Chennai: Urmila Sathyanarayanan surely owns the stage. It is not just her vibrant performances that create awe and wonder among the audience but her perceptions as a teacher and choreographer also reflect her finesse and perfection. As the Margazhi season rings its bells, one can witness the zest and excitement of students of Natya Sankalpaa and their teacher, the best Natyacharya awardee of 2009 (Indian Fine Arts Society) busy in their rehearsals. The meticulous traditional set up, appropriately positioned mirror, wooden floor and the natural surroundings - all seem to team up to give the dancers a healthy, befitting and professional ambience.
Natya Sankalpaa, a premier institute of dance has over 250 students. Music, yoga and nattuvangam stand as auxiliary subjects conducted by expert teachers during the weekends. There are special classes piloted for students who wish to perform their arangetram. “Teaching was more like an attempt initially which started off with A Lakshman, my friend and a Bharatanatyam exponent as well, with a handful of students. It was only in 1996 that I built this institute in the compound of my residence,” Urmila says.
Stepping into the world of dance was decided even before she was born. “My mother loved dance and wanted me to be a dancer even before I was born. I was three when I watched classes at the Saraswathy Gana Nilayam in Triplicane and by the time I was five, my formal training had begun.” Prompt and active as she was, Urmila made it to even the small roles of the deer or little Krishna that, “made me fall in love with the whole phenomenon of movements and of course, the stage,” she says.
To advance her learning, Urmila then joined Padmasri Dandayuthapani Pillai and thereafter Kalaimamani K. J. Sarasa and Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayan. However, it was only after marriage and motherhood that Urmila made a promising comeback by winning the Vasanthalakshmi Narasimhachari award given by the Narada Gana Sabha.
Since then she has performed in all major festivals in India and abroad. “I have had my share of frustration and depression until I realized that in order to be successful in a genre like the performing arts, I need to be known by the organisers and rasikas. In the whole process, my husband has been one of my biggest strengths as he has accepted me and my passion with equal affection,” she reveals.
Urmila finds the dance world today much more competitive and youngsters far more talented than in yesteryears. She opines, “Students are multi-taskers. They strive to maintain a fine balance between their academics, other learning skills, applying for higher education and practice dance.”
A recipient of the Nritya Choodamani (2001), Kalamamani (1997) and several other prestigious awards, Urmila points out the rising interest in Indian students in spirituality and Indian art and culture alongside the fact that many dancers from other countries are enthusiastic about performing in India. “This gives a wider exposure to performers and students. However, it holds true only if a creditable person is promoted. It is the responsibility of the teacher to promote a talented student,” believes Urmila.
Her choreographies like the Vaishnava Bharathi, Apurva Purva, Panchali Shabatham, might be deeply rooted in her traditional grammar but ‘stylisation’ she feels, is one’s own identity.
An open-minded person, she reiterates, “One has to cope with modernity. Most festivals offer a maximum of 40 minutes and sometimes a bare 20, within which one has to make a long-lasting impression. It is almost like a twenty-twenty cricket,” says Urmila, for who dance “is sheer joy - a kind of madness and yet divine.”