Hemamalini Arni A True Guru

Daylight has a different tenderness around 5pm. The temperatures cool down, the birds starting to coo, the pace of the day slows down and there is a sort of calmness that sets in. 5pm would be the usual dance class timing and we'd all rush into Hema Aunty's house a little early, because being on time was everything for her; It was the respect you had for your Guru, the regard you had for your art and a mark of your own character.

The front door would always be left open and in those days when we didn't have watches, the heap of footwear left outside would indicate how early or late you were. A quick glance at the antique mirror in the foyer to reassure yourself that you were dressed appropriately for the class was customary. The foyer would open into a large hall, as you descended a short flight of wooden stairs.

We all silently waited there, on the floor, between her indoor plants, gazing out into the backyard, which was practically a jungle, through the large meshes that enclosed the area. Familiar friends would gossip in whispers. The not-so-familiar ones would sit calmly and wait. It was like we were in a temple.

Sharp at 5pm, a figure would emerge from within the bedroom and start making its way down those wooden stairs. For as long as I knew her, Hema Aunty was always the grand old lady. I first got associated with her in '96 when she would have been in her late 50's. That was old enough for a 6-year old. This grand old lady would gently make her way down the stairs, leave her house footwear near an elegant vintage chaise sofa and pick up her tatte kazhi (wooden block and stick).

The clank of wood the second she picked it up, a sound rooted into my subconscious even today, would alert everyone – all backs straight, whispering stopped and eyes waiting to greet her. With a beautiful calm swaying elephant-like gait (recalling "samaja vara gamana"), she would make her way into the dance space and casually greet everyone, "Hello folks! Hi little one! How is Little Pudding today?", there would be a greeting for all ages. She would also graze the cheek of her favorites sometimes and then settle on her chair with the tatte in her lap.

And so started every class, an hour of complete surrender with creative engagement and physical exertion. All this was enveloped in her aura, reverberating with her beautiful singing, her exquisite anecdotes and above all, a burning passion that drove the class. "Be true to yourself, mark my words, it pays rich dividends", she would say things like that. I don't know how much of it we understood then – they were just sincere words, little prompters to push us to work harder. But they make more sense now, as I practice the art form professionally and teach it too.

My entrance into the dance circles was not so easy, coming from a middle-class family with no connections in the dance world. I recall several instances when she would sponsor parts of my expenditure of putting up shows, or give me her sarees to get stitched as costumes, or let me wear her special pieces of jewellery, simply because I couldn't afford it otherwise.

My class with her might have been for an hour or two. But she would spend a large part of her day, obsessing over little details in choreography or my costume or how I should do my hair, for an upcoming show. She would cut out little newspaper clippings or give me hand written notes with ideas or impulsively call and discuss some off-beat strategy on stage entrance for the performance. She never let me miss an opportunity.

And there, suddenly, in the middle of a great Guru-Shishya relationship, there would be a tender friendship created, fueled with exchange of creative ideas and love for the art. This is what made my bond special with her. And I know she did the same for every student of hers who would surrender completely to her guidance.

I can say with great pride that our bond with Hema aunty was like a many-faced crystal, shining with respect, love, friendship, admiration and utter devotion. Given how run of the mill our education systems can be, how taken-for-granted our parents could be, how clueless our generation could be, Hema aunty's devotion to teaching and her love for her students really made a difference in our lives.

To have a person who sees potential in you, lays unwavering faith in your talent and does everything to encourage you to pursue it, is a rare fortune. She believed in me. How many can say they were that lucky?

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