Remembering Neila Maami

Reflections of a dancer

By Seema Hari Kumar

I once had the privilege of joining Mr & Mrs Sathyalingam (Maama & Maami) on their customary visit to their alma mater – Kalakshetra during the Margazhi season, in 2005. Whilst Maama was immensely proud of the institution and readily took me around on a tour of the various cottages where he held memories, Maami raved about her memories of Guru Smt Rukmini Devi. Little did Neila Maami know then, that she would leave behind a comparable legacy at Singapore. Maami’s demise in March 2017 was, to many of us, untimely and unexpected. The days leading up to that and the many months that followed were gruelling for me, as I felt her stark absence and often battled within myself on how I could have sought a satisfactory closure with this suddenness. The opportunity came three years later when Apsaras Arts decided to inaugurate the “Remembering Neila Sathyalingam” Festival on her birthday weekend. The objective was to curate a series of programmes that would not just be limited to Maami’s choreography but also, showcase the evolutionary nature of Bharathanatyam with original new works. When Mr Aravinth Kumarasamy, Artistic Director at Apsaras Arts, approached Deva Priya and me to restage “Dvayam – Perspectives of Duality” at the inaugural festival, we had mixed feelings. This production was extremely special because when we staged it for the first time in 2011, we were premiering on a proscenium at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as a duo. But it didn’t come without the challenges of a normal production. Our founder, Mr Sathyalingam Maama passed away four days before the Show in 2011 and we paid a tearful tribute to him on stage. Maami never got to watch Dvayam and that became the only Apsaras Arts production she hadn’t watched before her demise. It may have been her divine wish to restage “Dwayam” again in 2020. Under Aravinth’s guidance, we worked on a refreshed perspective. While we retained a couple of the original items, we worked with Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, Resident Choreographer at Apsaras Arts on adding new choreographies. What completely surprised us was how Priyan’s choreography of the thillana aligned seamlessly to Maami’s original choreography of the pushpanjali that we performed on that evening. This speaks volumes of Maami’s vision into the future of this evolving dance form, that resembles the choreographies by a millennial choreographer. Post show, one of the audience members sent me congratulatory note and mentioned that while she has not met Maami before, she felt the presence of her gracious personality on that evening through the through the personal anecdotes of Mr Viswa Sadasivan, the chief guest and personal sharing by Mdm Som Said, as a close friend. At that moment, a realisation dawned on me- on how privileged I am to have received her blessings as a student.

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Devata: Guardians of Dance

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