“A life in Dance” – An exclusive interview with Uma Chetty, Artistic Director Apsaras Arts, Virginia USA
by Vidhya Nair
“For me, dance is where I go to reset, it is my refuge. Dance gives me balance, the equilibrium to live my life. The 4Ds (Discipline, Determination, Dedication & Devotion) are the tenants I believe in and impart to my students as the guidance to take you forward in life.”
Uma Chetty (nee Kannappan) has been an advocate of Bharatanatyam for most of her life. Now, living in Richmond, Virginia in the United States, she shared her dance journey and how it has been such a huge force of influence and inspiration in her life.
Uma Chetty grew up in Singapore and watched her first Bharatanatyam performance at the Tanglin Club at the tender age of 7 in the 1970s. This dance recital was performed by the daughters of Mrs. Neila Satyalingam (“Mami”). At that age, the visual experience of the costumes, jewelry, eye movements and dramatic make-up completely captivated her and she persuaded her mother to sign her up for dance lessons.
She began classes with Mami at Cairnhill Community Centre and over the years, participating in numerous Navaratri programs and school concerts. She recalls performing a “thillana” on television in the programme, “Siruvar Malar” in the 1980s. By 1983, she completed her Arangetram at the age of 14 and the entire Sathyalingam family was on-stage (at Victoria Theatre) supporting her debut performance. Throughout her school years at Raffles Girls and Raffles Junior College, she contin-ued to dance. She was called to perform and choreograph for the Tamil Language Society cultural programs and she actively participated in dance competitions. By the time she completed her un-dergraduate studies at NTU in Accountancy and started work at Ernst & Young, she had become a seasoned dancer. When she met her prospective groom from the US, she was happy to learn that she would receive full support to continue as a dancer. Before she bid adieu to Singapore, she per-formed with her peer, Lalitha Venkatasubramaniam in a duet recital at DBS Auditorium in 1993, again with the guidance and support of Mami and her family.
When I asked her about her relationship with Mami, Uma described her with fondness, “She was firstly a teacher who inculcated the love for dance by inspiring you. For Mami, making mistakes was part of learning. It was not necessary to be perfect. She was a very strong lady, someone who dealt with many challenges, yet she was an effective mentor, giving good advice to any issues whether in dance or in life. Uma said that on many occasions, when she turned to Mami for advice, she would offer words of caution and always advocated patience. “Wait it out, Uma,” she would say.
When she first landed in the US, she was first at Dover, Delaware, living in a small apartment. At a Deepavali party, she performed and was approached by a few mothers to consider teaching. This was not something she was prepared for or had planned, but she decided to give it a try. Thanks to the copious notes her mother had taken down during her lessons, she initially began with 2 stu-dents that gave her the confidence to pursue dance teaching seriously. By 2000, she had two sons and had embarked on a career in financial services after completing her CPA and MBA. At this junc-ture, she decided to start Apsaras Arts, with the blessings of both Sathyalingam Mama and Mami. She said they were very encouraging of this association and considered her an extension of them-selves, in line with what they had been doing in Singapore to propagate Indian classical arts. Be-sides their mentorship, Uma said, “None of this would have been possible without my husband, Ashok. If he didn’t look after the boys, allow me the breaks to study and pace myself and patiently share the housework and load of the family and home, I don’t think any of this would have hap-pened the way it did.”
In the past 20 years, Uma has trained 4 other teachers who now run classes with her, teaching over 200 students. They have now completed 44 arangetrams at Apsaras Arts, Richmond USA. In 2009, she received the “Bharatha Kalai Mani” award from both Mama & Mami in Singapore for her achievements in Bharatanatyam in USA. Reflecting on this award, she recalls that it was a surprise at first, as her institute was only 9 years old then but over the last two decades, the value of this award has served as a significant motivation especially in her role to propagate Bharatanatyam in the US, teaching it with traditional authenticity, maintaining rigor in recital preparations and follow-ing a proper syllabus and examination structure.
It was moving to hear Uma share her vivid memories of Mami. “Over the years, when I used to come back to Singapore to visit my parents, I would visit Mami at her home at Sarkies Road. I would always take a lesson from her and wait eagerly for the class to get over simply to stay back and spend time with Mami. She had an infectious sense of humor and we would often share a meal and break into peals of laughter.” Till today, Uma continues her practice of taking classes at Apsaras Arts Singapore with Mohanapriyan Thavarajah as she considers continuous learning a key reason for her longevity as a performer and teacher. For her, Apsaras Arts, Singapore after the founders’ demise continues to remain close to her heart and she feels connected with the current team lead by Aravinth Kumarasamy. Her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Kannappan have continued to sup-port Apsaras Arts, Singapore as Devatas through fund-raising and sharing their philanthropic con-tacts. They were invited as honorary guests at Natya Mela, an Apsaras Arts event in February 2017, the last event Mami attended before her demise in March 2017.
Uma Chetty’s dance journey has now exceeded 35 years and as she crosses into her fifties, I ask her how she keeps up her own training. She answers with ease, “For me, dance is where I go to reset, it is my refuge. Dance gives me balance, the equilibrium to live my life.” Over the years, she has kept abreast of trends and dance techniques by attending workshops by Indian dancers who visit the US such as Leela Samson, Sreejith Krishna and Gayatri Krishnaveni Lakshmanan to name a few. Her students, through US-born, often return to India with their families during summer. This helps them to stay rooted with their culture and identity. She says, “I’ve been lucky, my students and parents are extremely dedicated to the art and learning of Bharatanatyam. They mostly take it up initially to keep in touch with Indian traditions and values but over time, they learn to appreci-ate it for all that it gives back. The 4Ds (Discipline, Determination, Dedication & Devotion) are the tenants I believe in and impart to my students as the guidance to take you forward in life.”
Even during the Covid19 pandemic lockdown, she has found renewed vigor in her students’ zeal for dance. Besides their practical lessons, they have been using this period to complete examina-tions, focus on Bharatanatyam theory and core body work especially muscle training to care for the knees and calves. In 2006, Uma had torn her knee meniscus and used physical therapy to recover. She believes that maintaining a strict regiment of warm-up exercises and cool-down stretches to keep the body supple helps build stamina for life-long performing capabilities.
On her thoughts about the future of Bharatanatyam, she has a very positive outlook as she ob-serves recent trends of enhanced production quality and thematic ensemble works on stage. She said, “Today’s use of technology in set design and lights have created new ways for us to appreci-ate dance without overpowering the dance-form itself. The full beauty of the dance is able to come through. I really appreciate this.” yet she was quick to add that the interest to create dance with “a mix of East-West blend combining Bollywood music, steps and fusion pieces which claim some semblance to Bharatanatyam” is a worrisome trend.
I walked away from the interview feeling a lot of warmth and respect for Uma Chetty. To carry your Guru in your heart and mind and transfer all that you have learned from her, miles away and be a role-model and mentor to countless others. It’s a life meaningfully led.
This is the legacy that Mami has gifted.
*Uma Chetty’s Apsaras Arts Dance Group in Richmond, Virginia celebrates their 20th anniversary this year. For more information, do visit their website: https://www.apsarasvirginia.com/