Devotion to Dance

Anusia Pillay's fondness and passion for Indian classical dance is so intense that this South African of Indian origin claims "my passion for dance started before birth" !

The Womenz team had an opportunity to interact with Anusia  Govender- Pillay, Artistic Director & Chairperson, Anavarata Dance Institue.  Here is what she shared with us


Can you please tell us something about you. Your education and family background.

In 1959, Rani (Nydoo) Govender (22 August 1944- 30 July 2005) and her sister Prema were amongst the first 3 South African girls to study a full repertoire of Bharata Natyam in India( along with Sulochana Naidoo, who returned to South Africa, married shortly after and emigrated). They returned to S.A. in 1961 and gave spellbinding performances at every major centre, and taught this art-form at the “Nydoo Sister’s School of Dance” to the young and often underprivileged youth.  While in India, South African dancers were such a rarity that Rani and Prema were interviewed by the BBC on their experiences, and were invited to tea with Prime Minister Nehru.  They worked harder and longer than the local students at Saraswati Gana Nilayam, in Triplicane, Madras; as they completed the full re[pertoire in 2 years as opposed to the regular 5- 6 years of training received at that time.  All of this while still attending school. 

The important aspect to take note of is that prior to them, there were other dance teachers; most notably Dr. Thirupuasundari and Mrs Sharda Naidoo, both being women of Indian nationality who married South Africans.  They always acknowledged that their Bharata Natyam education was limited to their exposure to it in India, and that they had not studied full repertoires.  Dr Thirupurasundari’s father was physician to a Nawab (landlord with Royal ties), and as a young girl she would sometimes be allowed to take lessons with the Nawab’s daughter.  Mrs Sharda Naidoo was exposed to lessons at school.  They both found a gap in the Arts and culture of the Indian settlers as the prevailing medium of dance was essentially Folk in nature comprising of Dances such as Garba, Dandiya Ras, Kummi, Kollattam and Thirukuttu    (commonly known as “6 foot dance”).  Thus they imparted whatever knowledge they could.  They served as inspirations to the 3 young Ladies who were daughters of members of the South African Andhra Community.  

Rani and Prema returned to India in 1965 to study Kathak (Lucknow Gharana) under Guru Krishna Kumar, a member of the Mysore State Nataka Academy.  They also used the opportunity to further their Bharata Natyam education.  Prema returned to Bombay, where she studied The Benares Gharana of Kathak in 1974, under the Maestro Guru Gopi Krishna.  Both sisters went on to teach the dance styles at Satri College and later Cato Manor technical College’s department of Human Movement and  Communication.  

My Dad, Dhanabalan- a retired Industrial engineer, should not be excluded from this, as he has been a silent supporter to both my Mum and I throughout our endeavours.  We call him our “Rock of Gibraltar” – always there to support and do the heavy lifting.  The same can be said for our extended family too. 

I, the daughter of Rani, studied Bharata Natyam and Kathak under both my mother and aunt, since childhood and attended the same schools as my mother, in India.  Ironically, Anusia’s first performance, at the age of 2, was the last performance of her mother.  This resulted in Anusia, literally, following in her mother’s famous footsteps.  Both Rani and I advanced our Kathak knowledge under Guru Rajender Gangani of Kathak Kendra, in New Delhi, the son of Guru Kundanlall Gangani of the Jaipur Gharana.  I also become the first South African exponent of Odissi.  In addition, I am an Honours graduate in Social Work and has also studied Early Childhood Education, and Events Management. 

I was selected as the first South African Trainer and Principal Dancer of the official Malaysian Cultural Dance troupe in S.A and received training by the Malaysian Arts and Culture Department in Kuala Lumpur in 2001.  My additional training included Modern Dance and Jazz under Desire’ Pickering, and Drama under Saira Essa at the Upstairs Theatre in Durban.  I worked on two of Disney’s productions in South Africa namely the “The Lion King” in 2006/7 as lead choreographer to the child artists, and “Beauty and the Beast” in 2008/9.  I also served as SA JUDGE for Dance India Dance on ZEE TV in GAUTENG 2010. 

I am still an avid student of dance and has studied South African, African and Latin styles of Dance, amongst others. All my current experience has added to the portfolio of the Anavarata Dance Institute.

Where are  from your family roots are?

I am 4th Generation South african of Indian origin.  My ancestors arrived in Durban in 1860 from TamilNadu; Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, to work in the Sugarcane fields for the British Colonists.  One of my Great Grandfathers became to highest ranking Policeman in the then policeforce, and 1 lived to the ripe old age of 108.

How’s your kathak passion started? At what age?

Actually my passion for dance started before birth, according to my mother!  She was pregnant with me while teaching, and once I was born, I was taken to my mums class and grew up with classical music and dance – the first song I was taught was Carnatic based.  I started my Formal dance training with my aunt at around 5 in Bharata Natyam.  My earliest exposure to Kathak came when I was around 2 years old and my mum gave her last performance, which is quite symbolic as it was my first. I went on to further my training and in Bharata Natyam and Kathak in India, and in the 1980’s became the first Odissi exponent in SA.

Tell us more about Anavarata Dance Institute? What inspired you to begin with it?

