EVERY DAY, for the past nine years, Dhobi Guru clocks in 12-hour shifts in a power loom located on Ved Road in Surat. The 25-year-old migrant from Odisha’s Ganjam district works 365 days a year, with breaks only when there is an unexpected power cut in the industrial neighbourhood. But over the last three years, in the midst of this grueling daily schedule, Guru is briefly transported to a different world; where, the deafening khat-khat sound of the loom machines is replaced with thumping electro beats; the packed powerloom unit gives way to a large open studio; and, rhythm and style take over.
Guru is a student of Really Dance Academy, a dance class located on Ved Road in the country’s polyester capital. Most students are Guru’s work companions toiling in nearby loom units, earning as little as Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000 a month. “I leave all my work tension at the doorstep,” says Guru, who enrolled in the class in 2015. “Once I am in the class, I am transported to a new world. I feel fresh.”
Set up and run by Sushant Pradhan, 27, a former loom worker, the academy has trained more than a hundred young workers since it opened. Pradhan offers lessons in hip-hop, Bollywood, dubstep, B-boying, locking, popping, electro, house and contemporary dance. Quiz him on why he has named his class ‘Really Dance Academy’, and the young migrant from Ganjam district quips, “Because I never copy existing dance steps. Everything you learn here is original, is real.”
Unlike other dance classes run in the city, Pradhan claims that his academy is tailor-made to suit his students, who alternate between shifts from 7 am to 7 pm or 7 pm to 7 am in the looms. “Most classes in the city are run only in the evenings, making it impossible for workers to attend. I offer classes in the morning and evening based on their weekly schedules. Sometimes, we end up dancing into the wee hours of the morning,” says Pradhan, who struggled himself, to balance his passion for dance with the desperation to work in the loom, during his early days in the city. “I would complete my shift in the loom and head straight for class. I skipped meals to pay my fees. There was no way I was going to give up,” he says. Back in the day, Pradhan had enrolled for a dance class run by Kailash, a private insurance agent in Surat, who has since moved back to Ganjam, where he runs his classes now.
It was his unrelenting passion that helped Pradhan achieve his childhood dream of running a dance class. “Initially, I used to help my dance teacher conduct his class in Surat. He would often ask me to run it in his absence,” says Pradhan. “The students loved my style. Gradually, my friends from the looms started getting excited looking at me groove. That’s when I realised I could turn my passion into a full-time job, and make money.”
Pradhan’s monthly expenses to run classes add up to nearly Rs 15,000. He charges Rs 1,500 for one month, Rs 2,700 for a three-month package; and Rs 6,500 for an annual package. But very often, his students don’t end up paying their fees for months together. “They don’t earn too much and have to support their families,” says Pradhan, who also works as a Zumba instructor and a dance teacher at an international school for children in the afternoons. He even offers discounts to students who commit to learning dance for one year.
For most of Pradhan’s students, the struggle doesn’t end with merely managing their work schedules and funds. “Convincing my family back home was a much bigger task,” says Jitendra Naik, 27, who works at a loom in Fulwadi, and hails from Ganjam district as well. Naik, who began working in the looms at the age of 13, says, “When I told my parents that I was learning to dance, they were very angry. I couldn’t explain to them what choreography meant, and what these international dances looked like.” After several failed attempts, Naik invited his father, also a loom worker in Surat, to attend a class. “When he saw me and my friends groove, as we locked and popped, he got convinced. He hasn’t shouted at me for spending my salary on the class since.” For Guru, however, his dance lessons remain a secret. “I haven’t told my parents because they would think it is a cruel waste of money,” he says. “There are months when I am unable to pay fees after sending money back home. My friends help me with small loans from time to time,” he adds.
The loom workers-turned-dancers attend class for one hour every day, but, for some of them, the love for music doesn’t end there. “When I feel stressed, I take a short break from work to practise the new steps that we have been taught, in one corner of the unit. I keep checking dance videos on YouTube,” says Nirakar Matia, 23, who works at a loom in Singanpore Char Rasta on Ved Road. Matia, an ardent fan of renowned American pumping artist, Poppin’ John, says, “Sometimes, our bosses catch us on the CCTVs. But if they are kind, they let us go after a sound warning.” Naik’s employer, for instance, asks him to perform a dance routine every time he has to collect his monthly wage. “I am quite lucky,” says Naik, “Some of my friends have even lost their jobs because their employers caught them dancing.”
Employed in an industry where lakhs of workers risk serious injuries and accidental deaths, the dance class has opened a little window of hope. “The workers have been doing the same job every day for several years. Many get addicted to alcohol and drugs, and spend their wages on it,” says Pradhan, who is also a member of the Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch (PSSM), a loom and textile workers’ collective in Surat. “But for my students, dance is their biggest addiction. It helps them find their own voice,” he says. Earlier this year, some students were chosen as background dancers in upcoming Bollywood and Gujarati films. “I had never imagined that I would get to be on a film set in front of so many cameras,” says 23-year-old Rohit Bisoi, who works at the Ved Road loom, “It was unreal.”
Pradhan, meanwhile, is hoping to fulfill his life’s second biggest dream after having set up the dance class. “With my beard, dressing style and love for Michael Jackson, people back home refer to me as Remo 2.0, and even rush to click selfies. Now, I am eagerly waiting to click one with the real Remo sir,” he says, even as he breaks into the signature MJ pose.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian is a Mumbai-based writer and researcher.