IN CONVERSATION

‘I ENJOY TEACHING BECAUSE I LEARN FROM MY STUDENTS’

Ask Nellai Manikandan if he keeps in touch with his students after his workshops and he laughs before replying, “70% of my 1000+ followers on social media are my students. Barring two friends who were my classmates in school, all the friends I have today are my students!” An exponent of the south Indian folk dance forms of Devarattam, Oyillatam, Karagam, Thappattam and Silambam, Manikandan since 1996 has been keeping them alive by teaching them to every willing heart. Ahead of his three-day master class as part of Attakkalari’s Way of the Masters series, Manikandan sat down for an interview to share insights from his life as a dancer and tutor.

Q.  What should students registering for your Way of the Masters intensive come prepared for?

Nellai Manikandan: Generally speaking, a student of any art form – be it Devarattam, Kuchipudi, Kalaripayattu or Therukoothu, should have an inquisitive but blank mind that is as pliable as clay – only then can a master mould them to learn the art without any inhibitions or reservations. To answer your question, I want the participants registering for the master class to come with a ‘blank canvas’ mind-set. 

Q. You have been conducting workshops and master classes on Devarattam, Silambam and other folk dances for a long time now. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Nellai Manikandan: I started teaching dance from 1996 so it has been close to 26 years since I have been doing it. The enjoyment comes from the fact that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. I believe there is no teacher in the world – be it in academics or arts, who is 100% perfect in this calling. So applying the give and take policy, I see this job as one where I impart my knowledge even as I glean something subconsciously from my interactions with my students. A master needs to have an open mind to learn new things from any individual irrespective of their age. Only then will you find joy in this vocation.

Q. What is that one constant advice you give all your students?

Nellai Manikandan: I tell all my students that they must try and practice dance as regularly as they can. No matter how many steps or moves you have learnt, take time out to practice — and not just that, improvise on it. Being consistent in your practice will ensure that you don’t just memorise it, you actually imbibe it so deeply that the dance form becomes an intrinsic part of you. This will eventually power you when you are creating your own play, music, dance or any other creative work.

Q. Rewinding to your student days, what are some learnings from your gurus that you remember and follow?

Nellai Manikandan: My father, Kannan Kumar, was my first guru. His first and foremost advice to me was that if I wished to become an artist, I had to learn to be disciplined. Secondly, he told me that it was essential for an artist to not be influenced or swayed by divisive factors such as caste, community or religion. As a creative person, you have to be able to think and live beyond these considerations. Thirdly, he asked me to nurture a connection with nature. His final advice to me was to rehearse the dance form mentally! He felt that constantly thinking or visualising about it would lead to creative improvisations and better ideas.

Q. As a performer, is there any kind of preparation that you do before a Devarattam performance? Are there any rituals or warm up exercises you do?

Nellai Manikandan: In Devarattam, we don’t follow any hard and fast rituals as such. As a custom, we bow before the musical instruments before the performance. Another interesting practice is that we wear our dance attire only after we bow before the salangai (musical anklets worn on the feet). Talking of attire, it’s compulsory for the performer to wear a turban and a dhoti. What’s fascinating about a Devarattam performance is that even a small kid who hears its music will wake up from his sleep and dance along!

(As told to Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran)

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