A Carnatic varnam plays in the background. Twelve girls dance on the wooden floor of Raadha Kalpa Dance studio in Basavanagudi, Bengaluru. Dressed in handloom sarees with their hair tied up, their expressions, movements, and gaits are in sync.
A divine power seems to possess them and they transform into fierce goddesses, exuding a quiet transcendence. A mesmerising rehearsal, where Natya guru Rukmini Vijayakumar helps the students with abhinaya (expression) and nritta (footwork).
Hundreds of students have been exposed to her teaching methodology through her classes and workshops in the last 13 years. Rukmini’s pursuit of perfection in her students is rooted in
a similar approach to her own art. Those who understand the nuances of Bharatanatyam will agree. Her ability to tell stories using the rhythm in her body leaves viewers spellbound. No wonder her 90-minute Bharatanatyam recital, ‘Ishwara: A Journey to the Self’ in Bengaluru and Chennai in October saw packed auditoriums, as she delved into a journey of human emotion, loss, love and realisation through the divine eyes of Shiva and Parvati.
For Rukmini, perfection in Bharatanatyam is equivalent to chaste classicism. “My dance vocabulary is rooted and traditional. I don’t fuse multiple movements in my performance,” says the exponent, who has trained under award-winning dancers Guru Narmada, GuruPadmini Rao and Guru Sundari Santhanam. Rukmini wears multiple hats––she is a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and actor—but the role she most identifies with is that of a teacher.
Speaking about the Raadha Kalpa Dance Company, founded by Rukmini in 2009, the dancer says, “It was initially intended to be a dance company, but teaching became an organic part of it over the years. In the first four years
I primarily used to work with freelance dancers. The Raadha Kalpa method, the pedagogical system I have worked on over the last 15 years, is what we impart at the institution. It is a product of my quest to learn how to be an aesthetically coherent, physically precise and emotionally whole and communicative artiste. We only teach Bharatanatyam, alongside all appending subjects necessary for a Bharatanatyam dancer.”
Having completed her BFA in Modern Dance and Ballet from the Boston Conservatory, and a course in Fitness Training at UCLA, and Anatomy and Physiology from Boston University, developing intention before movement is at the centre of the natyacharini’s body of work.
“I enjoy all kinds of movement. Modern dance and ballet gave me an approach very different from Bharatanatyam. Growing up, I used to struggle as a dancer with minor injuries. I wanted to understand the workings of my body and become a better dancer,” she says. Among other things, today, she is also known for giving sound advice on flexibility, body dynamics and high-protein salads in the avatar of an informal fitness guru to her seven lakh Instagram followers.
As a choreographer, her dance repertoire includes ensemble productions such as ‘Nayani’, ‘Prabhavati’ and ‘The Dark Lord’, besides solo Bharatanatyam productions such as ‘The Muse’, ‘Unrequited’, ‘Abducted’, ‘Abhimata’, ‘Talattu’ and ‘Krishna’. A recipient of the Jiri Kylian grant for choreography, she was also the resident choreographer at Korzo Theatre in Netherlands (2016).
Rukmini’s compelling live performances, combined with her training in histrionics at the New York Film Academy, Los Angeles, also fetched her roles in mainstream southern films. She worked alongside Rajinikanth in the 2014 Tamil animation film Kochadaiiyaan. She also starred in director Mani Ratnam’s Katruvelidayi in 2017 and many other Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi films. “The uniqueness about acting is that the smallest nuance of expression is captured and magnified in a way that it can reach audiences most organically,” says the Bengaluru-based artiste.
What drives the hard taskmaster? “I envision life content with art. I cherish dance for the beauty it has given me,” says Rukmini, who will next take the stage for ‘The Goddess’, on November 7 in Bengaluru. Indeed, for any artiste, seeking and finding joy through art is all that matters.