Human Interest
The tour guide has never formally learnt classical or western forms of dance though he'd always wanted to since childhood.
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For the last 33 years, Nagendra Prabu, a freelance tour guide and resident of Madurai, carried a deep sense of frustration as he went about his daily activities. Around the time he turned 7, Nagendra recalls, he developed a consuming passion for dance and even a jingle heard on the streets, would set him into motion, his body automatically grooving to the rhythm.

At home, however, the focus was on academics and while dance was allowed to be a hobby, Nagendra could never realise his dream of performing for the world to see. As he turned 40 this year, the last of his hope was squashed by the burden of responsibilities.

"I am a husband and father of two. I figured that the dancer in me will never get his due," he tells TNM. "I was resigned to this fate and carried on with my work" he adds.

So imagine Nagendra's surprise, when he woke up last week to a barrage of calls, messages and social media posts praising his dance, grace and knowledge. Recognition of his talent came right from the CEO of Niti Aayog to office bearers of the state Archaeology Department. And all this, because of one viral video posted by the Canadian tourists he had guided through Madurai's historic relics.

The video, which is over just one minute long, shows Nagendra describing aspects of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form, to curious tourists. He first settles into the aramandi, moving his head from side to side. Following this, he lifts his eyebrows alternately, much to the amusement of the visitors. He then depicts waves, a cobra, lotus and peacock in the dance form before finally lifting his leg to show the dancing form of Lord Shiva.

The group he is guiding immediately breaks into applause at the performance , the sound of which has resonated across social media and lifted Nagendra's disillusionment.

"As an artist, all you want is to perform for people and for them to see your talent," says Nagendra. "Today people across the world have noticed me," he adds.

Dancing for his visitors and describing Indian culture through various dance forms is not uncommon for the tour guide. He tells TNM, that it helps visitors understand the nuances of Tamil culture.

"In this viral video, for instance, I was explaining to them the difference between Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. They were going to visit Kerala next, so I thought a small performance would help them register the art form better," he says.

But the tour guide has never formally learnt classical or western forms of dance.

"Everything that I learnt was from watching others. I learnt Bharatanatyam from watching actors like Padmini...take the song 'Maraindhirundhu Parkum' for instance," he says. "Even the thaka thaka thaka jhum in this video is from the movie Jeans," he adds, laughing.

Staying close to dance

Born to two government school teachers, Nagendra, from a very young age, was told that dance cannot be pursued as a profession. But that didn't stop from imitating the dances he saw on screen at every opportunity he got.

"I would dance in all my school annual day functions," he says. "But my parents didn't let me join any classes. They said I need to focus on my studies and that was the only route to success," he  explains.

After completing his MA and MPhil in Public Administration, he joined a private school in Madurai to teach History, Geography and Political Science. Despite a heavy task load, he still found a way to fit dance into his routine.

"I would choreograph for all school events and when I went back home, I would be thinking of what steps to give children and how to fill the music with the right choreography," he says, laughing. "It was in 2006, that I decided I will combine my passion for history and culture and become a guide," he adds.

Today, his family and friends are hailing him for his talent. Even his mother, who had once been critical, teared up, he says, when she heard of the praise her son was getting.

"Now she wonders if she could have indeed put me in classes," he say, a tinge of melancholy in his voice. "Maybe the fame I have gotten now, I would have received 10 years back for being a professional dancer."

When asked if he will now formally learn dance, he says, "No. I won't. What makes me unique is my ability to interpret a dance form and present it as my own. I am happy being me."