Kumari Ambigay photographed recently with a young student.
AS A young boy with an avid interest in Indian culture and arts growing up in the 1970s, I took every opportunity to listen to the latest music on the Indian radio stations, watch the new Bollywood releases at the local cinema and read the entertainment pages in newspapers such as The Graphic and The Leader, sourced for me by my late grandfather.
The name Kumari Ambigay often appeared in articles linked to Indian classical dance and music. What an honour then, many years later, to attend her 70th birthday celebration in Cape Town.
Ambigay’s lineage harks back to the arrival of her grandmother, Luxmi Govender, in Durban on the ship Truro with indentured labourers from south India. Govender was an ardent supporter of Indian arts and a part of the Passive Resistance campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi.
Ambigay was the eldest of five daughters born to Mathiemugam and Balasindhamani Pillay. Her mother was a stage actress who accompanied her father in all his productions staged primarily in their mother tongue, Tamil.
As a playwright and actor, Ambigay’s father trained her from the age of four as a stage artiste. This at a time when the preservation of Indian culture was severely threatened by the apartheid government.
His command of the Tamil language led him to teach many stalwarts of Indian culture in South Africa.This kind of activism was his way of keeping his mother tongue alive rebelling against the government’s intentions.
Ambigay was part of the generation that experienced the atrocities of the Group Areas Act first hand when her childhood in the Durban suburb of Sydenham was marred by her family's forced removal to Chatsworth, the area created by the apartheid government for Indians.
Her father worked as a chef and stage performer and promised he would take her to India to continue her studies in Indian classical dance and Tamil.
In Mumbai, they met Ameen Sayani, a well-known radio broadcaster who promoted the arts. He promoted her on stage as an African dancer from Durban. She performed the singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s well-known song Pata Pata and received a tumultuous response from audiences and the press.
The monies raised through these performances enabled her to reach Madras in the south of India where she was taken under the wings of and received tutelage from the screen actress Chandra Kantha.
Kantha was very impressed with Ambigay’s command of the Tamil language, her dance and acting skills. She gave her the opportunity to perform with greats like Kamal Hassen before he made an impact on the silver screen. Ambigay also danced with now noted Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan (Devdas, Bajirao Mastani).
Gopi Krishna, the leading icon of Kathak, an Indian classical dance form, presented her with his personal dance artefacts, as a form of appreciation for her knowledge of the dance form. It was common knowledge she would have entered the film industry if she had stayed in India.
But after completing her studies in Tamil literature and Bharatha Natyum under the late Indra Rajan and Kathak under Sohanlall and Heeralall, Ambigay returned to South Africa to continue her father’s dream of promoting Indian culture. In 1970 she met Phil Nepaul, a businessman and show promoter, who would become her husband.
They worked together to promote Indian culture through music, dance and the Tamil language, which led to the formation of the Kumari Ambigay Dance Institute. Ambigay taught Bharatha Natyum, Kathak and Tamil at Indian schools in various rural areas.
She was hired by Radio Truro as a Tamil music presenter and received acclaim for her presentation skills. But the activist in her rallied against the government's attempts to marginalise Indian languages and increase segregation by the formation of an Indian radio station with English as the main language. While many contemporaries joined the new station, she rallied against it, opting to go jobless rather than selling out her principles and commitment to promoting the Indian language.
She juggled her teaching activities, fundraising and dance recitals with raising two children and being with her husband as well. Her son Prabhu is a successful actor, dancer and businessman in the international entertainment industry and her daughter Anu, a lawyer, dancer, television producer and musician.
Ambigay’s songs are still very popular on local Indian radio stations and she is credited with creating the Tamil Chutney music genre. Many visiting artists from India are amazed at her high standard of writing and speaking the Tamil language.
She has worked and collaborated with many popular South African artists such as Ronnie Govender, Ramesh Hassen, Hoosen Valley, Shashika Mooruth and Tansen Nepaul.
At the first official ANC rally after the unbanning of the liberation movement, she met former president Nelson Mandela. She had written a song for the occasion, Sawubona South Africa, which she sung as Madiba entered the gathering. He congratulated her, saying: “I’ve read about you in the papers.”
Ambigay recently completed presenting her 110th Bharatha Natyum dance graduate in Durban and continues to amaze all by breaking her own records.
She is the true model of a South Indian mother with her own unique free spirit and a credit to the South African arts industry.