Hailing from the small village of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India is a unique Indian classical dance form called Kuchipudi. Historically this artform was very male dominated, mainly performed by Brahmin boys traversing through neighbouring settlements to spread moral principles among the public.
The extravagant operatic style of Kuchipudi – singing, dancing, acting incorporate some of the techniques like aramandi (half sitting posture), sharp mudras (hand gestures) and bhava (facial expression) and vachika (art of singing while dancing). The athletic movements are combined with grace to produce nritta (pure bodily movements), nritya (interpretative dance) and natya (drama).
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The wide-reaching power of Indian classical dances connected the little Delhi-girl Arunima Kumar aged seven to Andhra’s Kuchipudi. Her mother’s admiration for this particular craft initiated her training.
Although she attempted Kathak, the vibrant and playful elements with lilting yet fast steps and dance theatre attracted Arunima towards Kuchipudi. “As a young child, I fell in love with the form. That’s all I knew really. I think you can melt into other forms, but your technique and identity remain with that one particular form.”
Fortunate to be taught by legendary dancers like Guru Swapna Sundari, Guru Jayarama Rao and Vanashree Rao, Arunima’s immersive learning journey consisted of hours of practice to perfection, learning mythological stories, music and talaam (rhythm).
The special bond that she shares with her gurus till date is part of the beautiful guru-shishya tradition of sharing and giving. She reveals, “I even learnt to make coffee from my guruji.”
“Whereas now the modes of training are very different. Children have one hour to learn. it’s very time specific and it’s very hard to give and fit all of it in one hour,” she explains.
While performing a vigorous piece with her guruji, Arunima suffered from a knee ligament injury. This accident shook her as a 15-year-old: “I felt like my world was falling apart.” She overcame this hurdle and pushed herself to where she is the most honest and happiest, towards dance.
Indian dances and music encircle inner self and mature emotions that are mastered progressively. “When I was younger, I never understood viraha (feeling of separation from loved one) because I wasn’t in that frame of mind.” Arunima stayed away from performing pieces from the Gita Govinda like Krishna Radhika, Tava Virahe which necessitates the absolute demonstration of longing and love. “It’s not going to be a full justice to the piece if you are not believing in it.”
At Buckingham Palace in London, Arunima and her team made the stairs in the audience come alive with their historic spectacle. “I have a fear of stairs. To mentally prepare, I would climb my building stairs every day.”
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After having pursued her Masters in Accounting and Finance from LSE, Arunima worked in the corporate sector with big giants like Accenture and AT Kearney. Having felt disconnected from her art, she decided to go on sabbatical which was followed by the launch of the Arunima Kumar Dance Company that endeavours to create a buzz for Kuchipudi in the UK. “I started my dance school to build a base for Kuchipudi so the next dancer who comes doesn’t face any questions.”
Setting her sail in London was indeed challenging irrespective of being an awardee of the Ustaad Bismillah Khan Puruskar and having performed across almost 35 countries through ICCR. She had to go through multiple auditions and build her own identity. “I was disillusioned because no one was responding.”
She worked the hardest at her first performance in Britain which could either make or break her. “It was a new beginning for me and it could have been the end. Those 10 minutes were important.”
The appreciation received for classical Indian dances globally has been diversifying the audience as well as the learners. Arunima began her teaching phase with an Italian student and a few Brazilian girls through skype and has gone on to having a whole centre in Poland. “I’m grateful to them that I learnt to teach online.”
She has been still leveraging the skills of project and people management, business networking and business development at her own dance company to set goals for herself and her students. From Westminster Abbey to Southbank Centre, she has a wide portfolio of projects aligned for her team and students.
Following her motto of “each performance should lead to another performance”, ever since her start, Arunima has wanted to convert a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ to open the doors for other dancers. She has been devotedly propagating the advocacy for diversity and inclusion of South Asian arts in the British mainstream.
Kuchipudi was widely popularised during the bhakti movement thereby holding a lot of original pieces on the Vaishnavite philosophy about Lord Krishna. Krishna Shabdam portrays an innocent nayka (woman) who is trying to lure the attention of Krishna addressing Kuchipudi’s main theme of the union between mortal and immortal or the physical and spiritual world. Arunima enjoys the innocence in the romanticism when “the nayka simply offers flowers from the forest or sandalwood” to exhibit her love.
The most iconic piece Bhama Kalapam written by Siddhendra Yogi is a contemporary story of the arrogant princess Satyabhama, the third wife of Krishna, who overpowers her ego only to unite with her lover. Arunima staged this piece with Ash Mukherjee, a well-known Bharatanatyam dancer who played the character of Satyabhama as a revival of stree vesham, a prominent aspect of Kuchipudi wherein male dancers coyly impersonate women in their dramatic acts.
The Shiva Tarangam evokes the power of Shiva while performing on the edges of a brass plate. Arunima is touched by the Shaivite ideals about the circle of life and transformation. She compares the endless sacrifices made to achieve certain goals to dancing on a plate: “You fall so many times; it cuts your feet but in the end, you are able to do all the rhythmic patterns effortlessly.”
While practising to perfection, she illustrates: “It’s not for entertainment. It’s about the turmoil in life that you overcome and how you are progressing despite all this. When you achieve the full concentration, you forget that you were dancing on a plate.”
Her composition Bandini is based on stories written by women in Tihar jail. While running dance therapy sessions for prison inmates, she was instantly provoked by the horrific cases of domestic violence and rape. With dramateur Shobana Jayasingh, a Japanese drummer and a contemporary dancer, together they enacted these real-life incidences.
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The pandemic has been the worst nightmare for performing artists, yet it unlocked small possibilities. By switching to Zoom calls, Arunima could sustain her teaching and connect with enthusiasts from remote areas in India. One of the beautiful moments was when they worked online with care homes to give them an hour of joy and relief in the utter chaos.
“Art for All” was a wellbeing project curated to work with specially-abled individuals and children with learning disability because dance has no boundaries. Additionally, Arunima partnered with travel companies to do immersive experiences in Indian dance.
Her virtual festival named Katha (story), in partnership with Folklogue and with the support of the Arts Council Emergency Fund, nurtured the tender attachment between her students in the UK and their grandparents back at home in India. Bringing alive old folk tales, the families creatively engaged together on their screens.
Like all artists, Arunima misses the surreal energy that connects the performer with the crowds in the dark space. “When you dance to a screen, you are dancing to yourself.”
The arts might not be the number one career choice but it instills in you the ability to recreate, innovate and share. Arunima calls it the only place where you will find and lose yourself.
She encourages youngsters to experience this journey that will teach you important life skills. “If you learn Kuchipudi, it opens and centres your mind. You learn the art of drama, storytelling and singing.”
She adds: “I would love to have more boys. This art originates from men dancing, somehow we are losing that tradition.
“Never leave your art because your art is going to be your best friend.”