CHENNAI: He stands with a dancer’s poise in a simple dhoti-kurta, with a streak of sandalwood and expressive eyes. Kali’s 22-year journey through life has taken him where he never thought he would be — from the fishing hamlet of Kovalam to one of the most elite classical dance schools of the country. Today, with a post-graduate diploma in bharathanatyam in progress, mastery over folk dance, performances around the country and conversations peppered with English phrases, Kali’s life has changed.
Although he was dancing since his childhood, recognition came to Kali at an unexpected time — during the inauguration function of a tsunami relief home for children at Kovalam. He was spotted by his sponsor Sarah Chanda, who took him to Kalakshetra. “I didn’t even know that the dance I was performing was bharathanatyam, and that there would be an entire school to teach this art,” he says, the wonder still evident in his voice. “I just used to imitate what I saw in movies, and even for my interview with Leela Samson, I danced for a film song,” he says with a laugh. “I still wonder at my guts. But back then I had no idea that she was such a big person, just as I didn’t know the name of a single bharathanatyam dancer,” he adds. Kali’s grandfather is from a fishing community, and he lost his father at a very early age. He grew up with his grandmother in Kovalam, and his mother Illamalli does construction work. Kali’s family escaped the direct effects of tsunami as they evacuated the village at the onset of the waves. Kali recalls, “I had put up a petty shop on the seaside and my grandmother was sweeping the beach. Suddenly people ran past my shop saying that waves are coming. I didn’t believe them, but then I saw the water. We ran on time.”
For the family, managing seven siblings was no easy task, but Kali went on to be the first person from his family to finish his Class 12, and the first person from his Adi Dravidar community to step into a path as unlikely as bharathanatyam.
“When I go back, they often tease me about my new Tamil accent and English words. Some of them ask me to teach their children the dance too,” he says. But the transition was not easy, being a male bharatnatyam dancer amid foreigners and people from different social classes, with no formal training. “We even had to learn music, and I never could understand what sruti was. Now I can identify raagams,” he says. He recalls the first few weeks of crying and strenuous practice. “But then I went on to top my second semester, and got a huge boost.” Now, he hopes to become a world famous dancer. “Of course, it all depends on the finance too,” he says.