Tara Rajkumar celebrates 30 years of living and dancing in Australia with a four-hour performance of Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam, Kathak and contemporary fusion dance
Colourful costumes, bright makeup and a dramatic story told through a thousand precise hand gestures, raised eyebrows and twists of the feet.
Seeing this one would be forgiven for thinking they were in a village in Kerala watching a classical Indian dance-drama stretch into the wee hours. Not as it happened to be, in the theatre at Doncaster Secondary College, east of Melbourne.
The four-hour performance of Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam, Kathak and contemporary fusion dance on 26 July—Natyarchana 2014—was produced by internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer Tara Rajkumar—who was celebrating her 30th anniversary of living in Australia.
Rajkumar was born in India and started learning Kathakali—a classical Indian dance that originated in Kerala—at the age of four.
“As a four-and-a-half-year-old my parents took me to dance performances and I used to really be standing up on the chair and dancing, making clear that I was interested,” Rajkumar said. “By the time I was eight or nine, I’d started performing on stage. It becomes a part of your life—dance has been a part of my life all through.”
Rajkumar was still in school when she started dancing for dignitaries. She was the first to perform Mary Magdalene in Kathakali, taking to the stage in the Viceroy’s Church in Delhi in front of then President Dr S Radhakrishnan
Û In the early 80s, Rajkumar moved to London for her husband’s work. As she settled into her new city she noticed that nobody knew about her beloved dance form; there was no recognition of Indian classical arts, no dance schools, or performances. So she set about changing things.
In 1979, Rajkumar received seed funding from the British government to set up the National Academy of Indian Dance in London—which is still going strong today, renamed as the South Asian Dance Academy. “It was tabled in the parliament that the first academy of Indian dance had been established in Britain, in London. It was a big event. I didn’t realise it was a big event but I was passionate that the classical arts of India should be taught on the highest levels and when I was there in Britain I realised that there was no institution that really taught properly and there was no recognition for the classical arts or the artists,” she said.
Rajkumar made a big impression on London; embraced by arts aficionados, dance lovers and aristocracy, her performances attracted the who’s who of British society. In the early 80s, she took to the stage in front of Prince Charles. “Prince Charles had got engaged to Diana at that time. It was absolutely great because it was a time when the Indian classical arts were being recognised for the first time in London. And that’s how I was in the forefront of this recognition for the revived classical arts of India,” she said.
Rajkumar got her first taste of Australia on a dance production tour in 1982.
Initially, she had doubts about venturing Down Under. “I was rather apprehensive because when we were planning to come to Australia the people in London kind of looked and me and said ‘Why are you going to Australia? You have your academy here.’ And they were indicating that there’s not much culture in Australia and it’s all sports.
“(But) the tour was a real success and the response was so good and I went back and said, ‘Hey Australia’s not too bad and then came back to live here in ‘83’.”
Rajkumar settled in Melbourne, to the delight of the Australian Arts Council. “I was very warmly welcomed by the Council. I was given funds to develop productions practically every year,” she said.
The Australian Arts Council eventually made Rajkumar a choreographic fellow. “I think I was one of the first non-mainstream dance people to get a choreographic fellowship. And with that I worked at Monash University to develop the choreographic process—the contemporary choreographic process.” Rajkumar developed an undergraduate dance course for Monash University and choreographed a major production based on the life of Australian ballet dancer Louise Lightfoot. “There was trunk loads of material that had been bequeathed to the department of music (that previously belonged to Lightfoot). Based on the information I gathered from the relics and whatever she’d left I developed a production called Temple Dreaming,” she said.
Temple Dreaming received worldwide praise and Rajkumar was invited to tour the production in India in honour of the jubilee celebration of Indian Independence.
Throughout her career, Rajkumar has received countless awards and acknowledgments for her contribution to the arts. In 2001, she was included in the inaugural Victorian Honour Roll of Women Shaping the Nation. She picked up a Victorian Volunteer Award in 2006 and won the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia in 2009.
Today, Rajkumar shows no signs of slowing down. She choreographs numerous productions each year, including annual performances for Federation Square’s Lights in Winter festival; runs dance classes at her Natya Sudha Dance Company and even teaches dance at a private school in Melbourne.“ I’ve made the whole school do Ramayana… but I’ve also been able to make the boys do Star Wars or Hobbit, sections of that, with an Indian theatre base.”
She said that throughout her life she’s always tried to create a platform for classical Indian dance in ever country she has lived in. She means constantly thinking creatively, innovating and splicing cultures, classic and contemporary styles to capture new audiences. “If you take an art form and just practise it the way you learnt then it gets stale… if it has to flourish, then you have to think in terms of the country that you live in,” she said.
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