Changing the underprivileged girl child’s universe, one taal at a time: Sarvam Shakti

Madhur Gupta correcting a student's posture in his Odissi class for the Sarvam Shakti girls

Earlier this summer, I decided to go and meet the children of the Sarvam foundation, which is being run by Nehha Bhatnagar and her mother Himangi Bhatnagar. Nehha is a Bharatnatyam dancer and arts impresario who has organized dance and arts events to further arts appreciation and raise awareness about the causes she takes up. She is a student of Gurus Saroja and Rama Vaidyanathan and has performed in many solos and group productions to critical acclaim.

The Sarvam Foundation is an organization she set up to raise arts awareness. Sarvam Shakti (for more information, click here) is a branch that works for the upliftment of the underprivileged girl child through arts education, nutrition and other skills. Nehha herself, before she moved to Australia, has trained girls from underprivileged backgrounds so well in Bharatnatyam that they have performed abroad and continue to do so.
I have seen these children of Sarvam earlier learning Bharatnatyam from Nehha when I visited their centre years ago (see previous blog post here). I was very impressed by the sincerity and dedication of the effort that Nehha and other teachers at Sarvam were making – this was not a timepass operation for anyone, least of all the kids.

I wanted to go and meet them again since I thought they would be excited to know that somebody was coming to watch them. It gives me immense pleasure to see them dance, learn and interact in their very innocent, unpretentious manner. It is a wonder that these kids, with their undernourished bodies and impoverished homes, where decent living and one square meal is an everyday struggle, have the sparkle of this dream in their eyes – to one day perform or teach a classical dance. In families where the arts are trashed since they are not seen as money-earning jobs, and every day brings greater pressure to quit and start doing some menial work in neighbourhood houses to make ends meet, their hearts and bodies dance to the beats of taal and laya. One can only pray to god to keep their enthusiasm alive.

The day I went to meet them, Delhi’s dust was swirling and there was a squall coming. We were escorted by the children to their makeshift classes – the concrete platforms and gazebos in a park in the neighbourhood where the community centre, which hosted their classes, had been closed to them. Odissi dancer Madhur Gupta, an accomplished shishya of Guru Sharon Lowen, was instructing a group of girls in one half, and in the other, a Kathak dancer was teaching a similar group. The girls were all from underprivileged neighbourhoods nearby.

As we watched the children dance with no less enthusiasm under the shade of trees in the open, with the birds singing and chattering, a slight drizzle started. It was a lesson in life to see them trying to get the taal and laya correct, their stances and footwork right, their chauka, bhanga and tribhanga correct. They presented a few jaatis. The enthusiasm on their innocent faces made them glow. As the rain started, they were moved to a gazebo where Madhur took a class in theory for their impending exams in dance. All them answered in unison with their never-fading interest. And then I had a short interaction with them.

They started by reciting a Ganesh Vandana and a Guru Vandana, maintaining the rhythm of their recitation. They said they preferred their dance class to their playtime. Dancing gave them confidence and made them feel good about themselves, they said. They had different interests in academic subjects, but all were sure of their interest in Odissi dance – the movements, bhangas and hastas. They all replied in unison in the affirmative when asked about performing on stage. Some also wanted to teach when they grew up, ‘but not to very young kids’. They found Madhur a strict teacher but enjoyed learning with him. They were enjoying preparing for this exam since it was a dance exam. They felt great that they could express so many things using their hands.
Madhur asked them what they found difficult in Odissi. And they said it was the tribhanga: sitting and standing in it. He told them about the form in which the body moves in an S or a semi circle - the tribhanga. The torso moves from side to side in the tradition of Guru Kelubabu. And when we asked whether their feet hurt, there was an instant chorus of ‘yes!’ They found the tribhanga the most difficult, especially sitting down, since their little backs hurt. Chauka they found easy. Madhur mentioned to them that Kelubabu’s style was difficult to master.

I spoke to him about his experience teaching the Sarvam kids, which he has been doing for a few years now.

Q: Madhur, how do feel while teaching them?

A: This a very new experience for me. I don’t think I can teach since I have never taught before. As long as my guru Sharonji is teaching, I don’t think I can teach. But the inspiration I got from these kids was amazing and so I took Sharonji’s permission to teach from. While I am teaching I learn a lot of things. There are a certain things that are inherent – I know that the movement will be like. But when you see the movement on another body, you have to  analyse and think how the movement is. What the intention is and what the choreography is about. Plus, I am very lucky that I am able to impart something solid to them. They are giving their exams, they can get their degree and even if they go to a government school, they can give you a job. So it is not just up in the air, that we are teaching them dance and improving their personality. Himangiji and Nehha are giving them tuitions in other subjects as well and also looking after nutrition. So it is a very holistic approach with nutrition, theory, literature, education etc.

Q: Do you find it difficult to make them open up?

A: They come from a social strata in which the girl child is brought up in a very conservative and repressive environment. More than the children, we have to work on the parents, to make them open to the idea of letting their children dance in public, to trust us, to let them study English. To let them dance in the sun. Himangiji has to deal with them. They parents have to be convinced about what education means, especially for the girls. It is an uphill task for all of us to call them, to teach them, to make them come regularly to their classes. After a few years, when they become confident, then they convince their parents. I was  associated with Sarvam around 5-6 years back; the girls I taught at that time are all grown up now, with very confident personalities. So we are giving them good all-round training. At times, we are exasperated because of their social background (the social and parental attitudes). But at the end of the day, it is good to be with them and teach them.

