Three Adivasi women sweat it out to see Sachu perform Bharatanatyam at state school fest

Sachu Satheesh along with his mother Bindu M K, grandmother Vellachi and aunt Lakshmi M K| Photo: Onmanorama

East Eleri (Kasaragod): When Bindu M K (37) gets back in the dim twilight after a long day's work, her 13-year-old son Sachu Satheesh- barechested and wrapped in a white dhoti- will be lighting the six oil lamps at Sree Muthappan Madappura. Every day.

Sachu is the caretaker of the small Muthappan shrine near their house in the middle of Sarkaria Colony for Scheduled Tribes at Kadumeni in East Eleri hill panchayat. By the time Bindu cleans herself up at the washing stone, Sachu is done with the rituals, and the cheery mother-son duo takes the narrow stairsteps between small houses to reach their home. 

In a jiffy, Sachu slips into a blue sports jersey and a pair of blue shorts and presents himself as just another schoolboy. But in Sarkaria Colony, with 83 houses and around 400 residents, the Class 8 student is nothing short of extraordinary. He is the first boy from the Mala Vettuvan Scheduled Tribe community to make it to the Kerala State School Youth Festival for Bharatanatyam and Kerala Natanam, a classical dance form that evolved from Kathakali. 

The prestigious competition for students from Classes 8 to 12 from the 14 districts will be held in Kozhikode from January 3 to 7. But as the date draws near, Sachu's mother, a day labourer, is singed by the embers of expectation. 

She has already borrowed Rs 30,000 from the Vanitha Cooperative Bank and also from her neighbourhood unit of Kudumbashree, the entrepreneurial arm of Kerala's Poverty Eradication Mission, to help her son compete at the school, sub-district, and the district level. Now, she is looking to borrow more to send him to the state competition. 

"Bharatanatyam is an expensive art form and beyond our reach. But I cannot fail my husband's dream and son's passion for dance," says Bindu, a single mother.

Sachu Satheesh | Photo: Special Arrangement

Her husband Satheesh P R, a head-load worker, had succumbed to a heart attack he suffered when his mother died in March 2018. It was a double blow for the family. Satheesh was only 34 years old. He died three days before Sachu turned nine years old on April 1. 

But Satheesh lived long enough to see his son's talent for dancing. Sachu used to come first in folk dance in sub-district school competitions. He learned by seeing his cousin Leejina, 13 years older than him, dance in the house, says Bindu. 

By the time he was in Class 3, Satheesh put him in a neighbourhood dance school at Kadumeni to learn Bharatanatyam. "Satheesh wanted to see Sachu perform on Flowers TV," says Bindu. 

But Sachu has grown beyond that. He wants to be a professional dancer and start learning Carnatic vocal music and violin. "I told him to stop," said his maternal grandmother Vellachi. "I was not restraining him because he cannot learn all simultaneously. I asked him to stop because we cannot afford all the classes together," she said.

I was not restraining him because he cannot learn all simultaneously. I asked him to stop because we cannot afford all the classes together

Vellachi, Sachu's grandmother

After Satheesh's death, Sachu is being raised by three women, his grandmother, mother, and mother's elder sister Lakshmi M K (45). They all live in the same two-bedroom house.

"Sachu does not sit idle and won't let any of us sit idle," says Vellachi, in a tone that blends her mock disapproval and pride.

He has now started doing embroidery. Sometimes, he will be doing some science experiments, says Vellachi. The grandmother has not gone to school but insisted her daughters Bindu and Lakshmi went to school. They dropped out after Class 10 and Class 12. The three women are pinning their hopes on the boy. "I want to be an IAS officer," pips Sachu. "There he goes again," retorts Vellachi. 

"But come what may, we will not fail him. We will make him a dancer," she says.

Bindu says Bharatanatyam costume can cost around Rs 5,000, and stitching another Rs 3,000. Makeup artists charge anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 for one performance. "To reach the state level for one event, a dancer has to shell out at least Rs 12,000 on make-up alone," she says. And Sachu has two events.

But his makeup artist gives him a discount. His school, St Thomas Higher Secondary School in Chittarikkal, chipped in for the district competition.

Sachu Satheesh | Photo: Special Arrangement

In the state Kalolsavam, he will likely be up against students who were trained under packages worth Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh, says his dance teacher Satheesh Nileshwaram (42). 

'Sachu has innate dancing skills'

Satheesh Nileshwaram, Sachu's father's namesake, has been training the boy since he was in Class 3. "Sachu is a dedicated student with good grasping power," he says. "But importantly, he has innate dancing skills," says 

Satheesh first saw Sachu when he was in Class I and performed a folk dance at the sub-district school competition. "I was impressed and enquired about him.  I was told he learned on his own for the competition," he says.

Two years later, Sachu's father put him in Navarasa Kala Kshetram to be trained under Satheesh Nileshwaram. Now during festivals, Sachu performs in temples in Kamballur, Perlam, Kollada, and Chittarikkal in his panchayat. 

Yet, he has not formally made his debut (Arangettam). "I am planning a 30-minute concert dance for his Arangettam in which he will showcase everything he learned over the years," said Satheesh. "But the programme will incur some expenses," he said.

Sachu's mother Bindu says she cannot afford it now. "We will need around Rs 30,000 to Rs 35,000. So we decided to raise money first for the Kalolsavam," she says. "Arangettam can wait."

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