Prema emigrated to India, and Rani and Anusia continued with the Dancing by renaming the Institute in 1993, to     Anavarata Dance Institute.  Anavarata” means “eternal” and describes the dance of Lord Shiva – without beginning or end, and is a registered community-based, non-profit organization, Reg No.044--238-NPO.


The purpose of founding this organisation is to heal the hurts of our country's PAST through the medium of arts & culture- unity in diversity in practice! It utilises the strengths of the Community to build on, rather than its weaknesses. Promoting Unity in Diversity, emphasizing a strong sense of Nation- building in previously disadvantaged communities where, the Institute provides free training & skills development in dance and theatrical performances in various Townships in the greater Gauteng area,




Your initial journey and motivation to scale this far?

Growing up during apartheid, I was constantly aware that my options were limited as a person of “Colour”.  It was only when I travelled tio India for the first time when I was 7 and performed in front of my mother’s Guru, Srimathy K. Lalitha, that I realised that I could be more than I was told I was.  

With no diplomatic ties to India at that time, my parents took the decision to send my Mum and I to India to continue our studies during school breaks, during my schooling and University studies 

My passion has always been the Arts, but when it came to selecting a field of study I was again faced with limited options.  Despite attending one of the most prestigious Universities in SA, I could only study euro-cenric styles of Dance. 

My mum and I were offered part-time lecturing positions in Indian Classical(Kathak) and Indian Folk Dance- in my first year of University, which I continued until after my academic graduation.  

In all that time, we organised International Tours to Mauritius and Malaysia with no governmental support, created syllabi in dance for secondary/ tertiary institutions for our National Education Department, and began creating a branding and awareness of the “professionalism “ of Indian Dance by holding the first Indo-African performance in South Africa, amongst others.

How successful you are in getting the African students? Is it difficult  to  teach them?

It is quiet easy to get african students as our work is based in the “townships” of South Africa and we focus on the previously disadvantaged communities by offering training and bursaries FREE OF CHARGE.

Africa is a country of rhythm, the challenge is that most Dance styles utilise the macro muscles, whereas Indian Dance requiresreuires the use of micro muscles as well- from head to toe.  So we ease into it and because we are multi- and Intercultural dance based we use other styles to introduce the basics.

At this point our dancers are proficient in Bharata Natyam; Kathak; Odissi; Mohiniyattam and various Indian folk and tribal dances, as well as Global dance styles. 

Anavarata has a huge Indian Following in SA, and we are hoping to tour the Indian subcontintent soon as well.

As a women did  you face any hurdles in your journey so far?  If yes,  how you faced & conquered them?

Firstly, the rather “narrow” and “sexual” connotation and perceptions that is conjured up in people’s minds of Dance and Dancers is quite distorted, and in a country where cultural and diplomatic ties were not available to South African Indians for a few decades, I faced the most censure from within my own community.

I had to learn how to deal with those kind of attitudes while still maintaining my dignity.  And to a certain degree had to create the awareness of the spirituality and sacredness of Dance.

Sadly, we still have to deal with it, however a strong leadership, and a professional attitude have helped me develop a thick skin and I try to inculcate a sense of self- respect and self-worth in all my students, while helping them deal with the potential pitfalls.


Tell us about your family? How you manage to both fronts Anavarata Dance Institute & family

My Dad lives with me and is 73, so over the years I have worked at creating a balance of family and work.  Being in this Industry, my family has learnt that most of my work is weekend based and I have no social pressure from them.  We juggle roles, responsibilities  and travel very successfully.  Having a supportive family and community structure help, as does the fact that I am single.  I would imagine that it would be the same if I was married.


Your further growth plans for the year and coming years?

-International tours- we really want to take our unique productions to stages around the world

-Expand training Nationally – our work is really expansive and we would like to train artists around the country- and possibly the world

Network with other organisations- this is vital for the cross pollinationa and survival of the Arts. 


Do you have any signature kathak style?

Yes..Sufi Kathak , I am the only South African who performs it and it is extremely well received, our Kathak in general is unique as it combines all 3 Gharanas (schools)- that has been my training and exposure.  My African dancers love it and are so excellent in the execution of its subtlties.


Are you doing something for kids too?

Although Anavarata is Youth – based, our dancers are trained as trainers themselves and we run projects that focus on young kids below 16 years of age.  Last year we taught a group of  15 kids from India over 10 weeks, who are resident in Johannesburg a piece based on the Goa Carnival  for the celebration of India’s Independence day – it was tauted as one of the best performances.


How many students you have trained so far?

Thousands from all cultures and race groups, and  am still in touch with quite a few of them, who are now parents themselves.


How Kathak  can help women in their routine life?

Not just Kathak but Dance itself  is a very empowering tool.  The great thing about Kathak is that its natural stance allows one to continue past injury and age related issues.  It enhances the power of the feminine, while allowing one to literally feel like one is soaring(the chakkars or pirouettes).  Apart from the obvious physical benefits, the Chakkars are also cleansing and energising for the energetic or Pranic anantomy( i.e the aura, chakras, etc), depending on the direction one spins in.  I have found it to be awe inspiring in women especially.


Any message to aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Perservere, no matter the obstacles, follow your purpose and the Universe supports you. Develop your skills and education.


 We The Womenz team thank her for sharing her story with us. We are sure that her story will certainly inspire our readers.

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Have a  look at
Anavarata's video


First Published: 07-Apr-2017- 17:59