BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
Dancer, makeup artist and entrepreneur Harshini Sukumaran has a commanding presence on stage. She is a storyteller with a vivacious persona who sets the stage ablaze and engrosses the audience with her swift, agile and rhythmic movements. Off stage, there is still a graceful elegance to her demeanour and an enigma that surrounds her. In the November issue, we get to know this beautiful dancer and the art form that is Bharatanatyam.
# TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF.
I’m a fashion, beauty and design graduate who is currently a dancer, choreographer and teacher with formal training in Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak, Bollywood and contemporary dance. Bringing forth the ability to create innovative and inspiring dance sequences while serving as an effective instructor, I’m also the founder of Hadhi, a brand which provides makeup and design services and Saucy Dancer, a brand founded during the pandemic, focusing on edibles in jars.
# HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS ART FORM — BHARATANATYAM?
Growing up, my mum used to tell me stories of my childhood and how I would just break into dance at every opportunity given including functions and birthday parties and take centre stage. Seeing this, she decided to enrol me at the Temple of Fine Arts Kuala Lumpur to be trained professionally at the tender age of six. My journey began first in Bharatanatyam and soon after, I started picking up more dance styles such as Odissi, Kathak, Bollywood and contemporary dance.
# COULD YOU SHARE WITH US HOW RIGOROUS THE BHARATANATYAM TRAINING IS?
More than training, I would call it a lifestyle as it moulds you mentally, physically and emotionally. From a young age, one is taught specific positions and stances which mould the body in a certain way. If you notice the demeanour of Bharatanatyam dancers when we walk or sit, it’s a little different because our feet are turned out and we have a more upright posture as a result of all that training. It’s definitely a very rigorous art form which requires you to put your heart and soul into it. Discipline is key when it comes to any art form and as a Bharatanatyam dancer, I have realised that consistency is vital as a performer and practising or dancing for at least three to four hours a day is necessary to sustain stamina on stage.
# DOES IT TAKE STAMINA, A SPECIAL DIET AND EXERCISES TO PERFORM?
Bharatanatyam definitely requires stamina as it uses almost every part of the body and aligns your expressions with fingers and feet which are moving to different rhythms at the same time. Each dance item can last for a minimum of five minutes to about an hour, so it requires a lot of stamina. As a Bharatanatyam dancer, one should be able to sustain through a full show, called Margam if you’re a solo performer and this usually takes one to two hours for a complete programme. Each programme typically consists of five to six items and each item can last five to six minutes or 45 to 60 minutes. In order to pull through a show, one needs to put in the practice and hard work. It’s just like training for any tournament or marathon. As far as diet goes, it differs individually but the rule of the thumb is your body needs food rich in protein, calcium to strengthen bones from rigorous training which also gives the body energy. One also needs sufficient vitamins and nutrients to be able to boost training. With regard to exercise, we have a few sets of exercise that focus on strengthening dance postures. On top of that, lots of cardio like running and swimming are beneficial for the dancers.
# WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE IN THIS INDIAN CLASSICAL DANCE BEEN LIKE?
My experience with Bharatanatyam has been bittersweet, more sweet than bitter, because I started at the age of 6 and grew into it. I only grew to love this art form in the later stages because as a kid, I didn’t really comprehend the depth of Bharatanatyam. When I grew older and graduated, only then I became more appreciative and curious of the art form. I read a lot more and exposed myself to more information and history. Bharatnatyam is a rich art form; it has so much substance. I started travelling to India a lot more to gain more knowledge. I have been performing and practising this dance to date and try to keep myself as disciplined as I can be in order to continue pursuing it. It has been an amazing journey thus far and I hope and pray to reach greater heights in this dance.
# WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE PROUDEST MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER THUS FAR?
I can’t really put a finger on a specific thing but my Bharatanatyam graduation, also known as Arangetram, was definitely one of my proudest moments thus far. It was surreal and a stepping stone to other opportunities and performances. Most importantly, it made me fall deeper in love with this art form and realise that there’s so much more to dancing than just mugging the steps and performing it on stage. It evokes feelings from deep within and open up a path to exploring this art form even more.
# HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED THE MOMENT WHEN THE DANCER BECOMES THE DANCER?
I think the term where the dancer becomes the dancer is definitely experienced by dancers who are deeply connected to the art form. For me personally, I have felt it numerous times when I would go on stage and be swept into a trance because the dance has overtaken my being. When I come off the stage, I can’t remember my performances. I would say it’s attributed to adrenaline and the rigorous training for a particular dance that when you go on stage, it’s no longer about steps or technique, rather, translating emotions and feelings and connecting the body and soul. It’s like a drug, this feeling, which is why many including myself love doing it and are addicted to the stage and the experience that comes with it.
