The advent of March initiates the annual conversation celebrating women and everything they do. International Women’s Day on 8 March pays homage to the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Since 1911, people come together around the world to honour the triumphs made by women or raise their voices for women’s equality. Each year has a distinct theme, which for 2021 is “Choose To Challenge”. As per the official website, “A challenged world is an alert world. And from challenge comes change. So, let’s all #ChooseToChallenge.”
There are numerous examples of women that have personally challenged the norms forced on them by society. These path-breakers have inspired others for generations and continue to pave the way for girls and women of all ages to follow their passions, against all odds. This includes standing up for one’s beliefs or forging unconventional career paths. Benny Kalra, dancer extraordinaire and Director of the dance academy Guruabhyas, comes to mind as an example of someone who chose to challenge the norms over 30 years ago.
Having begun her formal training in Hindustani Classical singing at the age of 4, under the tutelage of her mother—musician Ramesh Baveja; and training in Kathak from the age of 6 with renowned gurus such as Pandit Sohan Lal and Guru Kundan Lal Gangani, Benny Kalra wholeheartedly pursued her passion for the cultural arts. She taught dance at the Mother’s International School in Delhi for 18 years, which brought her recognition and awards for creative choreography around classical and folk dances. This enabled her to take over the running of Guruabhyas, a branch of Swaran Sangeetalya started by her uncle, Professor Dina Nath Baveja. The school now offers numerous courses affiliated to the Prayag Sangeet Samiti in Allahabad, including Hindustani Classical Music, Kathak, Keyboard, Folk Music, Folk Dance, Tabla, Baal Geet and Bhajans. The school follows a ‘Gurukulum’ system, encouraging personal interaction between the guru and shishya.
“Teaching is a passion for me,” Kalra says with a twinkle in her eye. She has taught over 3,000 students in the span of her career, which includes students with dyslexia, physically challenged children and those who have been diagnosed with ADHD or similar hyperactive disorders. Women and children suffering from depression, life-threatening diseases like AIDS, and those from lower strata of society also find succour in her classes. She also encourages adults who want to follow their passion in later stages of their life, to join her classes. She ardently believes that everybody can sing and dance, and urges her students to hone the natural instinct they are born with.
Dance and music have the power to impart strength to face any challenge or situation in life, by connecting you to a higher level of consciousness. This sentiment is testified by many of Kalra’s students over the years. “Dancing is all about the freedom of expression and telling a story through movements,” says erstwhile student Nikita Hotchandani, “I’m still the 6-year-old girl who walked into another home, Guruabhyas with dreams in her eyes. Since then, I have learnt that dance comes from the heart, and in order to excel, you must love dance with every ounce that you possess.”
She is echoed by Anamika Singh Ada, who trained under Kalra and later opened her own Dance Academy. “Like a mother, she was kind and strict, warm and stern, loving and authoritarian, affectionate and a disciplinarian. Today, having run my own dance academy for 23 years, I feel her presence not just in everything I do but in who I am,” she says. Ira Sahu, Kalra’s student since the age of 5, is now a choreographer based in the US. She also attributes her love of dance to her teacher.
It is said that a good teacher can impart knowledge, but great teachers are responsible for lighting a passion within. Benny Kalra certainly lives by this adage. Working towards a spiritual transformation through dance and music, she has spread light in the lives of many. Her steadfast belief in her art form and concentrated efforts in creating a vocation of her passion, make her an ideal example of someone who has chosen to challenge the norms and continues to do so.
The writer is a lawyer who contributes feature articles to various publications and her blog www.nooranandchawla.com. She can be found on Instagram @nooranandchawla