Dancer Urmila Satyanarayanan traces her steps in dance.
Four hundred years ago, Beri Thimanna, a trader in indigo and textile, came to the east coast from Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh to buy land from local chieftains. He set up trading posts in that land, which later evolved as the booming metropolis of Chennai. Since then till 1963, the Thimanna family was in all spheres of Chennai’s growth, except art. This gap was filled in 1963, when as a three-year-old, Urmila Satyanarayanan was taken to the famous Saraswathy Gana Nilayam in Triplicane to be initiated into a course in Bharatanatyam.
“My mother wanted to dance, but could not. When I was taken to the school, the teachers said I was too small. But they let me stay over, watch classes being held and also gave me small roles in performances by senior students. My formal training started when I was five,” she says.
Although a senior artiste, her every recital reflects the homework that she does with the choreography. They also speak about the balance she has in technique and abhinaya. These two seemingly different aspects of dance find a tranquil blend in her. Urmila says it is because of her gurus.
“After the initial training at Saraswathy Gana Nilayam, I went to Sri Dandayuthapani Pillai,” she says. He chiselled her grasp over technique (adavu) and gave her the famous aramandi (the half-sitting posture in Bharatanatyam) that still inspires the awe and envy of young dancers. “My guru belonged to a school that stressed on the grammar of dance.”
She credits guru K.J. Sarasa, to whom she went to learn after Sri Dandayuthapani Pillai’s death and who is known for her grace and the wealth of abhinaya, for her ability to depict the strong-willed women of epic dramas and the lovelorn heroines of the puranas.
Her mastery over technique and abhinaya has given her the ground a dancer needs to innovate or build upon compositions that have already made a mark. But improvisations are welcome for her only as long as they stick to the grammar.
“I am totally for those trying to research and bring back the old compositions, though the fact remains that in today’s world, recitals, like before, cannot go on for four to eight hours,” says this stickler to tradition, who has been felicitated with awards and recognitions, both at the State- and national-level.
Urmila’s work includes an entire choreography on Surya, the Panchali Shapadam, a Lalgudi Jayaraman composition which she performed solo a few years ago and recently as a group of 24, and the ‘Apurva Purva’ dance drama that was staged in Narada Gana Sasbha during the 2012 Margazhi month. “It is on past karmas and how they determine the course of our future,” she says.
Her taste for balance has been a key element in not only shaping up her skills in dance but also in picking and choosing from different schools of dance. “There is nothing wrong in adopting beautiful elements from all schools. In today’s world, to subscribe to a particular school is not possible, as dance, like before, does not remain under a guru in a nondescript village,” she says.
Yoga has helped her strike the balance and also to bounce back into action after a break from dance three years ago.
Her faith in art as a medium to explore the beauty of life surfaces in her approach that her inheritor in dance need not be her daughter. “She is more into sports, though she has learnt dance,” Urmila says. To her, only those who are very serious in art will discover the ways it can enrich life. “But there is nothing wrong in the influx of students to dance schools; it will only help people appreciate art better. But the fact remains that only the serious ones will go seeking the beauty of the art deeper,” she says.
It is this beauty, which she discovers in art, that she imparts to the future at Naya Sankalpa, the dance school she runs in Chennai, the city her forefather founded.