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Rumya Natraj: Movements is life and life is a dance
- Vijay Shanker

October 9, 2019

A professional clinical psychologist and an accomplished Bharatanatyam exponent, Rumya Natraj narrates her varied experiences as a teacher and performer and as a human being how one can make life beautiful with happiness and joy by sharing it with everyone through the medium of Indian classical dance and movement therapy.

Do you come from a dance background or is it a personal choice?
Of course, it is a personal choice. There is nobody in my family who is a professional classical dancer. I believe that I inherited this talent from my mother, who could have been a very talented dancer considering her natural attraction towards this art. However, in those days, she was not allowed to obtain technical training in the art. She used to choreograph by herself and perform whenever and wherever she got the opportunity, for instance in her school functions. When I was around 2 years old, she noticed the natural talent in me for dance from the way my body moved and flowed into unstructured movements as soon as I heard music. That's when she realised that I might have the interest as well to pursue this art and in due course she enrolled me in a class. I was never forced into anything. My mother made sure that I got exposure to most of the opportunities that came my way, so that I could choose whichever I wanted to continue with in future.

Family support...
I've always considered myself the luckiest with regard to my family of birth as well as the family I'm married into. It's not just with regard to encouragement, but also timely presence when I need them, as well as financial support. Not just the adults, but also the children in my family - my nephew, nieces and daughter - are immense supporters of my art. Each of them is also an artiste in their own way. So what more could I ask for?

When did you decide to become a professional dancer?
To be frank, I never decided. I just stepped into this vast ocean of Bharatanatyam and the currents kept pulling me deeper. All I knew was that I enjoyed what I was doing. My mind never dragged my body to dance class. My mind and body simultaneously agreed to go. Most of my decisions are based on the voice that comes from my mind. I feel sometimes, we should not let the brain interfere. It only leads to confusion.

I just continued moving with the flow. When I was in my tenth standard in school, my mother suggested that I start teaching Bharatanatyam to a few children for free. She felt teaching would help me improve further as a performer from the aspect of self-development in the art. According to her, a teacher at times, learns more from his/her students as compared to what the students learn from them. It's always a two-way system. This turned out to be true, which even to this date, I experience after each class.

What fascinates you most about Bharatanatyam?
Bharatanatyam or dance in general is a very intricate part of my existence. When a body is moving to the techniques and tunes of an art for decades, that movement becomes food for that body. So, for whatever reason, if this body for a period is denied this food, it starts reacting; it'll feel weak and frail. This is exactly what Bharatanatyam does to me. But it is also a lie if I tell you that I will die even if I don't dance for a day. Nobody can die if they've not eaten for a day. But yes, they will feel the weakness. Similarly, when I do not practice my dance for a day, my body reacts in a weak tone. As you can see, there is no one thing that fascinates me about Bharatanatyam. I see it as a whole experience - a complete nourishment for the mind and body.

Experience with your mentors...
My journey began at the age of 3, when Guru Jayashree Nair took me under her wing and taught me the very first movements of Bharatanatyam. I trained further under gurus M.N. Suvarna, Venugopal Pillai and C.S. Kunjitham, who took me on to my arangetram in 1989. Later, I joined Guru Saroja Srinath and Siri Rama, as part of a series of dance drama shows they were to perform in different places in India. After the show, I decided to pursue my further training under them and to my luck, they gladly welcomed me into the institution. Dr. Siri Rama provided me with performance opportunities as a solo artiste as well as lead roles in her dance drama productions. Slowly and steadily I began gaining confidence as a performing artiste.

The thirst for learning further intricacies of Bharatanatyam with regard to theory and practical, lingered on in my mind and I pursued a Masters degree in Bharatanatyam from Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya. This was the best that I believe has happened to me in the field of classical dance. Here, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by some of the best gurus in the field. Those two years at Nalanda, however stressful they were, paid off well and my learnings from this Masters program continue to guide me till date in my work. My journey as a researcher and performer continues under eminent gurus like Dr. Malati Agneswaran and Dr. Meenakshi Iyer Gangopadhyay.

Your early performance experiences...
Under the mentorship of Dr. Siri Rama and Guru Saroja Srinath, I bagged opportunities to perform in several States within India and countries outside India like Singapore and Hong Kong. In addition, I had the opportunity of performing several times in the Sultanate of Oman. As part of this troupe, I also got to be part of the Natyanjali festival performances in Tamilnadu. Before joining Dr.Siri Rama, my earlier gurus encouraged and trained me to participate in several classical dance competitions within Mumbai. This, including my Arangetram, made a great difference to my later performances.

