Rukmini Vijayakumar feels dancers should prepare themselves physically to take on the rigours of training and performance
Agreed there is no substitute to watching the performing arts, especially dance, live. The feel of the space, moves and expressions can be overwhelming. But we are talking about dance in the time of Instagram. Though this social media platform’s negative ramifications on art have been much discussed (writer Theresa Ruth Howard’s Dance Magazine piece raised the question: ‘Is Instagram Changing the Dance World’s Value System’?), there are artistes who have turned the app to their advantage. They have used their accounts to establish a creative interface — sharing their thoughts and experiences and posting videos explaining the nuances of dance compositions.
Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer and actor Rukmini Vijayakumar’s Instagram account could actually motivate one to watch her live. A combination of several elements, it shows how to make dance work in the digital format. The choice of costume (the traditional dance dress gets a contemporary tweak) and location (the corridors of ancient temples transform into stages) and her lithe body, fluid moves, charming face and perfect camera angles make her Insta feeds as aesthetic as her performances.
“With artistes, learners and enthusiasts sharing the platform, it makes art more accessible, and the approach, uninhibited. It’s heartwarming to see the posts garnering thousands of likes and views. And among my account’s followers are also those who might be watching classical dance for the first time,” says Rukmini, whose Raadha Kalpa Dance Company conducts both personal and online courses.
Besides her training in Bharatanatyam that began at age eight, she studied ballet and modern dance at the Boston Conservatory. Her understanding of the body also comes from her study of anatomy and physiology and practise of yoga.
“Like Graham said, ‘Dance is the song of the body. Either of joy or pain.’ And dancers have to ensure it is the song of joy. Hence they have to develop a special relationship with the body. Listen to it and tend to it,” says Rukmini on why the training at her company focusses on using the body efficiently as a unit.
She sees dancers as artistic athletes for whom conditioning, strengthening and fitness training are important for preventing injury, enhancing performance and increasing longevity of the technique. Modern-day choreography, she feels, expects dancers to have an unfettered outlook and prepare the body and the mind to engage with diverse styles.
“They should be made part of the training. My pedagogy is based on neutrality. A neutral mind allows artistes to lay bare any emotion while a neutral body lets them get into any character. For instance, I could be the sprightly Hanuman in one scene and a coy nayika in another. This is how you explore the full potential of the vocabulary, which includes a wide range of movements and expressions fraught with meaning.”
Rukmini, who has starred in a few Tamil and Kannada films, doesn’t think being 20 days on a film set can take away her 20 years training in Bharatanatyam. “Once the foundation is laid strong, nothing can uproot you. I don’t see anything wrong in doing films while being a dancer. As long as you are able to keep the two separate, without one influencing the other, it’s fine. But you need maturity and expertise to do that. I will definitely not advise a young learner to dabble simultaneously in two forms. When you are being initiated into an art, focus entirely on it. This is what I tell students at my company.”
With her exposure in Western performing arts, is she ever tempted to reinterpret the traditional repertoire for a broader reach? For instance, does she feel the nayaka-nayika portrayals are getting tedious and that dancers should come up with refreshing and relatable themes? “Nayaka-nayika compositions do not depict just the man-woman relationship and worldly love; they are deeper and intense. They are about the atma-paratma link — the search for divinity within oneself,” says Rukmini, pointing out how every time she dances her favourite ashtapadi, ‘Yahi Madhava’, she discovers newer facets in the lyrics.
In one of her recent videos on Instagram, you find Rukmini performing an extract of this Ashtapadi at the Darasuram temple. She beautifully depicts an upset Radha, who is hurt at Krishna’s indiscretions and says, ‘Your heart is darker than your body. How did you think of deceiving me, the one who has surrendered to you?’
Probing the narrative in these songs is an extremely fulfilling and exciting exercise, says Rukmini. “At the end of it, you realise the huge scope for interpretation. We may talk about contemporising the form, but I feel its essence and distinct appeal lie in these traditional works.”
Like most artistes, Rukmini too believes… ‘I dance, therefore I am’. Though she likes to remain cocooned in her own world, especially when choreographing new works, she acknowledges how much her parents have been an integral part of her journey. “Can you imagine, after finishing school they never raised the topic of my going to college. Instead, wanted me to focus on dance. Marriage hasn’t come in the way of my passion either. It is not only about having a spouse who is supportive, it is more about not being demanding and intrusive. Over the years, I have realised that among the many struggles of artistes is the challenge to master their lives as well as their art,” says Rukmini.