A dance through the decades

As Uma Murali completes fifty years as a dancer, she recalls her young days and how she found her calling in Kuchipudi
​  Uma Murali  ​
​ Uma Murali ​

CHENNAI:  Uma Murali was just four-and-a-half years old when she saw her first Bharatanatyam dance programme at Music Academy. Entranced by the abhinaya of the dancer, Uma quickly realised that it was her favourite part of dancing. Soon, she began her journey as a dancer under the tutelage of Padmashri recipient KN Dandayudhapani Pillai. After five decades of mesmerising audiences, the Kuchipudi dancer will celebrate fifty years as a dancer on June 24.

From Bharatanatyam to Kuchipudi
Holding on to a craft for decades is no mean feat. A strict regimen of dance classes when she was young, can be attributed as the secret to her success. “The classes went on for many years where I was only doing what I was told to do. My master taught me how a child is supposed to be taught,” she shares. After his demise, she re-initiated her learning with Adyar Lakshman, who taught her in the Kalakshetra style.

While she did enjoy dancing, as a child, Uma could not understand why she was subjected to such discipline and often threw tantrums. “It was only when I started maturing that I realised that there were no two ways about the effort, pain and the hardships that went into dancing before finally unravelling the euphoria that accompanies me every time I’m on stage. And my mother and my masters were patient enough with me to let me mature and find the inner peace and divinity that the dance form held for me,” says Uma. 

Initially trained in Bharatanatyam, Uma had already performed on stage a few times before she began learning Kuchipudi. With its graceful movements, Kuchipudi always held a place of allure to her. With Kalakshetra’s style of Bharatanatyam, the dance moves are often straight and geometrical, and Uma’s graceful poise made it difficult to adhere to the nuances that this school of dance had. “When I saw a performance in Kuchipudi, conducted by Guru Vempati Chinna Sathyam garu, I was floored. Completely mesmerised, I immediately went up to him and asked him to teach me and fortunately for me, he agreed. I never planned it this way,” says the Kalaimamani recipient.

At one point, Uma was dancing both dance forms simultaneously. But she realised that continuing to dance Bharatanatyam while learning Kuchipudi could prevent her from fully dedicating herself to the latter. The Kuchipudi grace and nuances required her to let go of straight line-like movements that she had learnt from Kalakshetra. “It was extremely difficult for me to transition from one dance to another. But with a lot of effort and hardwork, I had finally imbibed that distinctive flair and flavour that Kuchipudi had,” she says. With her ‘Rangaprevesam’ in 1991, she left the audience agape with her prowess in Kuchipudi. No one could believe that a Bharatanatyam dancer could do Kuchipudi so well!

A relation with stage
From the costumes and the make-up, to the way they sit in aramandi and muzhumandi, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam may seem similar to an untrained eye. But they couldn’t be more different. “The similarities stop there. While I can speak only for the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam and my style of Kuchipudi, there are key differences in the way the body moves. The movements on the toes and heels are not found in the Kalakshetra style, and the poses and the posture of the body also vastly differ,” she explains. While Bharatanatyam is more of an individual repertoire, Kuchipudi is a drama tradition. 

Over the years, Uma’s relationship with the stage has gone through many changes. With her arangetram in 1973, the journey that she has taken, one of dancing for fifty years on stage, has been a magical one. “Given the fact that it has actually been fifty years, I think that it is a joy to be celebrating my journey on the stage. More than half my life has been dedicated to this craft, and one requires significant mental and physical strength to continue even after so long,” she says. 

A piece of advice that she gives to young dancers is to be ready to perform at any time. And in order to do so, one must diligently practise, regardless of whether their guru is present or not.  Uma Murali’s performance will be Narada Gana Sabha at 5  pm. It is preceded by a Kuchipudi convention at Krishna Gana Sabha from 10 am to 12.30 pm on June 24.

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The New Indian Express