How did you balance your education with dance?
We often feel that we, as an individual, decide whether or not to choose a particular art. But in my personal view, it's always a mutual partnership between the artiste and the art. As much as the artiste decides to pursue an art, the art also chooses whether this artiste is capable of learning and pursuing that art. It is therefore a mutual life contract between the art and the artiste.

All my course decisions were taken with only one goal in mind - the course must give me time for my dance. In college, I decided to go in for the Arts stream in spite of being offered a seat in the Science stream, the only reason being, I needed time to pursue dance. As time went by, I felt I should offer a little something extra to the field, so I registered for a Masters in Clinical Psychology after my graduation, in order to combine my equal interests in the fields of psychology and classical dance. This led me to pursue my Masters through research in Dance Movement Therapy (DMT). My journey into the field of DMT thus began.

Since there were no university courses in DMT available in India, I continued my learning and development in the field of DMT through my mentor Sohini Chakraborty, founder of Kolkata Sanved. As a freelance practitioner, I gained experience as a DMT facilitator working with various groups across Mumbai including special children groups, the paraplegic foundation, senior citizens groups, rescued girls, school and college students, and so on. Having a classical dance base, I was asked to annually conduct a 10-hour module in 'the anatomical and physiological working of the human body, in connection to dance', as part of the later introduced Diploma program in Dance Movement Therapy at Tata Institute for Social Sciences, Deonar, Mumbai. As part of pursuing this course as a student cum faculty member, I had the opportunity to facilitate DMT with groups such as children diagnosed with cancer, adults diagnosed with mental disturbances attending a day-care for special adults and a few more different groups. I also had the opportunity to work at a Government run home for the differentially abled adults. To add to these was the experience of using DMT in the corporate sector and the working and non-working staff of various organisations.

Some memorable moments in your life...
This is a very tough question to answer, as I have several pleasantly memorable moments from my personal as well as my professional life. However, my final practical exam at Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya a few years back has remained in my memory forever. I remember feeling equally nervous like most of my classmates and my turn was the last that day in the order of students to be called inside the hall for performance. I remember reaching college by 10am. We were asked to wait in the library until we were called. I was called in at 5.30pm. The entire day I have unknowingly revised all of the 11 items in the portion again and again.

Being in the library, I took the opportunity to go through some of the theory notes on abhinaya, especially from the book 'Bhaava Niroopanna' written by Dr. Kanak Rele. I thought, in addition to my practical training, it is the theoretical knowledge that will help me perform better in the practical exams. It so happened that my assumptions were true. After my performance in the exam, I received the most positive compliment from Dr. Kanak Rele and the entire team of gurus and musicians present in the room. As a student and performing artiste, I couldn't ask for more. I cannot express the joy and sense of fulfilment I felt that day. Most of all, I had done justice to the art and to the teachings of all my gurus.

Your relationship with your students...
I'm most relaxed and happiest when I'm conducting dance classes. I have students in the age range of 5 to 46 years and every class is a new experience for me. There is always something new to learn from them. From my teaching experience, I realized that students put in their best efforts in learning an art when they enjoy it. It is the duty of the teacher to inculcate this love and enjoyment for the art in the students. A teacher needn't always be strict and induce fear in those little minds. Teaching can happen even in a friendly manner. Treat the child as a child first and then as a student.

Learning and maintaining interest in a classical art is very tough. We, as teachers should help the students to further develop that spark of interest. The day I realized this, I began to combine techniques from my Dance Movement Therapy into the conventional teaching techniques of classical dance. And believe it or not, it works wonders. Seeing my students entering my class with a smile and a 'ready-to-explore the art attitude' is what makes me the most happy.

What disturbs you?
Whatever knowledge we think we own today, has been given to us by our elders and our gurus. And whatever knowledge they possess has in turn been given to them by their elders and gurus. All knowledge that is available to us today has its roots in somebody's hard work; the results of someone's thoughts and ideas put into works of great value. This means that knowledge has been shared for generations and has come to us today, and is meant to reach out to future generations through us. This means, we, as an individual did not create it. We are only the preservers of this knowledge and art. So there should be no place for ego in this.

Future plans and aspirations...
I do not know what the future holds for me, but I plan to delve deep into the nuances of Bharatanatyam movements and its therapeutic value. What we call 'abhinaya' are not just expressions on the surface of the facial features; it has its roots deep within ourselves and has to travel all the way till it shows on the surface, i.e. our face and body. I intend exploring these intricacies of the art.

Lastly, Bharatanatyam is for all, not just the able bodied. It is meant even for those who are born with a physical impairment; it's also for those who do not possess a strong emotional balance within themselves; it is for everyone and I am working towards taking this art to the large variety of people out there.

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