18-year-old Navika Mehta, herself an accomplished kathak dancer, decided to teach the classical dance to young girls less fortunate than her
The Air Force cantonment in Delhi is clean, quaint and beautiful this sunny winter afternoon. Birds chirp, a lone dog barks on the empty roads, and the sound of ghungroos becomes louder as we make our way into one of the many similar-looking, white-washed officers’ quarters. A big, jolly Golden Retriever comes bounding at us and ushers us into the large, open backyard lined with trees and a vegetable garden.
Around 12 girls of varying ages and heights stand in two rows, their fingers and arms folded in the same gesture, their legs – and the ghungroos tied on them – beating rhythmically in unison to the bol that their teacher sings out loud. Their teacher is an 18-year-young girl, confident and vivacious, ever-smiling and pleasant.
Dressed casually in a pair of jeggings and a kurta, she jokes with her students, playfully admonishes her dog when it bounds in into class, and calls out to her mother every now and then for something or the other. From afar, she looks like just another 18-year-old. Only her clear, heavy, no-nonsense voice betrays the command she holds over her students; and the respect and adoration she gets from them.
Navika Mehta was three when she attended her first ever dance class. Born in Hyderabad, she has lived in many places including Wellington, Bhopal, Nagpur and Delhi – courtesy her father’s job in the Indian Air Force. “When I was little, about three years old, we lived in Bhopal. I used to dance all the time apparently. So my mom took me to a dance class and that was my first tryst with Kathak.”
But the whole business of moving from place to place came between her and her passion of learning this Indian classical dance form. “When we moved to Delhi, I joined jazz and did a workshop with Ashley Lobo’s Danceworx. Then we shifted to Nagpur which, being a small town, didn’t have any jazz classes.
So I learnt Odisi for a year instead.” She finally got around to devoting her time and effort to her first love, Kathak, when they shifted back to Delhi for their second stint here. “I have now been learning Kathak full time for the past four years,” she says. “I am also preparing for my visharat pratham (BA 1st year exam) for Indian classical dance.”
The lives of others
Since October 2013 however, Navika has been teaching Kathak to her ‘students’ – girls from very low income households, who wouldn’t otherwise have had the means to learn this graceful dance.
“It all started when my mother employed a new maid. She has five kids. One day I saw two of her girls working in our house instead of the mother,” she says. “I asked them their age, and they turned out to be pretty young. It didn’t seem right. Turns out that the maid had actually taken up another job somewhere else and put her daughters to work here, so as to increase the income they could take home.”
Navika, with her mother’s help, had the girls registered at the local government school. “But putting them in a school didn’t seem enough.” So she started to educate them in the language she knows best – the language of dance.
“By teaching them to dance, I am not telling them that oh, you could become great dancers, I am not putting any illusions in them. It’s just to show them that through dance you can become more confident and even gain some knowledge – the kind that not many people have the fortune to learn.”
Navika started her classes with three girls; the number went up to 50 at one point. “During summer break last year, my backyard here was full of kids learning Kathak. There were several boys as well.” She has helped arrange two stage performances for the “brightest” of her kids, as she calls them. Even though her class 12 exams are round the corner, she still takes out an hour a week to teach them. And that’s just a part of what she does.
Navika is also a national-level swimmer, she’s learnt karate as well as horse riding, she’s now pursuing photography as a hobby and taking piano classes too. As she says, “It’s all about managing your time.”
“Our Didi Best-est”
Vimla Saroj, BA First Year
It’s a great feeling, learning Kathak from didi. I have performed twice on stage. We wore proper costumes, ghungroos and all, and everyone praised us so much.
Kanchan Parcha, Class 8
When I came for my first class, didi showed us several movements. I was totally mesmerised and was really keen to start learning right away. Didi gives us homework which we have to practise at home before the next class.
Pooja Rajak, Class 8
My mother used to work here as a maid and I would come with her sometimes. I used to see didi practicing and I felt like dancing too. I was really happy when she decided to start teaching us. The first time we performed on stage, there were 400 people in the audience. I felt slightly nervous, but it was so awesome.
Mansi Raj, Class 6
I love dancing! I like all kinds of dance…Bollywood, contemporary. Kathak is nice too. I want to keep learning it as long as didi keeps teaching.
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From HT Brunch, February 22
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