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Vimala Sarma: Dancing is a long journey without a destination
- Mallika Jayanti, Newcastle, Australia
e-mail: mallikajobs@yahoo.com

July 4, 2008

(This interview with Vimala Sarma by Mallika Jayanti was first featured in www.carnaticdarbar.com)

Vimala Sarma is a classical Indian dance teacher and performer of the Kuchipudi style of dance, and her company, Nayika Indian Dance, is located in inner city Sydney. Vimala's guru is Satyapriya Ramana who was both a student of, and teacher at, Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam's Kuchipudi Art Academy for many years. The Kuchipudi dances she performs are either choreographed by Vempati Chinna Satyam, or herself. Vimala has also learnt Mohiniattam, a graceful dance style from Kerala. Vimala has performed in the prestigious annual Festivals of Music and Dance in Chennai, and in other South Indian Festivals. She was awarded a Certificate of Excellence, the title "Natyakala Siromani" (crown jewel in the art of dance), and honored by leading Kuchipudi artists, at a felicitation ceremony. Her company also conducts cultural tours to India.

Tell us about your association with Kuchipudi - when and where you started along with your gurus.
I grew up in Malaysia have always liked classical Indian dance. My first teacher was Shanta Dhananjayan, then Shanta Menon (before she was married), and I learnt Bharatanatyam (Kalakshetra style) from her for a short while, when I was in my early teens. Some years later, I won a Colombo Plan scholarship in my final year of school in Kuala Lumpur and went to Adelaide University. After marriage, my husband subsequently gained research position at the Australian National University; I settled in Canberra and joined the Australian Public Service. During that period, I saw a performance by a good Kuchipudi dancer and was attracted to the graceful and fast Kuchipudi style of the eminent Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, so I joined her classes with great enthusiasm. However she soon made it plain that she was not at all interested in either correcting or teaching me, and subsequently left Canberra. I then decided on an approach which, upon reflection, was breathtakingly foolhardy, and tinged with hubris.

Faced with the prospect of not having a teacher, I decided I was going to teach myself. This is not an approach I would suggest to anyone - it is full of dangers and pitfalls, and I probably went through all of them, as I did not come from a family background well versed in music, the Telugu language (we spoke English at home) or in the traditional culture. My approach was to go to India for my one-month annual leave from the Australian Public Service, learn as much as I could, come back and spend the rest of the year practising what I had learnt. Not for me the traditional approach of spending years with adavus, then jathis, and then pieces. There just was not the time in the one month for this. So I just learnt whole pieces at a time - sometimes two or three pieces from Satyapriya Ramana, a student and teacher at the Kuchipudi Arts Academy in Madras, each time I went to India. Satypriya was recommended to me by Guru Vempati. After returning from each trip, I dissected the dance, line by line, and step by step, and worked out the best way to do each movement. In the process, I learnt all the meanings of the words of the songs and expression. Imagine learning about talam without having someone beat out the rhythm, and learning how to use the body to move, working out which muscles to use. Because I learnt everything from first principles for myself, I can now pass all these skills and tips to my students who don't have to learn the hard way.

I am now living in Sydney and more recently, I have been to a couple of other teachers - Kalpalatika, herself an excellent dancer, and Bala Kondala Rao, who has excellent abhinaya, and a beautiful singing voice to boot. I have since also discovered Mohiniattam which I am also learning in the same way.

How different do you think it is to pursue this art form inside and outside India?
It is not difficult if one has the time to practice and a good teacher, but of course I did not, as I have explained previously - so it was a very difficult, lonely and perilous journey with little or no encouragement from the dance world in Australia. However in India I have strong and lasting friendships with other dancers and rasikas. The approach I chose also required a great deal of self-discipline, and looking back at it now, I am amazed that I persevered with it for a number of years, given all the difficulties.

Pursuing the arts inside India has its own difficulties. Unless one is from a relatively well-to-do family, it is difficult to afford the auto fare to and from classes everyday, and classes have to be fitted in outside school hours. Teachers' fees are generally modest but the gurukula system, where one stays with the teacher, is not feasible when there are other demands upon time, and very good teachers may refuse to teach any other way. The teaching method in India is basically a 'see-and-do' method, which involves students watching older students and imitating them. This means that students never get to do something in a new way. Gurus are not usually dancers, and focus mainly on talam. It is difficult to get to performance level in India, not only because of the method of teaching, and the expense of hiring musicians, but also because of the sheer number of other good dancers competing for limited resources. The most annoying thing in India is that nothing seems to be a straightforward business transaction, as in the west, but seems to be based on grace and favour. For example, it is difficult to go to another teacher without giving grave offence to the teacher who has already accepted you.