Q: Have there been instances when the parents came and withdrew their children so that they could go to work and earn something?

A: There have been a couple of cases when the parents have withdrawn their children, and they are very unfortunate. We have tried a lot to get them back, but it is not always possible. Even among these kids, you can spot a few who have an artistic bent. I have plans for them, like if ten years hence, I have a dance company, they can be a part of my repertory. They can make good teacher-performers. They have a good personality and at least their marriage prospects are better!

Himangi Bhatnagar (third from right, last row at the back) with Madhur and the Sarvam Shakti Odissi students

I also spoke to Himangi, Nehha’s mother, who now runs their activities in India.

Q: Himangiji, you wanted to talk about the arts education in government schools.

Himangi: When I took these kids in the first time, the biggest challenge was the focus. For the parents, it only means sending their child to school. They don’t have the time to spend on them. For them, it means school gaye, phir tuition gaye or phir raston par khel liya. That is also a part of their growing up. But they do not know what it means to sit in one place. It is a challenge and also a plus. In the past five years, they have become so good that they are at par with more fortunate children.
(Children from poor households) They don’t remember, their brains are not sharp enough. They do not have time to sharpen their brains. They just mug things up, they learn by rote and get 50% and the parents think that it is good enough, pass ho gaye. They do not get opportunities. First, they are in the four walls of the house, and then in the tuition class. The Kuchipudi girls, when they started, did not remember anything… and now you see them practising 2-3 hours. Really, it would make me cry when I saw them. Their muscles would hurt. Their muscles are weak, they cannot take araimandi, tribhanga – their muscles would not take anything. But now you see, they are as good as anybody.
Academically also, they would do better since their minds are focused now. They are focused and can learn now. The tuition teachers would object and I met them and told them that you please keep doing your job and let us handle ours. These children will go beyond what you can impart. I started taking parent-teacher meetings and explaining to them that it was essential to let them study at this age. They will not only pass their 12th grade but also do their graduation if you let them do this. Dancing for them is good since they will have more options in life, they will step out of their cubicle. They will travel, set foot on stage and see the world. It will widen their horizons.
I keep telling Nehha, it is a good thing that you have given me the opportunity to teach them, but you have to give them the platform. These children have been given the opportunity and that is why they are where they are. They lose motivation and interest if they don’t have a platform. Because of my RWA and social connections, I get them good performances on good stages. I make the seniors perform in front of the little ones, show them the videos – to motivate them, that’s where you’ll reach. Otherwise, for them to retain and come – it’s not an easy job. Even the parents now have started thinking, our daughters have a future.
Here, the kids do Sanskrit so that their minds open up. Their tongues are so heavy, the pronunciation is not good. We  make them do prayers in Sanskrit, talk in English, make them speak so the tongue opens up. I learn more from them, everyday there’s something new I discover I can do for them. They do yoga and self-defence because I want them to skill themselves. After one or two years, the senior girls come by themselves, the parents don’t accompany. For me, it’s the most beautiful journey. My daughter is settled now and I’m trying to settle these girls. I have many more daughters and so I don’t miss her as much. For me, it’s a beautiful experience to see them grow. My target is 100 now – four batches.
So I want the fourth batch to come, 20-25 girls. Out of that 25, I know not everybody will become a dancer, but 4 or 5 will. But this journey of experiencing childhood is important for them. They travel, meet people. Otherwise they can never get out of that ‘poverty circuit’. Even if they study, they grow up and help their parents, which is also needed for them, but they are not able to go beyond that. Max, in my community – that was why I was so glad Nehha gave me this opportunity – I thought wow, I can get them beyond that beauty parlour thing. That’s where they all land up. They are earning, but there is a world beyond that. Where will they see achha khaana peena milta hai, logon se milne ko milta hai, they travel by trains, by plane – whether or not they become dancers, they will have lived their childhood.
I have the confidence that I will have taken them to enough places that they will have lived those experiences, acquired those memories. It brings out their character. All the girls were slouching when they came to me. Now they walk with their backs straight. Even if only their posture changes, that’s enough for me.

Q: Do you think their background becomes a plus here, their eagerness to learn?

A: It does, but for parents to understand that this is also important is very difficult. But there is a fire in some children – they will go ahead, no matter what. They bring their parents on board too. It’s not in every kid, but it’s coming – I can see the change. Sometimes I have to coax children – my feet are hurting and all – but then I sat with this girl for half an hour and she came. And I know, I have sat with Nehha for five years when they would not go further than one movement, and she would say Ma, what am I doing? It’s a hundred times more challenging for them. Now I see the biggest change – fathers come to drop their daughters here. Otherwise they would say nacha rahi ho ladkiyon ko, they would say no. I’m sure things are changing.
I found the efforts of Sarvam Shakti laudable, also because I’ve been observing them since they were a much smaller organization. They have done commendable work in bringing the joy of the arts to the lives of some talented young girls. If you’d like to contribute, even ‘something as little as Rs. 500 can reinforce that educated girls matter’, according to their material. To contribute, visit

Pics: Anoop Arora


  1. A very well written article and for the lack of a better word, 'shadowing' report! I was associated with Sarvam for as little a 5 day period over the summers this year and feel myself that the work in encouraging the girls and giving them a hope, a something to hold on is tremendously praiseworthy and authentic.

  2. I applaud the ongoing sincere efforts and wish them more strength.
    Hemant Sharma,
    Chattered Accountant

  3. I am really impressed with your blog article, such great & useful knowledge you mentioned here. Your post is very informative. Also check out the app salsa dance online


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