needed coaxing like the other girls her age but not enough for me to get frustrated with her. In some random, divine moment, I selected her as one of the two girls to do the snake movement so typical in Bhangra. Was she a natural!
This is how directors feel when they ‘find’ a star I suppose.
I already had plans for her.
Next what, I wondered. Two groups, that’s all. To be taught two different dances in a matter of one and a half months this time, right in the middle of the festive season. Also the time when Chennai experiences rains and schools are closed half the time.
“I want to do something on Naughty Krishna,” the pre-primary teacher who had also become my ‘frenemy’ told me sweetly.
And the other one?
“A Bengali folk? I will send you a link.” She sent me ‘Moina Chhalat Chhalat’, a song I had never heard. No surprises there. The only song I had danced for as folk was ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’, and I thought I at least remembered half the dance still. But no, as luck would have it, her fascination was with Moina and Moina it was.
I was called to select the children I wanted in my group. I didn’t know any of them. And the ones I wanted were all in primary now, having already completed their annual day in September.
To my excitement, my ‘find’ was still there and I declared, “She will be the snake in my Kalinga Narthana bit.”
This time, the two groups were even greater gems. In the Bengali dance, while I struggled with the usual suspects, I also had a boy who looked like a Greek God and turned out to be Ares or Mars – the war lord of Greek and Roman civilisations, respectively, because of his recalcitrant attitude. He remained my greatest enemy during the war, sorry, I mean dance practice. He not only did not do his steps, he invariably distracted the boys next to him. I was turning more and more into a devil. The scriptures prescribe sama, dana, bheda danda – pacifying, rewarding, differentiating and punishing – approaches for ruling. The first two had failed and the fourth was not possible in a Montessori school. It had to be bheda… Call the ones not performing separately and make them dance alone, orrrr elllssse! It was not a happy session, I can assure you. But it was not done for the joy of it either… It was a necessity if the show had to be presentable on the final day.
The Krishna piece was to be a dance drama format and so the children more difficult to discipline. The best example I can give of how the rehearsals went can be explained by this one scene – the tallest of the boys and the girl who was to be Krishna cross their paths doing their bit. Each time, the two would crash into each other, despite being able to see each other.
Then, at one point, when they are supposed to enact a conversation with each other, the two would start off without waiting for the other to complete. The worst was when the boy yawned as he answered Krishna’s question!
On the day of the run through – a day just a week before the show – when all the items are performed one after the other for all teachers to view and make any changes, the Krishna piece was declared worthy of being the finale. I was pleased and excited.
The Heart-Stopping Moment
The Krishna piece was a four-act dance drama with short, 2-3 minutes scenes per act, and two Krishnas for two halves. Since all the children were under five, it had to be a simple story they could enact, and yet have at least one stunning element that was aimed at being a visual treat.
In the first act – the butter stealing scene, little Krishna was to climb a human pyramid made by his classmates acting as the gopas. In Govardhana Giridhara story, a hill had been created as a prop for a taller Krishna to lift. The final act of Kalinga Narthana was the pièce de résistance. My star find with her sinuous moves was Kalinga, the snake.
Though I sat apprehensively, I expected it to proceed smoothly and leave the auditorium in another 20 minutes maximum.
To my horror, from scene 2, the quality started sliding downhill rapidly. Children ran off the wrong exits, got confused about entries and directions, the pyramid promised to collapse, the timing was all wrong. One boy in fact hung back sulking instead of making way for the next act to begin.
The taller Krishna got distracted and missed an entire piece. Even my ace dancer, the girl acting as the snake, was completely mistiming her steps. The fight between Krishna and the snake was like two children kicking up sand in a park.
I sank further and further into my seat. My complacence was shattered, my confidence shaken.
As I raged, the children seemed singularly indifferent to my presence, continuing to treat the stage rehearsal with as much respect as buffalo to water running off its back.
Isn’t this what makes them children? But with a program the next day and a reputation to keep, such thoughts were far from my mind. The twenty minute piece took up another hour.
Still I nurtured some hope. The last two years had showed me that children buck up and present an adorable performance on the last day. The Bengali dance had gone off smoothly the previous evening. So it was just a formality to sit through it the last day.
The costume had caused some concern as one parent of one of the girls wanted to know if her daughter would look pretty. “Madam!” I wanted to erupt, but with quiet dignity I pointed out that that was what we were aiming for in the last two months. The girls and the boys were looking oh so sweet.
And then one of the boys misses the direction because he was so keen to spot his parents in the audience! A mishap I had not envisaged. Mercifully, the children slipped back into the mood quickly and though I could see the eyes seeking their families in the audience, they recreated a well-rehearsed, well-executed piece.
Krishna – I was ready for the worst. The children brought tears to my eyes as the last episode of Kalinga Narthana ended and audience erupted in a thundering applause.
The Story Continues
I never wanted to be a teacher. And even as I teach these children dance, I realise I have to remain a student, learning how to tackle each one differently to elicit the response I need. The creativity is not only in creating a piece to express an idea, but also in finding ways to communicate with the children, overcoming the adult-child chasm.
The rehearsals end after the show, bringing a big vacuum in my life for another year or so. They see me as a parent who comes to pick up two of the older children from school.
But they greet me with excitement every time they see me. That joyous smile, those shining eyes, that “my dance aunty” expression… that moment is priceless and makes me go back every time I am called.
Photo Courtesy: Vruksha Montessori School, Chennai
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