“I wanted to give to younger dancers what I believe I didn’t get.”

As a young dancer, I have looked up to Rukmini Vijayakumar for many reasons. All of which deepened my love of Art and specifically the dance form I practice, Bharata Natyam. Her approach and earnest surrender to it, her solid understanding of it and her relentless pursuit to simplify its overwhelming intricacies, are what I thought I could only aspire to. But this exchange with her, amid the tranquillity and tenacity bouncing off the walls of her studio, make me believe otherwise…

“I read a lot.”

It’s the first thing she credits for her ability to provide holistic, consolidated and informative training to her students.

“I study a lot.”

There’s no other easier, swifter, less cumbersome passage to dance theory. You have to, it seems, imbibe literature to dance. To immerse yourself in the depths of it.

She ascribes her learning largely to the Natya Shastra, every dancer and dramaturge’s handbook. Although she did have to study hard to implement concepts she had just about been introduced to by her mentors and Gurus. Often submerged in deep study, she vows that every reading offers a different, evolved and revelatory takeaway.

For someone who cross trains by combining Running, Gymming, Strength Training, Yoga and Pilates even, she admits that although these might set your body up to stay fit and strong, it is the hours of dancing that make all the difference. “Cross training has to complement what you’re doing, ultimately.” She looks for help in areas that may not be her forté. “I speak to people a lot, the ones that know, friends who can help me upgrade…you have to admit to not knowing certain things. There are people that do things better than you, people that know more about how to train different bodies, how to condition them, etc.”

Her training in Ballet and Modern Dance has given her much. Of it, she keeps what she chooses to and what worked for her to facilitate her learning, practice and teaching of Bharata Natyam. Drawing parallels between Araimandis and Pliés, “I could arrive at appropriate theories to turn out from the hips”, she quips.

As dancers, as human beings, we all have lazy, bored, not-feeling-very-energetic-days. To students, to herself, on days like these, she has one, straight, firm retort, “Get up and Dance!”

The beauty, I sense, is in the kids being blissfully unaware of the kind of wholesome, all-inclusive training that they receive – physical, literary, musical and mindful. “They consider it a normal class, with everything packed into it. After all, that’s how it is meant to be! And it shows, eventually. It’s something they realize when they’re older – how comprehensive their training has been.”

You probably won’t find her teaching more than 20 students at a time. She wouldn’t compromise on being individually attentive to every dancer. “I have to feel like I’m being fair to everyone in class”. In the same vein, it’s necessary to be fair to herself – her own time with dance, her own practice. “Teaching needn’t become this tedious process…if I know I’ve had enough time to myself, if I’ve put in my own hours of practice in the morning before the kids come in, I’m okay. Otherwise, it begins to bother me. I’m a performer and a soloist at the end of day. The time I give myself is just as crucial.”

“There are no gifted dancers. It’s all hard work. I say that because I see kids that use their minimal potential to their absolute advantage and I see kids with tremendous potential do absolutely nothing with it. There’s nothing like natural talent. And even if there is, it won’t take you anywhere without the hours and the work. It’s about the inclination.”

Her students are a very committed lot. They wouldn’t be her students unless they were serious enough to attend a set number of classes per week and a variety of them at that. Almost automatically, her batches are small and streamlined with a bunch of focused kids getting all they can out of training. “The numbers stay small because of the demands made on them – time, energy, overall development. And that’s fine!”

Rukmini sees Bharata Natyam flourishing. “I see a lot more young people taking to it and that makes me happy. The way to sustain that trend is to remain approachable to your students. You have to ease them into the discipline and rigour of the dance form. And so they’re accustomed to the times that you’re strict and want them to perform. It’s rewarding for me when they want to be there. And they really do. They work hard. They’re sweating. Their poor faces are red but they often don’t want to go home!”

There are moments of utter and complete exhaustion. She’ll be flying across continents, putting in rehearsals, performing starkly different sets of choreography in different places on different platforms, teaching and managing students – all in tough timeframes. Through one such phase she confesses, “I was lying on stage, thinking I’m going to die, just an hour before the show…but you just got to pull through. As artistes, we don’t control so many things – performance schedules, travel, etc…you have to rest, you have to schedule breaks…”

Rukmini is synonymous with passion. She is self-admittedly an obsessive personality.

“If I’m doing something, I’m all in until I’ve exhausted my system of everything I want to do with it and for it. Reading, research, dancing, creating, whatever it is that I’m doing.”

There’s a message in there for aspiring dancers. “To not simply aspire! But get in and zealously get to it! I’ve often asked aspiring dancers – you want to be a dancer? How many hours of the day are you dancing? 2? 2.5? That’s not enough! You have the whole day! What are you doing with the rest of it?”

“When I was just out of high school and I had all day, I was psychotic! I’d start at 5.30am, go do 2 hours of Yoga, do one Bharata Natyam class, then go to another Bharata Natyam class, then Ballet Class, then I’d go to the gym and I’d come back home and practice everything I’d learnt way into the night! And I’d repeat it again the next day. I really don’t know how my body lasted, without the sleep, without the rest. But I realize now that unless you have the drive to do that, you shouldn’t want to be a dancer. It has to come from within. I’ve tried to instil that in my students, I’ve tried to make them want to do it but unless it comes from them, it won’t happen.”

So when I ask her how she stays motivated, all she says is, “I don’t know any other way…”

Of all the things she could have been, she says, “I am a dancer because of my parents…when I was dabbling with the idea of going to college and studying science, they told me, ‘you know you can also dance’. It wasn’t an easy decision. I was a nerdy kid. But I had the privilege and support to choose what would be closer to me as a person and so I did…and I feel my parents recognized that potential in me long before I did.”

With all the support she had from the family, Rukmini lost her Gurus very young, much too early, much too soon and she didn’t have then what she gives to her students now. It was a long and hard journey in isolation and self-teaching. So, she tries, as best as she can, to really be there for her students, “I wanted to give to younger dancers what I believe I didn’t get.”

One of the things that artistes have to learn to deal with very early on is criticism. Rukmini says, “I’m okay with it now. It was much harder when I was younger. You take criticism more personally when you’re finding your ground. You’re so young and trying to figure things out and when someone says random, mean things about things that make no sense because they actually have nothing worthy to say, it can be disappointing…people will criticize anyway, so you have to decide if something is going to better your Art and help you or they’re just saying it for whatever sake. So it’s taken me a while to decide which to consider and which to not. The ones to consider are the ones that come from the right place. I’m very happy with critique. And I don’t care about criticism…it speaks more about them than me.”


When I take her leave, I don’t actually. Rukmini stays with a girl who wants to dance because you’ve got to find a Rukmini inside you in order to – strong, beautiful, thorough, graceful and giving.




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