How difficult do you find explaining to people the difference between Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam as you find not many Indians seem to know the difference?
Yes, people are not even familiar with the word - which sounds like some strange stick dance to Tamil speakers! I must confess I myself don't like the word - it is not euphonic, not easy for a Westerner to remember or say, and it is the name of a village, which conjures up the image of a village dance. However to a Western audience there is no need to make any distinctions. If asked, I simply say it is a classical Indian dance style from Andhra Pradesh. Ideally it would be good to give this style the dignity and classicism of a Sanskrit name, but in the meantime perhaps Andhra Natyam will do.

Kuchipudi always seems to play second-fiddle to Bharatanatyam to the Tamil elite, and the Kalakshetra purists look askance at it, mainly because Kuchipudi also includes less appealing village styles, which suffer from plain bad technique. The main differences between the style of Guru Satyam and Bharatanatyam, (and I am focusing here particularly on the Kalakshetra style), is the use of the chest and back in almost all steps, the pointed toe (suchi pada), turns with jumps, the triple bend (tribhangi), fluidity between one hand gesture and the next, greater range of steps, greater use of neck and eye attami, greater innovation in the use of syllables in voice percussion (sollukattus), and greater coverage of space on the stage by the dancer - all of these elements create vibrancy and visual interest. In pure dance sequences (nritta), the pleasing aesthetics of posture and alignment are seen, as in Bharatanatyam, but the steps are faster, and the combinations more varied.

From my perspective, the relative small number of adavus in the Kalakshetra style invariably becomes evident in a long performance, as it limits the choreography, so that even ardent rasikas find it difficult to sit through a long solo performance of more than two hours. Another irritating thing about Bharatanatyam is the claim often heard in performances that the art is the 'oldest dance form' or that it is 'thousands of years old,' no doubt to lend some sort of canonical status to the dance form, and to establish its superiority over western arts. Considering that all the choreography of the present repertoire has all developed from particular gurus in the last two centuries, this claim is hardly accurate.

Do you go to India often?
I go to Chennai every year in the December season but in the last few years I have also been going to retreat in Kerala. I must say what is lacking in Chennai - and perhaps some entrepreneur will achieve this one day - is a cultural campus in pleasant ambience where visitors can go for few weeks, enjoy good food and accommodation, Carnatic music, dance performances and also delve in the arts with good teachers, all in a pleasant ambience. Such a place exists in Kerala and you only need to book ahead of time and pay once.

In Chennai, the continual hassles of going back and forth to classes and performances in different places, at inconvenient times, arguing with the autowallahs, braving the pollution and the streets, arriving at houses of gurus only to find they are otherwise occupied, waiting for things to happen, wondering where to eat the next meal, while paying all the time for everything, is getting me down, so maybe my trips to Chennai will become less frequent, particularly as I am not keen on learning any new pieces. On recent visits I have focused on performing in India and developing my own choreographic skills.

Do you teach currently?
I do teach but I don't look for students - they tend to find me. I have a few students from different cultural backgrounds, and I teach from a Western perspective using warm-ups and warm downs and specific exercises.

How often do you stage performances? What difficulties do you face?
I stage two or so performances during the year, in inner-city Sydney to a predominantly non-Indian inner city audience. My main difficulties are in the marketing of the shows. It is difficult to be a performer and do all the marketing as well. In the last performance I used a ticketing company and this took some of the work off me. None of the Indian cultural organizations in Sydney are interested in promoting local artists.

One issue I face is that Indian audiences in Sydney, who live in the western suburbs, don't seem to want to come into the inner city because they cannot take the car and park in the city, and need to use public transport. They also do not like paying ticket prices which are comparable to Australian shows, such as plays or Western music concerts.

What other things do you do that help you to be a better dancer?
Pilates is good for building core strength and I do this regularly. I have also learnt some modern dance technique based on the barre work done in ballet, which I found very helpful. Barre works is useful for all dance movement. I now have a routine of exercises which I have developed myself which is especially relevant to classical Indian dance - incorporating elements of barre work, balance, some yoga poses and stretching. I am also learning some Mohiniattam and the plies in that dance form are at different levels and that is a good exercise for all dancers. When practising, I usually work on a piece and then leave it for a while. I find going back to something after a break, helps internalize the piece, making it feel different. I have also started learning Sanskrit at Sydney University and that has opened a whole new avenue of intellectual activity.

