Dance rules with Indira

The TKI 50th Anniversary celebration is at the PJ Civic Centre, at 7.30pm, on June 11-12. Admission is free. For more details, please call 012-3913789 / 019-2212115 / 03-62574069. Or email:

IT’s been 50 years since dancer-choreographer-teacher Indira Manickam and sister Kamala started their school in a room at Sentul’s Thambusamy Pillai Tamil School, in Kuala Lumpur.

Today, the Tanjai Kamalaa Indira Dance School (TKI) has branches in Jalan Ipoh, Gombak, Brickfields, Petaling Jaya, Kepong, Klang, Kajang, Seremban, Serdang, Rawang, Batang Berjuntai and Kuala Kubu Baru.

“It is the longest established Indian classical dance academy in Malaysia, teaching the authentic Tanjavur bharathanatyam style,” says Indira, 64, with justified pride.

“Graduates from the school are now conducting their own dance classes successfully all over the country and overseas.”

Indira herself took up dance when aged two, a natural progression for the Kuala Lumpur native as her family had always been steeped in the arts.

“My mother, Amaravathi, was the first woman artiste to perform ‘kathakalatshebam’ (mythological stories told while singing) in Malaysia,” reveals Indira.

She and sister Kamala had their bharathanatyam training as well as their sangeetham (system of music for dance) and nattuvangam (vocalized rhythm) lessons in Tanjavur, south India, where bharathanatyam is said to have originated.

Those days, learning bharatanatyam was through the ‘gurukulavasham’ system, where students stayed with their teacher’s home to learn the art form. It created better understanding between the teacher and student, and of the art form itself, she says.

They learnt under Srimathi Duraiammal, who hails from the lineage of the Tanjore Quartette, a renowned group of brothers.

After their dance debut (arangetram), the sisters made their first stage appearance in 1965 — a year before starting their own TKI school — at Tanjore Sangeetha Mahal Palace under the patronage of the senior prince of Tanjavur, Rajahsree Rajaram Raja Saheeb Chathrapathy

Starting the school in the 60’s was not like dance teaching in India.

“When we started the school, there was not that much response. People then did not have much respect for bharathanatyam. They thought it was just another dance like what they saw in the movies.

“That’s what the parents wanted their children to learn. They felt the children would come for a few classes then go on stage. ‘Can the children dance like Padmini (a well-known south Indian actress and trained bharathanatyam dancer?’ the parents would ask.”

So, the sisters emphasised the salangai pooja (dancing bells ceremony), in 1968, where a student is required to complete all the syllabus before being allowed to perform the ceremony. The margam took up to three years to learn.

It was tough going at first, but if Indira hadn’t become a dancer, she says wryly that she would have joined the medical sciences.

“As a little girl, I would be always playing doctor, I was fascinated by all that medical routine. But I was sent to study dance in India, and got involved with that art form.

“When I came back, and did my MCE (now SPM), I wanted to do medicine. But my parents did not approve. Anyway, I married a doctor!” recalls the mother of three adult children.

Medicine’s loss is surely the dance arena’s gain for not only has she taught thousands to realise and appreciate their inborn talents and skills, in dance and music, but also to be involved in worthwhile activities.

While she has staged dance-dramas mainly as fundraisers for charity, her other achievements include starting the Malaysia Bharathanatya Dance Association in 2009. It’s main aim is to congregate all the Malaysian dance teachers and students under one roof for their development in the dance field.

Her best achievements, she says, include receiving the ‘Nattuva Thilagam’ Award in Thanjavur, India in 1990, and staging a sold-out show for two days for her 2011 dance drama called “Swamy Ayyappan Dance Drama”.

Indira is marking the golden jubilee starting June 11 with a two-day celebration that will see her past graduates perform as well as her current students and even herself.

The first day will see the performance of a collection of traditional pieces representing the Tanjavur tradition of bharathanatyam.

Accompanied by musicians on stage, the repertoire will be performed by teachers and senior students.

Indira will perform with her students, as well as a special piece by Ray Shanmugam, on what a dancer feels, and a solo piece which she had done as a student in Tanjavur.

The second day will see excerpts of the TKI dance dramas over the decades, presented by the members of TKI Alumni and students. There will be also dance presentations by graduates of the school.

Why did it take so long for Indira to get on stage to dance again, one wonders.

“After I got married, my mother-in-law thought it was not proper for me to be on stage.  This was the unspoken comment. Anyway, I was busy with the school, and my own children. She was supportive of my teaching dance.

“Today, everyone is supportive of my performing again.

“My solo is a varnam (a rhythmic piece) but with more abhinaya (expressions). Don’t ask me to do a full varnam now, please!”

She feels wonderful to be able to dance with her students, on stage again.

“Dance makes me live, it gives me life. As a housewife, I have much to do at home. And I am stressed with all that. But dance destresses me. When I come for the class, I feel fresh and energetic.

“Dance will remain in me till my last breath.”

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