Teaching is her forte

Sheela Unnikrishnan, founder of Sree Devi Nrithyalaya, feels a sense of achievement in taking Bharatanatyam to the younger generation.

Published - December 23, 2010 07:38 pm IST

Sheela Unnikrishnan's dance class photos.

Sheela Unnikrishnan's dance class photos.

Sheela Unnikrishnan began wielding the cymbals 23 years ago, at the age of 18. Today she impresses connoisseurs with her skilful nattuvangum in her crowd-pulling shows.

She came under the tutelage of the late Railway Sundaram, when she was just nine.(The guru was a student of the late Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer hailing from Mangudi village of Thanjavur.) She was rigorously trained in the Melattur style of dance. “Bharatanatyam that evolved from Melattur is unique in many ways. It is rich in music and gives equal importance to nritta and nritya,” says Sheela.

She also pursued Kuchipudi under guru Vempatti Chinna Satyam for more than eight years. After the demise of Railway Sundaram, Sheela started Sree Devi Nrithyalaya.

Children join her classes from the age of five and stay on, the compelling factors being the art is taught in its perfect form and the guru is kind and compassionate.

Sheela goes that extra mile to teach the disciple body care. Since a dancer has to be agile and flexible, stretching and other physical exercises go hand in hand with dance training in her classes. “This improves their stamina and they can hold the araimandi stance for long and execute lengthy adavus,” claims Sheela.

Executing adavus

For more than three years, the children are taught adavu lakshanas and are trained to execute the adavus - thattu, nattu, etta, mandi and theermana - perfectly. Within three or four years, children become familiar with mudras, tala intricacies, hastha, gathi, greeva and paadha bhedas. They are then introduced to some of the margam items such as alarippu, jatiswaram and varnam and so on.

Sheela also trains her students in Tarangam. “It is a combination of sudda nrittam and perani natyam (both typical pieces of Mangudi).

Sheela does not believe in having a salangai pooja and instead, the arangetram is held straightway after five-six years of effective guidance. By this time the children also learn to compose their own small jathi patterns and korvais, which are embellished by the teacher.

In fact, Sheela composed her first piece at a very young age. “It was a natesa kavuthuvam, a five-minute item, which sowed the seed.”

So far Sheela has choreographed more than 10 dance dramas _ ‘Bala Ramayanam,' ‘Shadaksharam,' ‘Janani Jagath Karani,' ‘Sri Krishna Manjari' and ‘Gems of Oothukkadu' among others.

How does she make her shows appealing ? “Aaharyam gives visual appeal and helps the participant to blend with the character.” She says, “Roles should be given to children according to their ability and they must also be able to highlight the importance of the character.”

“Apart from good orchestration, special effects such as using a damroo, morsing and konnakkol can enhance a scene,” she points out. “Factors such as a unique theme, understandable script, catchy lyrics, use of single language and geometry without too much of technology will make a presentation wholesome,” says Sheela.

Can Margam, appreciated only by the knowledgeable, be made interesting to others ? Answers Sheela, “I think a little bit of novelty can do the trick. For instance, sancharis at the apt places, abhinaya-oriented shabdams, variegated thatta, mettu, adavu patterns in the varnam and intricate adavu patterns before the arudi in thillana can make the margam attractive to the audience.”

Students of Sree Devi Nrithyalaya have presented solos and group performances at Delhi Tamil Sangam, Perur Natyanjali, IDA Bangalore, Kalai Vizha, Semmozhi Maanadu and so on.

Students such as Bhairavi Venkatesan and Simran Sivakumar have also given performances abroad. Harinee Jeevitha (student) is a Bal Shree awardee.

Uma Ramachandran, another student, was one of the finalists of the same award.

“I feel I would not have achieved this much if I had been a performer. I am glad I took up teaching as it has helped me to take the art form to the younger generation,” concludes Sheela.

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