Dance and you have a long story together – when did this journey start?
My mother used to dance, and I used to watch her, sometimes accompanying her to dance classes, standing on the sidelines, very enamoured by the whole thing. I desperately wanted to be a part of this magical world and begged my mother to let me start dancing. When I was five or six, I made my first appearance on stage, dressed in blue, as Dhruva, in a dance ballet choreographed by Guru Padmini Rao. I’m quite certain that my appearance was less than five minutes, but that was where it all began. I began my Bharatanatiyam training under Guru Padmini Rao and later furthered my study with more intensity and rigour studied under Guru Narmada Rao and Guru Sundari Santhanam.
From Bharatanatiyam to Contemporary – what led to this new interest?
Contemporary dance has evolved as an idea for me through the years. When I was younger, it represented a physical vocabulary that challenged my body and the abilities within me. I incessantly watched gymnastics, taught myself to do a headstand, cartwheels, and often found walls and trees to climb. Gymnastics was not an option because of the limited facilities in Bangalore at the time, so to my disappointment I was only allowed a dance class. For many years I was satisfied with the physical challenges that Bharatanatiyam brought me, but in my teenage years I went back to ballet and modern dance, often spending summers in the US, so I could dance. The way I was taught Bharatanatiyam, was very upright, straight and linear and didn’t require physical exploration that led to movement revelations, it only required training that would replicate and execute a developed aesthetic and vocabulary with clarity. There remained a part of me that was still craving physical challenges that Bharatanatiyam was not fulfilling in my teenage years. Over the course of time, I have realised that Bharatanatiyam is the language that I speak in. All the other movement forms I have learned and experienced have helped me satiate a physical thirst that I have, but emotionally and spiritually I connect most with Bharatanatiyam. Slowly the need to challenge my body has changed into a need to create possibilities with my body. Possibilities that serve by Bharatanatiyam practice alongside a creative, explorative practice that stems from the Bharatanatiyam vocabulary. In more recent years, I have begun to create contemporary work, interestingly enough, using my Bharatanatiyam vocabulary. I now think of contemporary dance as a philosophy and approach to the presentation of material, a mindset that makes something contemporary. Contemporary dance does not encompass a specific vocabulary to me anymore. I was gravely mistaken about this when I was younger.
You’ve said in an interview that you find concepts like Advaita in Bharatanatiyam or dance in general – your experience with dance is therefore very metaphysical/spiritual, could you tell us a bit more about this?
To me, philosophically speaking, Advaita or the non-dualistic idea of Sanatana Dharma is the most unifying philosophy that I have come across. I don’t claim to be an expert in philosophy or religion, but from the little that I know, Advaita propagates ideas of unity and oneness and non-discrimination. Everything in the world is divine, including you, me and all of creation. In recent years, I am beginning to understand and assimilate the implications of this idea. I believe one can come to this realisation through any field of work, or artistic practice. It is just that this idea of surrender exists for me in my dance. In Bharatanatiyam, we directly deal with metaphors and archetypes that represent this idea of universal divinity. We can choose to understand and layer our dancing with these ideas or just dance the stories as they are. It is enjoyable for a viewer no matter the choice the dancer makes. I however have realised that I am capable of also learning to be a better person through the process of dancing. Dance has helped me navigate through some of life’s uncertainties and led me to believe that it is about realising that I am no different from anybody else, as there is divinity within everybody. Understanding is one step, but realising and putting into practice the implications of what that means is altogether another thing.
The freedom to be, to explore your own art, the freedom to find your own art – a lot of your journey with your art has been liberating in many ways we assume?
Art has definitely been liberating for me and over the years I have found a freedom within my art, but it’s taken a long time for that to happen. In the structure of a classical form that is bound by rules, it takes a while for it to become second nature to you. Incessant practice allows one to reach a point where one can dance without thinking about the aesthetic physical form, the technique, the musicality, the rhythm. When this happens, one can find freedom in it. When I dance now, I can just be me, without the confines and expectations of ‘Rukmini.’
What does freedom mean to you otherwise?
Freedom for me is connected to the freedom that I experience within my art. The ability to be free from myself, to not be Rukmini or what she stands for and to be able to give myself completely to my dance, to be able to be lost and be free from my own expectations of myself is true freedom.
You have been vocal about your opinions all through your life – from your support to the LGBTQIA+ community to your strong and unique ideas on feminism and the female – where does this stem from?
A lot of what defines me has come from my upbringing. My spiritual Guru has played a huge role in making me an inclusive person. I frequently listened to Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s talks growing up, and he’s played a big role in forming these ideas of non-discrimination within me. My simple rule is that discrimination of any kind should not exist. There can be no bias or differentiation based on any factor. This is difficult again to practice, because although many people may not discriminate in the context of bigger issues like race, caste and gender, almost all of us have a tendency to draw lines based on other things in life. I try to watch myself and be aware of such thoughts. Art helps me bring such issues to the forefront for myself first and then others.
What are the causes you hold closest to your heart?
Abuse makes me ache the most. Especially abuse towards children. To me children are purity incarnate and when I see children being abused, it breaks my heart. Although I engage and ensure this doesn’t happen to the children I interact with, I would like to do something about it within the larger community eventually.
Acting is something you’ve excelled in – but you seem to have taken a break? When can fans see you next on the big screen?
I absolutely love acting. I love when I can play a character and embody another being. I haven’t taken a break. I’ve just been really consumed by dance, recently. I am working on a Kannada film that will hopefully be released after this pandemic.
If Rukmini wasn’t a dancer or an actor – what else would you have pursued?
At this point in life, if I wasn’t a dancer or actor, I can’t imagine what I would have been. Perhaps an architect or maybe a physiotherapist? Choreographer, scenographer, costume designer… could also be options.
Any advice to upcoming artistes who are trying to create a niche space for themselves?
Stay focused on your dance. We are so bogged down by putting ourselves out there, that we lose focus on our art. Dance is still the primary focus of my life, everything else; including performances – are all a product of that focus.