Interview of Ms Selvy Radhakrishnan and Ms Nagaletchimi Balasupramaniam
By Aayushi Mehrish
Early dancing years
Starting her dance training at the age of 5, Ms. Selvy was introduced to dancing with a lot of encouragement by her elder sister, Ms. Rajeswari. Ms. Selvy says, “My first guru was Smt. Devi Maniam. After training under with her for a few years and another teacher named Raju, I stopped dancing for a long time. I used to do a couple of performances and then later came to Mami. I just had a basic knowledge of the art form until I started training under Mami, which started in 1985”. Ms. Selvy also mentioned how her cousin sisters, popularly known as Kesawan sisters (Jeyathi and Sugathi) encouraged her to perform until she joined the Singapore Dance company in 1978 under Madhavi Krishnan. But soon after, a few months later she left when she got married.
On the other hand, Ms. Nagaletchimi (Ms. Naga), started dancing at the age of 5 because of her aunt (father’s sister) who nurtured a dream of seeing Ms. Naga as a dancer, when she grew up. She mentioned how it was difficult in the tester years to pursue a profession in dance as women were restricted from performing at public venues. She says, “My father always stopped his sisters to go and dance, but when I was born, my aunts were determined to make me a dancer and grow up to pursue what I really wanted to do.” She mentioned how she later joined Mami in Kallang CC in 1986 where she found her long lost friend, Ms. Vijaya Nadesan (currently Principal of Apsaras Arts) who was her classmate in the preschool years of training under Guru Muthulakshmi (who had relocated out of Singapore).
Journey as Students of Smt. Neila Sathyalingam
Selvy started her training under Neila Mami in 1985, after the birth of her second daughter in 1983 at the People’s Association (PA), Singapore whereas Ms. Naga joined Neila Mami for Bharatanatyam classes at Kallang CC in 1986 and subsequently at People’s Association in 1988.
"I knew Mami as I used to invite her to judge for school arts events. I never knew that one day I would be a part of this company and Mami will be my guru,” says Selvy, remembering her evolving relationship with Mami. Soon after her calibre was recognized and she along with Naga were asked to be part of most productions – folk, contemporary and semi classical performances through PA and Bharatanatyam performances through Apsaras Arts.
With extensive dance training and rigorous disciplined practices, both Selvy and Naga grew up to be senior dancers of the company. Soon Selvy started leading the PA group and Naga assisted her after her Arangetram in 1999, soon after which she started a class with 15 students in Kallang CC.
Subsequently, known to many as Mami’s ‘leading hands’ backstage, they were trained to tie costumes, do makeup and prepare complex hair styles for all kinds of productions. “We both became coordinators with Mami. It became easy for her to handle all these things once we came on board to manage and she knew how our working style was. There was an interesting relationship between us and our guru. We never argued with her on anything and even if we did have a difference of opinion to do things differently, we would never go against her will.” Naga explained when asked about her relationship with their Guru and mentor, Smt. Neila Sathyalingam.
Role as All rounders
"We had the time. We were teaching part time in schools. So, we had a lot of time to spend with Mami.” Says Ms. Selvy who mentioned how Mami depended a lot on the duo because other dancers were mostly working and couldn’t commit. “I also got married and had a knee problem” mentioned Ms. Naga, adding to fact that they were the only ones who were available all the time which eventually built a strong bond.
Later, in Apsaras, Mami started having a group called “Little Angels”. So Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga, travelled with this group of Little Angels. “We had a lot of shows in different countries like Turkey etc. where we were handling all their costumes, makeup, hair do, taking care of the children, their accommodation, food etc.” says Ms. Selvy reflecting on memories with Mami to make sure that everything would be handled carefully.
Mami eventually gave Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga major responsibilities when she couldn’t physically handle the pressure. During that time, the number of shows were increased to 25-30 a month and sometimes even 40, leading them to arrange everything while Mami would supervise as she knew what best could be used for what productions. “Even when she is not around, her training and blessings remain with us, and we are still here to do everything we can.” Says Ms. Selvy while reflecting back to the golden times she spent with her loving Guru.
Much do we know about their chemistry, Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga developed a relationship which stands to remain unbreakable solely because of the path they were made to pursue. A path led by their Guru. “Our working style as a two-people team involved a lot of planning and precision. Even though Selvy aka is my senior, we never had this conflict of interest and would agree to each other's thoughts and ideas to workout things in the best way. An understanding bond is what we developed over these years. This bond has helped us come so far where people can rely on us for all wardrobe related matters.” Ms. Naga explained when asked about brief insights with her memories with senior dancer Ms. Selvy. ‘With having both of you around, I can breathe.’ Said Mami as mentioned both by Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga.
All this while, the duo explained their heart touching moments when they realised their guru was watching them. Ms Naga says, “By the end, she was in tears and said what would she do If weren't here.” This coming from their Guru and mentor is the biggest gift one can receive. Slowly they realised that we should stop dancing, majorly because of the coordination. They started understanding their seriousness towards this role and concentrating on both dance and logistics offstage, was becoming difficult. “We had to sacrifice one, and we chose that to be dance, only because we knew we were needed. But there were instances where we would help everyone get dressed up, dress ourselves and get on stage. But yes, things became difficult to handle, hence we took a call and concentrated on costume, makeup and hair do.” mentioned Ms. Naga. Adhering to the teachings of their Guru and her commands, the duo stood strong as senior dancers whenever Mami wanted us to dance. “You are dancing.” Mami would say as recalled by the wardrobe managers. Before she passed away, Mami recognized and talked much about this team of two women who have sacrificed and contributed so much for the company.
