Fayola KJ Fraser
The Shiv Shakti Dance Company: “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.”
– Indian Proverb.
One guarantee especially during the Divali season is to be captivated by memorable performances bathed in the sweet sounds, technical precision and vivid beauty of the women in the Shiv Shakti Dance Company.
This year, as is customary, the Shiv Shakti dancers opened the 2023 Divali Nagar on November 5 in magnificent style, with their own interpretation of the theme, ‘Mother Earth’. Although each Divali Nagar calls for a fresh elaboration of a theme, the message that the company shared in their presentation, through the creative expression of the movement of their limbs, was the same as every Divali. “Love”, says the company’s founder, Michael Salickram, “our message is always, that through love, anything is possible”.
Salickram formed the Shiv Shakti Dance Company in 1987, as simply an outlet and a hobby to celebrate and share his love for dance. The school started in Suchit Trace, Penal, but after immediately garnering widespread popularity, it rapidly expanded. Salickram chose to take the school to remote and underserved areas in Rio Claro, Princes Town, Tunapuna, and Aranguez, to allow people who wanted to dance the opportunity to be able to, without being limited by the cost and logistics of transportation.
Carib Brewery was the company’s first sponsor, and remained as a sponsor for ten years, followed by Clico, Bmobile and Zee TV. Even as the school started growing with generous sponsorship, it remained a tight-knit community, with one of the first lead dancers marrying Salickram’s brother, and their daughter becoming one of the lead dancers at present.
“What started off as a hobby, turned into a career,” Salickram remembers pensively, as the Shiv Shakti Dance Company has now grown to a variety of offerings, including yoga, fashion and design, makeup, philanthropy and music, resonating with people beyond the Indo-Trinidadian community.
In 1991, Salickram blended the traditional Indian dance of the Shiv Shakti Company with the traditional folk dance of the Malick Folk Performing Company. The twinning of these two companies and styles of dance was a national novelty that underpinned his commitment to spreading the message of the universality of dance, and his belief that although different, cultures could not simply blend harmoniously, but create magical cultural products as a result.
Salickram highlights that although the group is founded on Indo-Trinidadian culture, it spans other cultures, “taking the Indian rhythms and making it into something Caribbean”. The groups’ performance of the Ganges and the Nile skyrocketed the company to national popularity, with Rudder’s refrain of “Differences, there will always be so that you’ll be you, and I’ll be me. That’s the damn thing that makes it sweet,” providing a fitting backdrop to their performances.
Salickram and the Shiv Shakti Dance Company have amassed great acclaim locally, regionally and internationally, and he “considers it an honour and a privilege to showcase my country”. The Shiv Shakti dancers won local competitions such as Scouting for Talent in 1991 and Mastana Bahar in 1992. The company received the Chaconia Silver in 2004 for Salickram’s outstanding contribution to culture in T&T. Salickram is the first and only Trinidadian to choreograph dances for Bollywood, with his choreography in the film “Dulha Mil Gaya”, featuring legendary Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan. The dance company was also featured on National Geographic, “Little India”, and Salickram recalls that Shiv Shakti Company was approached as soon as they decided to film in T&T.
Although there is sometimes criticism of chutney music and dancing, Salickram ensures that his company does not engage in over-sexualised or derogatory dancing. “Chutney is something spicy, that you put in saheena to tingle your taste buds,” he jokes, “it should be somewhat sensual, but never vile.” He is not only a choreographer, and dancer, but also is committed to research, ensuring songs and their genesis are respected in his music choices, the art of dance and his dancers. Salickram also cares deeply about his community, offering support to temples, and offering performances at events that drive fundraising efforts for good causes. Dancers in his company pay only a small fee to ensure that the school remains accessible to all.
“Once you could come in a pram, you can join,” Salickram laughs, as they accept dancers as soon as they are ready to join, regardless of age. Headquartered in Couva, when students join the school, they first are taught techniques, then go through exams, and eventually graduate to the B company and the performing company. He encourages people from any background, even those with special needs to join if they are so moved. Remembering one student who was deaf-mute, he ensured she was accommodated, and teachers and dancers wore dancing bells in the class, teaching her by the vibrations of the bells. “She then entered junior competitions,” he says, “and won all of them!” Education, not only in dance, remains a crucial tenet of the Shiv Shakti Dance Company, and he encourages girls sitting CXC, CAPE or any important examinations to take the time to focus primarily on their academics and schooling. The girls support one another in their schoolwork, in dancing, emotionally and mentally, he says, “It’s always one set of chatting, bacchanal, la couray and laughing.”
Salickram is often asked what is his secret to growing the exponential success of the company and maintaining peace and cohesion among the dancers, staff and families. “Love,” he says again, “love for the culture will unite us all.”
Remembering a moment in traffic many years ago, seeing one of his students after class walking with her mother in the rain, he was overcome, grasping the monumental task with which he was being entrusted. “People come from all over,” he muses, “through all kinds of rain and conditions, to make their children happy, and make their dreams come true.” From its inception, the Shiv Shakti Dance Company has honoured that responsibility to making dreams come true, with tireless work and dedication to the advancement of our rich, complex and unique culture in T&T.