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Mayuri Upadhya: I am passionate about every role of mine
- Vijay Shankar

December 19, 2016

Bangalore based Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer, choreographer and teacher, Mayuri Upadhya has been credited for the dance recreation of K. Asif's classic Hindi film Mughal-e-Azam in the play format. Mayuri has also choreographed the dance sequences for the poetic rendering of Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan's "Madhushala". Mayuri reveals her varied experiences as a dancer, teacher and choreographer and much more

Your initiation into dance.
My Initiation was at the age of 6yrs. It started with Bharatanatyam and followed into martial art, contemporary and movement art like yoga.

Is it of your own choice?
I'm a dancer by choice not by chance.

How did your family react?
They didn't have much of a choice, but I'm blessed with a family that supports me and my work immensely. I hope to make them super proud one day for the amount of time and energy they've invested into my art. I wear my family name 'Upadhya' with pride and that did not change with marriage. My mother always hoped to have a daughter who could dance and so she only had encouragement to offer at every step of success and failure. My father, I remember in his tele-con used to wrongly announce, "My daughters are learning Kathakali' while it was Bharatnatyam we were training in! I used to correct him constantly on that when I was young but today, when he is no more with me, I realize the value of his support.

When did you decide to become a professional dancer?
Dancing is both my profession and identity, thanks to the exposure that television and technology brings in but when I'd just started off, I've had people ask some ridiculous questions like, "You dance, yes, but what do you do for a living?" or "You are a dancer, so you must have a lot of spare time then!" The process of this becoming my profession was very organic. I started my dance company Nritarutya, at the age of 20. I took it up the next day after I completed my college. I still remember putting on a backup and distributing brochures of my dance team at the doorstep of every event company hoping to get some work.

Which form of dance fascinates you the most and why?

Odissi. It is very challenging for the body with its torso work, tribhanga etc but so lyrical and soothing for the eye.

Which role of yours is most important - daughter, dancer, choreographer or teacher?
I remember watching an image of a girl wearing a dress but when you look at it up close, you realize it's Superman's cape. So, my answer to that is... all of it. I'm passionate about every role of mine, they all coexist in me, intertwined, supporting each other.

What is the method of working your choreography and what themes do you select?
No set formula to choreography. Simple instincts, ideas, metaphors, emotional moments are triggers to my process of creation. I go with a very basic direction to experiment at the studio, not clueless but not structured to the T as well. The studio process decides major part of realizing the work. It could be a particular dancer body, the energy/ vibe that day, that moment, music in itself or dynamics between dancers and me that lead to a composition. So major part is instinctive, improvised that organically takes shape into a form. After a few sessions I take over the reins from form to visual aesthetics of the presentation I want in costume, stage design, lights, the message I want the audience to take back with them etc. I dive into a range of themes from mythology to contemporary issues. Process is dictated by the theme.

Your experience on the choreography for 'Madhushala' and what was Amitabh Bachchan's reaction?
Madhushala undoubtedly is a turning point in my career. It was history in making not just for my team but for all artistes from Bangalore and South India. The poem being a classic, the real challenge for me was in being able to work over a production of such magnitude in a short span of time. We had exactly 20 days of work time and I was involved in choreography and different aspects of the production from set designing, costumes, styling the look of the characters to lights etc and that by itself was an enriching experience. I included multiple dance styles bringing together an ensemble of 75 dancers. After that day's show Mr. Bachchan held my hand and said "Babuji ki yaad diladi tumne" I will always treasure that moment.

How would you define contemporary dance and your experience as a contemporary dancer? How would you relate to it as a human being and your obligations towards society?
On one side there exists history of heritage dance forms, crafts and culture, traditional family structure. On the other, technology, urban lifestyles, popular trendy dance styles, globalization. Both time zones co-exist today. They are not at war ends. Both can also meet, influence and nurture each other. It is at this space and zone that my understanding of contemporary Indian dance starts for me. I'm still exploring what becomes contemporary in context of the trajectory of Indian dance forms and not just an adaptation of the west.

My approach to work is not rebellion activist or dark in's more of an observation from where I stand than a conclusion of sorts. My obligation towards society...I think I'm already doing my bit of service courageously, building awareness, without holding artist relief fund in my hand. Art unfortunately in India is a luxury, not a necessity.

What is your view on dance shows on television and why does classical dance always take a back seat unlike the western dances like the Ballroom and Salsa?
Bottom line reality shows are here to stay! Being a judge of a dance show myself, I have seen both pros and cons of such a scenario. X factor, endearing, charming personalities who are also versatile performers usually win reality shows. These competitions test your very spirit more than technique, talent and training levels.

To answer the second part, in my opinion, even though some form of classical dance is taught in every street corner of our country, it still belongs to the class and not the mass. It is highly sophisticated for a common man to absorb versus a tumka step or a salsa. Western forms like ballroom etc are social dances and hence more easily accessible compared to a margam of a classical dance. If our approach to classical presentation can be other words without disrupting the form if the curation is contemporary I feel more and more people will take it up. But in the end there are just two categories irrespective of the form: good and bad dancing!

Your experience on the choreography for Feroz Khan's Mughal-e-Azam, how is it different from the original movie?
Once in a lifetime experience! Feroz Sir is a creative genius and I am truly honored to have had this opportunity for being a part of his stage rendition of Mughal-e-Azam. Choreography dynamics on stage differs vastly from that required in front of a camera. To hold the attention span of the live audience from the frontal view of a proscenium stage without any camera angles, multiple takes, close ups is a huge challenge... one that I'd like to try! When you are dealing with a classic like this you are dealing with sentiments of people. Both Feroz sir and I were very clear that we would like to respect that. So, my exploration came with a defined border: to be as authentic as possible, to approach classical Kathak in a contemporary way and not to mess with the form in itself, fusing it with filmy movements. The work that emerged was also a team effort: My co-creators were associate choreographer Madhuri Upadhya and Kathak expertise by Gauri Diwakar.

My first step was to watch the film once again, this time critically. Then shut it off my mind. Each morning, with my filter coffee in hand, I would listen to the songs and soak it into my system. MS Subbulakshmi songs were replaced by "Pyar kiya to darna kya." It is Mayuri's interpretation of the time and magic of Mughal-e-Azam and not a recreation of the original.

Are you happy as a dancer and your future plans?
I would love to meet an artiste who's happy, content in life and makes great art! As an artiste I'm hungry, ambitious and sky is the limit for my imagination. As a human being, I'm more at peace and accepting of everything life brings my way.

Future plans: Many more choreography, dance education, programs to develop business of dance in India, produce quality dance works of budding artists and to get 8 hours of sleep!

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