Evolving role from Dancers to Wardrobe Managers
Ms. Selvy eventually started choreographing for Utsav and Ms. Naga came on board as an examiner apart from being coordinators. They realized that their commitment as dancers of Apsaras must be maintained and shown to the next generation of dancers joining Apsaras for productions.
Experience and knowledge developed their training to another level, which helped in their growth. Eventually, they developed as teachers in schools and dancers for Apsaras, which the dancers today and their parents are not aware of. The dancers consciously mention, that awareness and respect would be all that can keep them going and make this sacrifice all worth it. “There have been instances in the past where some students have just seen as a mere makeup artists, but we know what this company means to us and how significant our contribution has been,” Says Ms. Selvy. Ms. Naga adds, “We are not angry, but sometimes it only hurts to see a generation of dancers which needs to understand the value of art, in all its forms.”
Most people working or associated with Apsaras are Mami’s students and are working to carry her vision forward. Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga determine the fact that they stand first as Mami’s dancers and a team that she left behind in peace. Mami taught them how to stay calm, not get into fights and keep smiling, no matter what. ‘Take it like a pinch of salt’ said Mami as mentioned by Ms. Selvy.
A good example for people to understand is how the duo works currently for productions with the resident choreographer and principal dancer of Apsaras Arts, Mohanapriyan Thavarajah. The working style is an example that creates a balance of roles and an understanding which makes the quality of the work better. “He will let us know what kind of makeup or hairdo he is looking for, what kind of quick changes are needed etc. and we will let him know what could be possible or not possible, what could be the potential hairdo designs that we can manage for how many dancers and what could be feasible in accordance to the time,” says Ms. Naga with utmost appreciation for Mr. Mohanapriyan.
“Recently we did make up for SIFAS’ 70th Anniversary which was called Natya Yatra. There were about 60-70 people for makeup and hair do. We had E.Sankari (Administration manager for Apsaras Arts) and a few others who worked on the make up for these dancers, while we two were the ones coordinating to prepare the hair do for all 60 of them. We were a team of 6 people and we planned for them to understand their roles and distinguish tasks so that there was no confusion. With Mami’s guidance and immense experience, we have come a long way and we ourselves can witness that in every assignment that we work on.” Says Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga while describing their recent experience with students from most prestigious Indian arts schools in Singapore.
The duo talks how they have reached a point where people are calling them externally after seeing their work which has solely been possible because of the Artistic Director of Apsaras Arts, Mr. Aravinth Kumarasamy, who has been a pillar of support for the senior artists recommending them to other dance schools and dancers.
“You know how a family works, there would be ups and downs. We talk and get things resolved and we feel this why it is all worth it in the end. It is a family that we have seen evolve and expand past so many years, and we are with it till our last breath.” Said Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga who have shaped and prepared most dancers of Apsaras for their performances in the past so many years.
“Jayalakshmi Raman, the first Singaporean to go and learn at Kalakshetra, Chennai, is married to my family. She was encouraging me to go and dance. Once that encouragement came in, I started dancing, and till date I am. My husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law and later my children, were a big support. My mother-in-law used to comb my hair.” Says Ms. Selvy.
Her dedication was seen and appreciated by her family so much so that she could leave her children back home and travel all over the world for shows. She says, “I feel it very important to have that back in a field like this otherwise it can get very difficult. Dance is running now into my family where both my daughters dance, one of my son-in-law also dances. We can never come this far if there is no support.” She establishes a fact that one needs to be strong mentally as an individual to take a journey like this, but half your worries go away once you are encouraged by your own family members and constantly supported with all the love and care.
Setting a contrasting example, Ms. Naga is the eldest daughter in the family and her father did not support her dance until he saw Ms. Naga’s Arangetram. “My cousin brothers supported me so much and took me for classes. My aunt, Ms. Saga, who was also Mami’s student, initiated my conversation about Arangetram,” Says Ms. Naga.
She mentions how her other aunt, Ms. Mallika, always supported her with all the financial help, until now. She paid for her dance fees because her father did not support. “My aunts and uncles supported me completely till my father did not understand what value it adds to my life. Both my aunts cried on my Arangetram, and my father finally understood and said he was proud of me.” Replied Ms. Naga when asked about her family’s expectations from her. Ms. Naga says, “I lived up to a dream my aunts saw for me. If not them, I don’t think I would be a dancer today.”
It is said that support from non-family members can sometimes be more comforting than support from your own blood relations. Apsaras constant support ever since they joined has helped both, Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga’s two families have helped them grow not just as dancers but encouraged them to be a part of a vision their Guru saw for this company.
Inspiration for the evolving dancers
To conclude, Ms. Selvy and Ms. Naga mentioned how they only expect dancers to grow as beautiful human beings who are disciplined, respect their elders and adhere to timings. For being a good dancer, it is very important to be in discipline and stay grounded as mentioned by the senior artists. They say, Apsaras is very well known and to keep the name to what it has grown to be, it is important that all dancers associated to the company, understand the vision of the company and where they started their journey as a dancer.
“We will always remain Mami’s dancers whatsoever “Even if they call us know, we will dance, for her. Dance cannot be taken out us, we still want to dance, and we will continue dancing till we can. We will be with Apsaras, until we can. Apsaras has been our second home and anything for Apsaras, we will be there.”