Choreographer Rukmini Vijayakumar is making bharatnatyam accessible to all

90-Rukmini Rukmini Vijayakumar | Sunny Jagesar

Sometimes she is swirling underwater like a sea nymph dressed in flowing red. Next, in a sunflower yellow sari, she is precariously perched on the edge of a moving boat. Later, with a big red bindi that makes her look like a temple dancer, she does a classical jig to the current youth anthem, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’. And then, in a kasavu sari, she is dancing on her terrace to Om Shanti Om’s ‘Dhoom Taana’. In her routine, there are meera bhajans, yoga, carnatic songs, and contemporary jazz-like pirouetting on a pavement, if not in a studio.

Bharatnatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar is unafraid to project the oldest classical dance tradition like an artfully arranged latte on Instagram. Vijayakumar combines the light-footedness of a ballerina, the acutely emotive face of a trained actor and the lean, rippling physicality of a gymnast to give this ancient discipline of dance an ogle-worthy update. Her social media followers have only grown, especially since the pandemic struck last year. Equally at ease with western performing arts and traditional Indian dance forms, Vijayakumar’s bharatnatyam style is as fluid and cross-disciplinary as her makeup and attire. Her jewellery is minimalistic yet chunky, her sari drapes ever-changing. More importantly, she has devised a teaching method of her own, called Raadha Kalpa, drawn from strands of her own learning—there is the rigorous training in bharatnatyam, ballet and modern dance from the Boston Conservatory, acting from the New York Film Academy, fitness training from UCLA and a study of anatomy and physiology from the Boston University.

The Raadha Kalpa method is self-coined and self-realised. “I think it is about my spiritual journey in some ways, the perception of ourselves being limited and how one can go beyond it,” says Vijayakumar about her teaching method, which insists on a neutral state of mind and body, a language of movement which helps one grow and diversify without injury. She uses the analogy of sports to articulate it better. “In the traditional method of learning bharatnatyam, we first pick up skills,” she says. “It is like learning how to hit the tennis ball—the skill of making contact without ever training your muscles. But there is a combination of muscular engagement that you need in order to make that contact, right? We need muscle strength and adequate mobility in the joints so that the ball goes over the net with a particular force and a certain trajectory. The most crucial thing about the Raadha Kalpa method is not just to develop muscles, but also to transfer that muscle engagement into practice in bharatnatyam.” She is currently taking two types of virtual classes, a more freewheeling dance and movement class for the uninitiated and a workshop for trained bharatnatyam dancers.

Writer, researcher and cultural critic Veejay Sai points out how, since the lockdown began last year, some of the finest classical dancers—who are normally averse to digital engagement—have adapted to the world online. “Dancers like Rama Vaidyanathan, Parshwanath Upadhye and Meenakshi Srinivasan are doing phenomenal work. Akhila Krishnamurthy’s Aalaap works with the transgender community. Narthaki, the world’s first website on Indian classical dance which started during the dot-com boom in the early 2000s, is still going strong,” says Sai.

With her slickly produced videos, Vijayakumar, 39, is offering a breezy access to the hallowed corridors of bharatnatyam, even though puritans may not like it. Abhishek Mazumdar, an arts professional from Kolkata, has not really followed a classical dancer on social media even though he has had a passing interest in the art form. But he discovered Vijayakumar last year and was mesmerised. “She has broken this bubble of bharatnatyam being a dance form for a particular community, like they have to learn it from a guru or master from a tender age,” says Mazumdar. “She has made it available, I believe, for any girl who is out there. They can wear the clothes that she wears, with or without jewellery or makeup. They don’t need to dress up like a bride. But she urges everyone to dance with whatever they have, expressions being the most important element. She uses that wisely to create a bridge between what is being performed and what the audience wants.”

Vijayakumar has been grappling with the same questions as other artists around the world: How to make their work respond to the fragility and alienation of the moment? “Sometimes I wonder, what am I doing? I am just dancing, and people are dying everywhere,” she says. In the last month, she has found it hard to be fully emotionally present in her practice, which none would have surmised from her impeccable abhinaya. The pandemic has been hard on families, she reminds us. Her father died last year. “But I realise at the end of the day that as art makers, this is all we know how to do,” she says. “So every person just needs to keep doing what they do best. And that is the only way to get past something like this.”