From the age of four, the rhythms of classical Indian dance excited Guru Kalaimamani Smt Chamundeswari Pani.
Born in Madras, South India, with a rich cultural background, she was inspired to enter the world of dance.
At the age of 11, Chamundeswari began her career and performed solo while traveling across India with a dance school.
Despite her intense dance training, Chamundeswari Pani managed to finish her studies and at only 18 years old she realized her dream of starting her own dance school, Nrityakshetra in Chennai.
And 15 years later, the government of Tamilnadu awarded her the prestigious title of “Kalaiimamani” for best dancer and “Natya Kalaiarasi” in 1985 for her contribution to art.
But when she met her husband Colonel Pani, a medic in the British Army, while he was on vacation, she was determined not to follow traditional wedding patterns that would destroy her career.
The 72-year-old said: “I thought if I got married it would stop and everyone told me to give up dancing. Usually what happens around this time you become a woman in household and your wife then has children.
“But I didn’t want that type of life, I wanted to be independent and alone, so I kept turning down marriage offers.
“I told my husband that I will never give up dancing, I will play but eventually I will start teaching.”
In 1987, after leaving India, Chamundeswari moved to Catterick with her husband and struggled to adapt to the cold after getting used to 10 months of sun in India, and began to miss home.
Colonel Pani was assigned to hospitals in Berlin and London where she attended before returning to Catterick. They eventually settled there for 13 years raising their son.
After making contact with the North East Cultural Trust, she set up dance lessons in South Shields before expanding to Newcastle, Middlesborough and now Darlington.
She added, “Although I had experience here, it was new to me, we are free here in India, we cannot touch the children to help them or hold them to correct them.
“It was difficult to understand. I had a few English students who signed up, but the language barrier made it difficult to teach, they found it difficult.”
Over the past 25 years, she has taught generations of students around the world, many of whom remain in touch with her today.
Known to many as Ms. Pani, she now acts as a cultural link keeping alive the traditional awareness of Bharatanatyam and Indian culture among the younger generations.
Her unique style of teaching with patience and love for her students is such that she is first to them a loving “aunt”, then a “guru”.
One of her students, Breeze George, who started classes with Ms Pani at the age of 13 and now runs her own dance company, said she had always been more than just a dance teacher .
The 26-year-old said: “Touched by her grace, blessed by her love and care and spellbound by her dedication to classical Indian arts.
“My favorite learning moments have never been at school, but with my Guru Kalaimamani Smt. Chamundeshwari Pani.
“As a mother, wife, teacher and more, she continues to inspire us on how to maintain a balance in life and be independent and respectful women.
“I still remember my first lesson with her and will continue to practice the wisdom she gave me. I love you Pani aunt.
Ms. Pani has received critical acclaim for her roles in dance dramas, received many prestigious awards for her contribution to dance, and holds the title of “Kalajyoti” for her relentless dedication to the art of Bharatanatyam in the North. East.
But one of her most treasured moments came in February 2018, when she was invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace in front of the heads of government of the Commonwealth of London, to meet Her Majesty The Queen.
The reception is organized to recognize the achievements of “those in the Commonwealth of Diaspora from across the UK who have made a notable contribution to the community at large”.
Ms Pani added: “When I was 12 I was supposed to play in front of the Queen, I was so happy. But that didn’t happen because there was an age barrier and I had to be 18 or older.
“But when I got the card to invite me to meet the Queen, I couldn’t believe it.
“I kept quiet about the meeting in case it didn’t happen again. The queen was so kind and had a smiley face.
“The feeling that I represented India and our culture was just amazing.”
Having devoted more than 40 years to dance, she continues to interest young children in this heritage.
ChronicleLive works with retired teacher Veena Soni, who is launching a project to document a series of nostalgic stories from the North East Indian community.
The aim of the project is to capture the history of the Asian community who traveled abroad to Newcastle in the 1950s-70s to enable future generations to have memories and to prevent these stories from being forgotten. or lost over time.