Scaling the skies: Arunima Kumar on her love for Kuchipudi

For someone who’s alien to south India and its dance forms, it is no cakewalk to propel the art into the global galaxy. For Arunima Kumar, it was a passion, a challenge that culminated in a success story. On the eve of her performance at the ‘International Kuchipudi Dance Festival’ in London where she lives, the dancer-teacher talks about her journey into the world of performing arts and the Kuchipudi dance form in particular.

What made you take up Kuchipudi dance form?

My mother, an artiste herself though not a dancer, 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 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 crowds (audience), the lights-everything fascinated me. I trained with Swapna Sundari for a short time only. Later, gurus Jayarama Rao and Vanashree trained me into a full-fledged artiste.

As a north Indian learning and practising the Telugu dance form ofKuchipudi, how was your experience?

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, at times I would not follow the group in emulating a particular emotion; I 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.

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 back seat. When I got a seat in London School of Economics, my mother was rather distraught that I will give up dance. But by then my passion for dance was strong and fixed. 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 can 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 from my job. 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. At one point, I told myself, ‘it’s time to leave.’ Dance is a sadhana; it needs 100 per cent of you.

Was it an easy decision in a foreign land where Indian dance doesn’t fetch an income?

It was not easy to leave a steady income and a good life. But once a decision is made, it is made. I should say, no experience goes waste. I have applied the same work ethics, discipline, planning and implementation to my dance performances as I used to in my corporate work. Unlike back home, here, all art programmes are ticketed and I can’t afford to falter. My corporate training and experience helped me apply the same methodology to my art profession. My institution, Arunima Kumar Dance Company runs on thoroughly professional lines; it is not nebulous. To me, my production that goes on stage for which we are being paid is of utmost importance, not me or my artistes in person.

Kuchipudi dwells on pronounced abhinaya and aharya, being originally an itinerant male dance form. Did you refine it for foreign audiences?

I’m very dedicated to the formatted, formal Kuchipudi traditional repertoire. My gurus handed over a refined form to me. At this stage, 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 taking my class of audience along with me. I worked on contemporary themes like 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 the class of audience to whom you are performing; in the same breath I can say if you are bold enough to create something valuable and artistically worthy, well 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.

How do you see yourself as an established dancer now?

I feel fulfilled that I’m performing, teaching and propagating Kuchipudi. But it is a lonely battle. Since I’m a north Indian practising an Andhra originated dance form, my own Telugu community disowns me whenever there is a debate on dance issues. Wherever I went, I had to face this challenge just because I do this dance form vis-a-vis the more popular Bharatanatyam or Kathak. I have faced axes all the way. Now, I have emerged unscathed. I have been able to bag the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. Apart from all this, I believe in passing on the dance to the next generation in spite of being a performing artiste myself.

Tell us something about your forthcoming international dance festival. Does a foreign platform restrict your 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 event in a big way. 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. It’s my creativity. Similarly, my ‘Stree’ depicts Rati, Sita and Sati — three aspects of woman where I wrapped up with the Simhanandini — which I term as foot-painting. Mine is a simplistic version where I draw 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.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 8:46:03 PM |

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