HYDERABAD: Dharavath Raj Kumar Naik, commonly known as Perini Raj Kumar, was born to underprivileged parents in BB Gudem, Suryapet district of Telangana. As a child, he would watch his parents and Banjara community celebrating the Teej festival. That was the beginning of his interest in dance. Following that, after 30 years, he went on a 101-day tour to spread the Perini Natyam dance form to the then 31 districts of the state.
“When I was in class III, my parents used to celebrate Teej and cultural events would take place for nine consecutive days. I learned folk dance from my Social Studies teacher and participated in dance competitions across the country. One day, my uncle introduced me to my dance guru, Afzal Pasha. I was in class V then. I went to the guru without informing my parents, wearing school clothes only. I started living with him and he took me under his wing, taking care of me like his own son,” said Raj Kumar.
At the age of 15, he attended a 45-day workshop in Perini Natyam, the dance of the warriors, carried out by Kalakrishna and Bandi Kumar, who were also trainees under dancer and historian Nataraj Ramakrishna. “I had already been training in Andhra Natyam and learning Perini Natyam gave me a new birth. I instantly realised I have to contribute a lot more to this dance,” he said.
As a dancer, he received several opportunities to perform before officials and dignitaries. In 2005, he performed Perini Natyam during the Republic Day Parade in Delhi. However, he was constantly suffering from bad finances. Coming from a poor family, he had to do odd jobs to survive. “There were days when we did not have food to eat. We would eat rice mixed with chilli powder and at times, sleep empty-stomach with just water to suppress our hunger,” he said.
Slowly things began to change as he was invited by his former teacher to Malaysia. “I got an opportunity to teach dance to students there. They are extremely attracted to Indian art and culture. However, I always thought why so much of interest is lacking in our own country,” he said.
“I was inspired by Perini, which is derived from the word, ‘Prerna’ meaning ‘to inspire’. I came back to spread awareness regarding this dance form in my own state and country,” he added.
After his guru Afzal Pasha passed away, he was struggling to make ends meet. Yet, not losing hope, he established a dance school where he both lived as well taught dance to students. He borrowed a van from a friend and went on a travel spree. He travelled across the state, teaching and educating school children and adults in temples about Perini Natyam and what classical dance can teach them about their culture and history.
“The students and teachers would have tears in their eyes as I spoke,” he said. Finishing his tour in 101 days, he got noticed by the state government and was presented with several awards. Besides being recently felicitated with the ‘Ustaad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar,’ he was also presented with the Komaram Bheem Award, Youth Best Classical Dancer and Pride of Telangana award.
He has over 2500 performances to his credit in India and abroad and has appeared in many TV programmes. “After COVID, I fell down to rock bottom again. I had no finances. Through some yoga and meditation, I was able to revive myself both mentally and financially. I then got a call from Sangeet Natya Akademi in Gujarat. I performed with Padma Shri Ananda Shankar before PM Modi. It was a moment of great pride for me,” he concluded.