What is your opinion about the current classical dance scenario in Sydney and in India?
The classical dance scenario in Sydney is a case of 'every man for himself.' All the dancers are either attached to particular teachers or are on their own - nobody seems to want to collaborate with anybody else. I am not sure why this should be so, as collaboration always brings bigger audiences. For example, I did a collaborative show two years ago with a Japanese koto player, a Gamelan group, and Adrian McNeil playing sitar in different segments of a show call "Moving East," and all our separate audiences came to the show. I have done the "Lotus & Phoenix" shows with Tony Wheeler, an excellent artist who plays string instruments and the clarinet in different styles including Indian raga music.

I suspect the reason the Indian dancers don't work together is the fear of being compared. However if the styles are different there can be no comparison. Also in general, Indians may find it difficult to discipline themselves and subjugate their personalities to a common cause - which any good Western artist does as a matter of professionalism. Their personas seem to get in the way of the performance.

In India, I have found that, in general, artists tend to recognize and respect other good artists. However there is still not much collaborative work or shows considering that Chennai is teeming with good dancers, and egos are everywhere evident.

How difficult do you think it is to manage a career in dance, a regular job and family? What is your suggestion to dancers who want to start a family and still manage a career in dance?
The first premise that is incorrect in your question is the idea that there can be a career in dance. Dance may be a full time pursuit but in no sense is it a career, as it is impossible even for very good artists to earn a living purely from dance. It may supplement other sources of income, and if a show covers all costs including artist fees, one is doing just fine. Of course, fitting a nine-to-five job, family responsibilities and practice into one day is extremely difficult. In Australia where extended family households are rare, and household help unaffordable, such a routine is almost impossible, requiring excellent organizational skills, unless the children are old enough to help. So my suggestion is - go to India if you are able to afford a house and servants!!

Is there anything you want to tell the current young generation of dancers, especially those who are pursuing Kuchipudi?
Find a good teacher and persevere with your practice. Dancing is a long journey without a destination, but it brings its own rewards. It combines physical activity with the use of the mind, music and lyrics. It is not necessary to be either a performer or a teacher; one can get enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment at every level of learning dance. However it is also not something that can be picked up in a year a two, so be prepared for a long journey with personal highs, which more than compensate for the inevitable setbacks and disappointments. The good news is that, like learning an instrument, anyone can do it given enough practice.

What is the difference between a Western audience and an Indian one?
One of the thrills of dancing to an Indian audience of rasikas in India is that there is no need to go into much explanation of mudras, etc, or even of the story being related. The audience relates to the dancer's expression immediately. Hence the facial expression is most important to an Indian audience, closely followed by adherence to talam (timing). Even if the dancer has technical perfection, Indian audiences will not consider her to be a good dancer unless she also engages the audience with her expressions. Hence Swapnasundari draws packed appreciative audiences to her shows, purely through her excellent abhinaya, while sitting down through an entire piece.

For a Western audience, pure movement for its own sake is everything, but it must be executed to perfection. It does not necessarily have to have meaning. So in the beginning I used to do nritta pieces for Western audiences as these were lively and full of action. However investing a bit of time at the beginning of a dance to explain some hand gestures and the meaning of the piece has paid dividends, and Western audiences are very appreciative audiences. There is usually a pin-drop silence and close attention. Abhinaya in Kuchipudi pieces is very natural and transcends cultures.

What do you think of Bollywood, fusion dance and modern dance in Australia
Thanks to the film industry, Bollywood is now part of the party scene in Australia. People often come to me and say "I love Indian culture - can you do Bollywood?" This is bit like saying "I love Western culture - can you do rock?" Bollywood may be a lot of fun to do, but it is not to taken seriously as an art form. It is tacky - like the films it comes from.

Unfortunately, contemporary dance is what all the Australian granting bodies seem to like. There is a tendency to pompously pseudo-intellectualize dance to the point of absurdity. For example, a dancer, much supported by the dance bureaucracy, says in all earnestness about her performance: Dictionary of Atmospheres presents the body as a meandering topography, a roaming through shifts in terrain and flickers of scale. It is a range of perforations, folds, indentations and ridges which sweep and mould and precipitate different senses of domain. She is not the only one, and I don't mean to single her out. There is also an alarming tendency to talk about "the process" afterwards. While this may be of interest to the performers themselves, it is of little interest to the diminishing audience of other artists and their friends who go to the performances.

I think genuine innovation is possible only after one has completely understood and mastered an art form, and should add to, or extend it, in new ways, rather than simplify or diminish it.


Vimala Sarma can be contacted at: vsarma@bigpond.com