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Mythili Raghavan, a teacher par excellence
The book "Guru Mythili Raghavan" is a tribute to a dancer, dance teacher and motivator extraordinaire. A lady who is so special that, to all her students over the years, she has been - and is - a second mother. And, the organisation she set up, the Academy of Indian Dances, is a second home.

It was on a chartered bus to Indore in 2013 for a programme at the Indian Institute of Management there that the idea took root. Two senior students of the Academy, Nisha and Varsha Seshan, who have been dancing with Mythili Raghavan as their guru for nearly a quarter century, liked the concept, and began whispering about it to their friends. They decided to keep the project hush-hush, and surprise ‘Miss’ – or Maami, or Amma, as they call her differently with the finished book. Each of them would write a piece on their experiences with Mrs. Mythili Raghavan, and it would be put together with a plethora of photographs. Dance is, after all, basically a visual medium though a classical dance form like Bharathanatyam, which is what she teaches, brings with it a whole gamut of feelings from the pride in one’s ability to the divine.

And the process began immediately. Resham Abdagiri, another senior student, went to sit with Mrs. Raghavan and Mr. Raghavan, who has always been a pillar of support to her, and began talking to them about their experiences in Zambia, where the Academy was set up, and back in time to when the young Mythili began dancing, had the privilege of learning from the legendary Rukmini Arundale at the equally legendary Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai (then Madras). To keep the surprise, Resham didn’t write down what they were telling her. It was only later that she quickly scribbled everything down and then made a ‘fair copy’ of her notes.

Back from Indore, many senior students, past and present, were contacted and asked to write chapters. Bhagirath, who had the distinction of being the only boy in a class full of girls, was the first to respond. Other e-mails began drifting in; some soon, some after a few reminders, and still others after much persistence. Two or three were in Marathi, and were translated by a friend. Most of the ‘girls’ managed to find the time to sit down and write a couple of hundred words – despite the fact that all of them are busy with their full-time occupations as wives and mothers as well as being employed in jobs outside home.

Mrs. Raghavan herself is a person of amazing humility. Asked about her experience as a leader, she demurs: "I am not a leader! I am only a teacher. I too learn many things from my students." She has a set of values by which she does the work that is her passion: "I never treat the girls as my students, but as my children. They listen to me and obey me even more than my own children do!" she says. "I was very strict with them when they were small, to mould them – just like how my teachers were with me and my fellow students at Kalakshetra. And they do the same with other junior students. But I also treat them like friends – they are allowed to express their opinions freely."

One example of her leadership qualities, however, is the way all her ‘children’ fall in line with her own beliefs and practices. "I am a bit orthodox about things like echhal (jootha in Hindi), which they take care of when they are with me. Wherever they go, all of them – Maharasthrians, Saraswats, Kutcchis, whoever – behave as if they were born and brought up in Tamil Nadu. They even know what to do with the banana leaves on which they eat their meals."

A cautious person by nature, she doesn’t take any decision in a hurry: "I never say I’m doing something until every little detail is organised." This trait, however, led to her biggest regret: that she didn’t invest in a hall for her dance classes – because she couldn’t afford it herself, and felt that the repayment plan for a loan needed to be thought through. But she has no regrets about having left Kalakshetra after having spent 10 years there. At the age of 19, she decided to leave those familiar surroundings and move to Patna, where the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir wanted a Bharathanatyam teacher. She didn’t know anybody there, or the language or the culture; but she stayed there alone for five years. On top of it, she became so indispensable that when she had to leave, to return to Madras (now Chennai) and marry, the man in charge of the institution wouldn’t accept her resignation until he could find a replacement.

After a lot of slack periods and postponements, the three-year project was finally wrapped up in time for Mythili Raghavan’s 70th birthday as a tribute to a teacher who has won the love, respect and devotion of hundreds of students. The book traces her journey from a student at Kalakshetra to a teacher of Bharathanatyam with hundreds of her own shishyas. For more information or to order a copy, write to info@snapbooks.in

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