Arushi Mudgal is among the doyens set to enthrall classical dance lovers of Kerala at the third edition of the three-day Kalandhika National Festival in Kochi, starting on Friday. The Delhi-based odissi exponent is a true beacon of Indian art and travels widely to perform at revered festivals across the country and abroad.
For her contribution to the field of classical dance, Arushi has received various awards, including Sangeet Natak Akademi’s prestigious national award to the outstanding artiste — Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. Arushi, who was billed as one of the Top Ten Dancers of 2018 by the New York Times, will take centre stage at 6 pm on Saturday at the Kerala Fine Arts Society. We sit down with her for a quick chat.
Could you share with us how this wonderful art journey of yours started?
I come from a family of artistes, so it was natural for me to be exposed and drawn to art. I believe it’s my good fortune. My grandfather, Padmashri Pt Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya, started Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, one of the oldest and most prominent cultural institutions in Delhi. He was a musician, and my parents were also into music. So, I grew up around art. I started learning music and odissi at a very young age. My aunt (popular odissi danseuse) Madhavi Mudgal is my foremost guru. I trained under her for a long time.
Considering the contemporary changes in traditional art forms, how do you view classical dance evolving?
All our classical art forms have always evolved with time. We always say that our art forms are like rivers. They keep flowing, but, in essence, the core nature remains the same. That’s what I see even today. Though there are experimental approaches toward classical dance, the core essence endures as the same.
India’s art forms have flourished over several centuries and eras. They reflect our true culture, and our culture is our identity across the world. It’s this culture that sets India apart from the rest of the world. I believe experiments in art forms are healthy. It’s different perspectives, looking at the same thing through different lenses. Some art will get appreciated and some will not. Some will be done honestly, and some for the sake of it. Ultimately, pure, soulful art will always stay.
Odissi is not as popular as, say, bharatanatyam in Kerala. Yet, how do you connect with the audiences?
Each time I come to Kerala to perform; I find that the audience is really amazing. I always say this: I love performing in Kerala because the audience here does not come for the artiste; they come for the art.
This is a very beautiful feeling for me, to perform for such an audience that is not concerned about the name of the artiste or what they are doing. They just come with an open heart to appreciate what we are sharing as artistes. I really appreciate that.
Odissi is a very lyrical and graceful dance form. A lot of its postures have been taken from temple sculptures that can be seen in ancient temples of Odisha. I don’t think many people in Kerala understand Odia, but they really appreciate the Odia songs that accompany my performance. They connect to them pretty well.
I think it also shows that all these dance forms are not limited to their respective states; they cross all these barriers of language and territory and get appreciated across the world. I’m looking forward to my upcoming performance in Kochi to share my new work.
Choosing dance as a professional career would be challenging. There are movements, such as Pay for Arts, to support artistes. Will such initiatives actually help artistes grow?
It is important to recognise the fact that, despite the challenges, people are indeed taking up art as a profession. As an artiste, I earn a living through my art. Sometimes organisers approach us, saying that they are organising a programme only to promote art and don’t have a proper budget.
I understand that and, of course, I have done such performances as well. But the fact is that, from the point of view of an artiste, their art is the only medium for them to sustain.
If you are only depending on the art form for living, it can be very difficult. That’s why movements like Pay for Arts are important. It is important to create awareness about these art forms. You have a lot of things to take care of, especially as a dancer. I have to take care of my expenses like jewellery, costumes, and makeup. I also have to pay the accompanying musicians. Such factors should be kept in mind when organisers approach the artistes. Treating art as a profession and giving it that respect is very important.
In an era where audiences are increasingly drawn to performances that provide immediate thrills or adrenaline rush, what is your perspective on the significance of advocating for classical art forms?
People coming for the classical concerts, in terms of numbers, will not be the same as people going for the rock show. There will be thousands of people going for that, and there will be about 200 coming for the classical art forms. I don’t think that is something we should be worried about. What we do need to stress is the quality of the art that is being presented. I firmly believe that if we present quality work, it will be appreciated. It should be something true from the heart and technically good. Then it will touch the audience.
As an artiste, being able to communicate the joy of art is important to me. Even if we can share that joy with five people, I think it’s a blessing. So, I don’t worry about the size of the audience.
There will always be people who are interested in classical art because it is not just mere entertainment; it is deeper than that. It will always have that special place in people’s hearts.
As a performer who travels abroad for shows, what are the key differences you have noticed between performing on Indian and international platforms?
On international platforms, most of the audience is not aware of our Indian fables and characters. What I find beautiful is that even though they don’t know these stories, they are still able to connect with our art forms. It is heartwarming to see that — the power of art.
What we portray is the aesthetic beauty of the art and also the universal emotion that is felt by everyone, regardless of nationality or language. In India, people know the stories. So they will probably be able to appreciate the details more. It’s a different kind of joy. Be it India or abroad, it is gratifying to witness how our art forms are valued and appreciated in diverse regions.