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Arunima Kumar: Scaling the skies

Delineating her journey: Arunima Kumar

Delineating her journey: Arunima Kumar  

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Ahead of the International Kuchipudi Dance Festival, Arunima Kumar talks about taking the traditional art form to the world

For a total alien to south India and its dance forms, it is not easy to assimilate, excel and propel the art into the global galaxy. Well, for Arunima Kumar, it was a passion, a challenge that culminated into a success story. On the eve of her International Kuchipudi Dance Festival in London, the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar awardee talks about her journey into the world of performing arts and Kuchipudi dance form in particular.

What made you take up Kuchipudi dance form?

Dance or rather rhythm was inborn or so my grandparents would always say though at that age I had no clue. My mother, an artist herself , was keen that I should learn dance. Being a north Indian and Delhi-based one at that, it was natural that I went to learn Kathak. But then, my mother shifted me to Guru Swapna Sundari who taught Kuchipudi those days. Why my mother chose Kuchipudi and not Bharatanatyam which is a more popular south Indian dance form, I didn’t quite know then. But whatever she chose, the vibrancy of the dance appealed to my young mind. At the age of seven, thanks to my guru, I was on stage with a small role in her ballet “Amrapali”. The adulation, the audience, the lights – everything fascinated me. I trained with Swapna Sundari for a small time only. Later, gurus Jayarama Rao and Vanashree trained me into a full-fledged artiste.

How was your performance as a pupil?

It wasn’t easy but both my parents being art-oriented, I was able to love what I was learning. And that’s half the job done. The rest was to try and understand the content of what was being taught. Being fiercely independent by nature, I would at times not follow the group in emulating a particular emotion and would do it my way. Initially, my guru used to be upset over it; but again he let me do what I felt like. That, in a way, set my mind thinking. Abhinaya (expressive dance) itself is lost in the text unless it is explored. Now as a teacher I realise this much more. If you don’t get the pupils to learn the context that say, Satyabhama (the protagonist) in “Bhama Kalapam”, is lost in the song.

When did you realise dance was your calling?

Actually, I graduated in Economics from St. Stephen’s College. And I did work for a pretty long time in the corporate sector. But my dance never took a backseat. When I got a seat in London School of Economics, my mother was rather distraught that I will give up on dance. But by then my passion for dance was strong . I knew I can never give it up totally. I moved to London a decade ago and worked in the marketing sector. I was trying to balance a home, my dance and my career. Somewhere down the line, I had this uneasiness that I would never be able to give my full to dance if I continue in this manner.

As a trial run, I took a sabbatical for a year . My boss was aghast. To him, dance was like going to a gym and that could be done even while working full time. But when he saw me dance in Buckingham Palace, he was convinced of my passion. One can balance a profession and passion for a long time, provided the former is not as taxing . At one point, I told myself, ‘it’s time to leave.’ Dance is a sadhana, it needs 100 per cent of you.

Kuchipudi dwells on exaggerated abhinaya and aharya. Did you refine it to suit the foreign audience? ?

I’m very dedicated to the formatted, formal Kuchipudi traditional repertoire. My gurus handed over a refined form to me. So the grotesque never really occurred in my dance life for me to judge. But now at this stage of maturity as an artiste, I should say, I have played a lot with the repertoire, that is, at places of performance like the Royal Commonwealth Society, Trafalgar Square, I have to use the form judiciously . I worked on contemporary themes like in my work on prison, “Bandini’. I tried to bring this (translated version) to Chennai dance season but met with disapproval from the organisers. But I had to really stoop to conquer and I walked away with laurels. Certainly, it depends on audience to whom you are performing, however, in the same breath I can say if you are bold enough to create something valuable and artistically worthy, it will be approved and appreciated. We are fed on this ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ labels of classical dance and are scared to think out of the box.

Tell us about your upcoming international dance festival. Does foreign platform restrict your Kuchipudi repertoire?

My dance company is associated with Bhavan’s and Infosys, the latter being financially supportive. The Arts Council of England gives us a grant. I’m organising this international fest in a big way– a three-hour programme. My team and me would be doing the Dasavataram with Latin dancers in wheelchairs. Nothing can restrict my complex and strong Kuchipudi repertoire. My innovations are within my framework. My innovative approach for instance in the Dasavataram is that at the tenth avatar can be anybody from a physically-challenged to normal and I leave it at that. This is what I meant about my own individual creativity. Similarly, my “Stree” spoke of Rati, Sita and Sati – three aspects of woman where I wrapped up with the Simhanandini – which I term as foot-painting. Mine is a simple version where I drew the figure of a woman with my feet on a cardboard box. Some of my newer works are on sonnets of Shakespeare with Carnatic vocal.

My ‘Stree Vesham’ video is about the original Kuchipudi repertoire where males impersonated as females and danced. It was an enriching experience teaching to a man as I had earlier learnt from a man! I have refined my ahaarya (costume) to suit my content. But for these minor changes, I’m a traditionalist who worships my Kuchipudi.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 2:34:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/arunima-kumar-scaling-the-skies/article29971628.ece

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