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Lokvani Talks To Sridevi Thirumalai

Chitra Parayath

"There is no wisdom, nor knowledge; no art nor craft; no device nor action that is not to be found in natya", Guru Bharata.

Sridevi Thirumalai, dancer, singer, guru embodies the consummate artiste. She strikes a formidable stage presence and with her crisp footwork and striking abhinaya (emotional expressions). She has achieved a high reputation in the dance field amongst her peers and the aficionados. Her performances and productions have commanded both critical and popular acclaim.

Sridevi Thirumalai’s name has come to be synonymous with the South Indian Classical Dance form Bharathanatyam in New England. Trained from a very young age in the this traditional dance style, she has honed her art to perfection, both in her performances and in the craft she passes on to her students. Her style and the one her students exhibit are characterized by an impeccable technique that blends geometrical precision and a seemingly unfettered ease. Her rich and multifaceted dance compositions reflect her rhythmic acumen that combines tradition bound purity and a creative impulse that draws on deep knowledge of the art.

Sridevi Thirumalai believes that training should involve not only teaching of technique but also inculcate other important values of the artistic and spiritual traditions, societal and cultural contexts, discipline and dedication, seriousness of purpose and the pursuit of excellence. Under her direction, her senior students are now preparing to present an evening of Bharathanatyam “Nritya Kalai’ on Sepetember 19, 2004 at the Keefe Tech Auditorium, Framingham, MA. This writer observed a practice session at the Natyamani school of dance, and spoke with the dance guru.

On her initiation to Bharathanatyam

Sridevi Thirumalai: I have to first and foremost, give credit to my mother who decided when I was a very small child to introduce me to this art form. I was in Bangalore and started learning dance from a guru when I was four and a half. He perfected my dance basics, my adavus etc. right from the start. I was petrified of my guru, he was a little strict but that helped me have a regimen of regular practice! Learning of the foundation is very important in dance. I had an Arangetram (Chelangai Pooja) at about 7 years and the performance of pure dance, Nritta, was for two and a half hours!
My guru Padmini Ramachandran groomed me, made me the dancer that I am today; my expertise in Abhinaya followed. I had my official Arangetram with her. Very extensive training, many of my choreographies owe to from what I learnt from her.
Then I moved on to Guru Narmada who is a student of the late Tanjore Kittappa Pillai, descendant of the Tanjore Quartet. I learnt a new repertoire from her. I then did a little bit of training with Guru Radha. I had an insatiable interest in this art form and having Guru Radha as my final mentor strengthened my artistic conventions.

On her experience in dance production

Sridevi Thirumalai : I toured 15 cities US-wide with my production, Siva Sakti, involving 18 artists in 1996. Guru Radha choreographed the production, which was highly acclaimed by critics and the audience. That was a challenge that taught me many of the basic skills in people management that I now possess! An invaluable experience, it also allowed me to realize that this was what I wanted my vocation to be! It was tiring but also one of the greatest experiences of my life. Touring with so many artists also offered me a chance to learn about stage management and production at such a large scale.

In 1992 I established the Natyamani school. The first year of moving here I had many solo performances. I had to acquaint the New England community with the artist in me. In 1998, I started having my students perform arangetrams. I started small and now I have over 70 students. This October I will have my tenth Arangetram as teacher. I have also performed at, and let my students perform at, various fundraisers and charity programs.

This production - Nrityakalai

Sridevi Thirumalai : We have called it Nritya Kalai because this is pure dance. What makes this different is that we have nine dancers performing the dances as opposed to a solo performance like an arangetram. The whole 21/2 hours of dance will have all the nine dancers performing various pieces together. We have covered all the gods and each piece has been choreographed in a unique way with different formations and steps.

The dancers

Sridevi Thirumalai: The dancers have to visualize a perfect performance. When one is doing a solo dance mistakes often go unnoticed. But with nine dancers, co-ordination and synchronization is crucial! The students are very enthusiastic and have given this their all. They have been practicing relentlessly and are excited to be a part of this production.
I had wanted to celebrate the tenth anniversary of my school and this, I thought, was a perfect opportunity. Many of my senior students had completed their Arangetram and were truly mature, talented dancers. This was a chance for them to dance again! I am lucky to have students and parents who are receptive and immensely supportive. We will have musicians from India and our own Tara Anand will be playing the violin.
I hope to have another feature production next year, and this show is a prelude to it.

On Dance and life

Sridevi Thirumalai: Dance is my profession and my passion! It is hard to balance a family life with something that consumes all of your time, but I have managed so far! My thanks go to my parents, especially my mother, who made so many sacrifices for my pursuit of this art form. And I have been so lucky to be married to a supportive person, a patron of the arts, Ajai, who is a computer chip designer. Ajai’s parents live with us so I have support with my little ones: Sudarshan, 6 and one year old Amrita.
I always wanted to celebrate the anniversary of my school. So, I am realizing my dream. I am so looking forward to it !

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Sridevi Thirumalai (top row 4th from L) with the dancers of Nrityakalai

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