Urmila Sathyanarayanan - the name brings to mind the svelte, celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer whose performances have enthralled rasikas the world over for decades. She is being awarded the Natya Kala Sarathy by Parthasarathy Swami Sabha for this season. While congratulating her, I had the opportunity of an interesting conversation with her, and of course, over a cup of hot Madras filter coffee. This is when I saw the other Urmila - the thinker. When I congratulated her, she remarked that the award was special to her because her first performance after her arangetram was at Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. As a little girl, she grew up in Triplicane and both the sabha and the temple are very close to her heart. To a query on how busy she has been, she says that she is just back from two performances of her students today and will have two tomorrow evening, sitting for six sessions of rehearsals in between, tomorrow morning. What keeps Urmila Sathyanarayanan going? It has been 40 years since she first stepped on the stage. Urmila says that it was a long and difficult journey. Like many others, she had to really sweat it out, struggle to get recognition initially. Now, the situation is different. The younger generation is smarter, they are sharp, know the world better and grasp issues very well. She speaks of the need forspacing them so that their confidence does not turn into arrogance.
Urmila admits that parents today are more supportive and tend to spend a lot, sometimes overdoing it. There are a few things in a recital that cannot be compromised with, she says, such as the choice and rendition of repertoire, accompanying artists, quality of acoustics and light, quality of attire and most importantly, the efforts put into preparation. As far as the costs are concerned, it is the same as in learning any special skill such as a sport. It is challenging, tedious and expensive.
When I ask her if for all this, do we see enough results? Are we seeing more people appreciating the art? Urmila has mixed views. Students who learn the art learn it with a lot of interest, but she is unsure if others appreciate it as much.
She feels that the responsibility for taking cultural values of this art form to a wider and deeper segment lies in three sets of people. One, dancers and gurus like her who need to inculcate what they were taught by their gurus without any transition loss to the next generation. Two, the schools. Cultural education must be made mandatory in schools. Art education must be given better importance, making it a serious education and not just co-curricular activity. Three, government has to actively promote these art forms far more than it does now.
For example, there could be employment opportunities with a government-based artist quota, like the sports quota. This will encourage more people to take arts education seriously. Today, only the government of Kerala has such a facility, she points out. Asked whether she saw innovations being welcomed in Bharatanatyam or whether people preferred being traditionalists, she says that this depends on the quality of the presentations. Innovations constantly happen.
New ‘sahityams’ are being written every day but not all get acceptance among rasikas and dancers. But there is always a beauty to traditional renditions.
About the growing number of group performances and productions, she says that a few decades ago, there were hardly any group performances except for Kalakshetra. But today, every other performance is a thematic group performance. It is probably here to stay, she feels, though solos will still be the anchor points.
She signs off saying that she wishes to dedicate the award to her gurus Padmashri K.N. Dandayau thapani Pillai and Kalai mamani. K.J. Sarasa.