The dedication to her art of Bharatanatyam exponent Rukmini Vijayakumar is an inspiration to anyone who desires to reach their highest potential.

Like any professional dancer, Vijayakumar’s training has been intensive since she was a child but the rigorous practice that made her into the inspiring dancer, teacher and artistic leader she is today, continues to define her daily life.

Insights on her life and attitude to dance and life as an artist are expounded in her blog. Her article Practice discusses dedication and is an inspiration to anyone who desires to reach their highest potential.

Vijayakumar differs from many Bharatanatyam dancers in that she was trained both in the US and in India; her training spans the most modern to the most ancient physical disciplines; and in her work, she seems to build a bridge from one to the other. 

After her childhood training in India by no less than three Bharatanatyam gurus, a yoga guru and a ballet teacher, Vijayakumar gained entry to a prestigious performing arts school in the US. According to the dancer, she was the first Indian to train at the Boston Conservatory, the arts wing of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

At the Boston Conservatory, Vijayakumar was taught modern dance and ballet as well as numerous other physical and performance skills. 

Vijayakumar’s style of Bharatanatyam is notable for its balletic character.

This is because it is based on the Karanas – 108 units of dance with a distinctly curvilinear form. They are considered to be the most ancient building blocks of Bharatanatyam, are carved into temple walls, and are described in the millennia old guidebook for the performing arts, the Natya Shastra

There are differing interpretations of the Karanas and a common interpretation is evident in the very popular, stiff, linear vocabulary of movements known as Adavus (pro. adavooz).

It was the influential reconstruction of the Karanas presented in the research of scholar and dance guru Dr Padma Subrahmanyam that Vijayakumar learned, under the tutelage of Subrahmanyam’s senior disciple, Sundari Santhanam. 

Dr Padma Subrahmanyam

Some of the Karanas demonstrated by Vijayakumar in her recent performance in London included a twisting leg movement that begins with a hip being out-turned, followed by the thigh, producing a modern sensual effect that is as elegant as a ripple of water; and a twisting around of both hands to effect a blossoming lotus, not once but several times over as if to create a garland of blossoms in the air.

The performance also incorporated graceful acrobatics. My favourite was a charming pony leap, wherein both legs are drawn up and tightly curled to one side like a snail’s shell.

Vijayakumar does not mix dance forms. She believes that Indian stories are told best with Indian movements, she told one television interviewer.

In the same interview she said while observers often confuse Karanas with the movements of contemporary dance. This is because the Karanas style of Bharatanatyam includes high kicks and jumps, which makes the dance appear balletic. But, “they are not ballet at all. They are Karanas – used in combination with Bharatanatyam”, she said.

Whether due to her own nature or her varied background or both, Vijayakumar exhibits a fiery determination and belief in her work reminiscent of the late great Bharatanatyam exponent Chandralekha.

Chandralekha

The two are similar in their respect for the technical demands of the traditional dance form and in their additional demands for authenticity of their art.

In Chandralekha’s case this involved dispensing with references to God, devotion and spousal stories, and focusing on the body line while performing, as well as body conditioning and martial arts training as essential vehicles of the strength and purity offered by Bharatanatyam. 

A performance choreographed by Chandralekha

Vijayakumar’s own demands include pushing boundaries in “choreography and theatrical context”; and maintaining both the purity of movement natural to the untrained body of a child and imagination. 

This is part II of a three-part series of articles on Rukmini Vijayakumar.