# BHARATNATYAM IS STORYTELLING THROUGH DANCE. HOW DO YOU INVOKE THE RIGHT FEELINGS AND EXPRESSIONS TO PORTRAY DURING A PERFORMANCE?
It is definitely storytelling through dance and there are two approaches to it — Nritta and Natya. The former is pure dance performed rhythmically while the latter is expressive storytelling. As far as Natya goes, to invoke the right feelings is relating oneself to the story. I usually take an item or excerpt from the story, ponder over it and try to relate it to any experiences I’ve had thus far, through the means of song or devotion. I practise with feelings each time to feel connected to the story. Then, when it’s time for the performance and you believe with conviction that you are the character, it will translate on stage. I also believe it’s a dancer’s responsibility to convey the right story by emoting the right feelings on stage and do the piece justice.
# HAVE YOU PERFORMED IN INDIA?
I have performed in India on numerous occasions. I started travelling to India to perform as a kid, to perform for the Temple of Fine Arts’ founder’s prayers. The Temple of Fine Arts is actually a branch derived from India, with locations in Australia, Singapore and other countries, so we would perform under this banner. Then, we would also perform for the centre’s music and dance festivals and recently, I had the opportunity to perform solo in Bangalore. India is now very much like a second home to me. It’s a beautiful country filled with beautiful people, delicious food and is truly an experience of its own.
# YOU STARRED IN YUNA’S MUSIC VIDEO (NOT) THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH THE SONGSTRESS AND WEAVING IN INDIAN CULTURE?
Yes, I did star in Yuna’s music video and it was truly a surreal experience. It was absolutely beautiful and both Yuna and her husband Adam, were a powerful duo with so much finesse and were the epitome of professionalism. It was mesmerising to watch them work so fluidly. I learned so much through that experience. It was so refreshing and different when Yuna approached me with an Indian concept for her music video. She truly did justice to it and I personally think it was amazing to watch — all the colours, elegance and execution was brilliant. I count my blessings for being able to work with Yuna and her husband who are so humble, and I cherish that experience deeply, till today.
# YOU ARE ALSO A CERTIFIED MAKEUP ARTIST. WHAT SPARKED THIS INTEREST?
I started putting on makeup when I was 13 or younger and in our dance school, we used to have this festival called Navaratri, a nine-day festival for Goddess Devi. During the festival, we usually present the school students and there will be many of them performing so we would need them to get ready quickly. So, it started off by helping each other put on makeup. Growing up in that environment inspired me to foray into makeup. Also, my career in dance requires me to groom myself. It was while getting ready for performances that I fell in love with makeup and all its details. Eventually, I decided to pick it up professionally and venture into bridal makeup, for photoshoots etc. In addition, as a fashion designer, it’s important to have this added skill.
# WHAT DO YOU DO TO UNWIND AFTER A LONG DAY?
To be honest, I’m a foodie and I love everything about food, including cooking. Even after a long day, the whole process of chopping and sautéing and concocting something really delicious honestly relaxes me. If I’m too tired for that, I would have a really long, hot shower, get into my pajamas and watch Netflix till I doze off, which is literally what I do after a long day.
# SINCE THIS IS A DEEPAVALI ISSUE, WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR DEEPAVALI?
I would probably go over to my aunty’s house as I usually do for Deepavali or relax at home with good food and watch most of the movies or TV shows that they would only play during Deepavali. We’d have a quiet and calm celebration, just the way we like it.
# ARE THERE ANY TRADITIONS THAT YOUR FAMILY OBSERVES FOR THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS?
When my grandmother was around, we had this tradition of going to her place early in the morning to pray together and get her blessings. She would also give us angpao. We would then indulge in a breakfast spread that she whipped up. She’s an amazing cook, so we used to look forward to the staple Deepavali breakfast. After that, we’d go visiting other relatives and at the end of the day unwind by watching some TV programmes together.
# WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE DEEPAVALI DISH?
My favourite Deepavali dish is my mother’s Nei Urundai or ghee balls, and hers is one of the best. I’m a sweet tooth so this little delight truly hits all the right spots for me. I also love watching her make the Nei Urundai and maybe this Deepavali, I’m going to try to make it too.