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Dance like thyself: Murugashankari Leo Prabhu

Murugashankari Leo Prabhu

Watching Murugashankari Leo on stage, one cannot help but think, this is a Bharatanatyam dancer with a style of her own!!! Beyond the neat lines and clean technique, it is the spirit with which she dances that makes her stand apart amongst the mileu of well-trained dancers of the form. On interacting with her, one realises that this is the same spirit with which she also talks, teaches, learns, sings, choreographs, acts and much more.

Being the daughter of Kalaimamani Thiru, Leo Prabhu, is a dramatist and cine actor of repute, it might look like arts was the natural option for her. But, that was not the case says the University rank holder in Chemical Engineering. When she expressed her desire to take up dance full time, quitting her job, it was met with some resistance at home. “They know all the things that can go wrong in the arts field!” she laughs. At the age of 8, she was taken to the school of the renown stalwart K.J. Sarasa, disciple of Vazhavoor Ramappa Pillai, and a close friend of Murugashankari’s father, to train in Bharatanatyam. This continued for 5 years, and after a break she resumed her training under Kalaimamani Smt. Parvathy Ravi Ghantasala, who belongs to the Pandanallur bani. “The transition was not easy,” she says. “I had to re-learn right from the basics, as the Vazhavoor style has more glamour and is more rounded, while the Pandanallur style is more linear, to begin with.”

Deciding to take up dance full time, she enrolled into the Masters program in Bharatanatyam in Madras University. Now a Junior Research Fellow, she is also doing her Ph.D. from the same university. She also took formal training in Carnatic music and Natuvangam, which are crucial for any dancer to take a step up as a teacher. Kalaikoodam, which means the centre for arts, is the name of the academy she runs in two venues, with over 30 students. Teaching has been a very enriching experience for her. She quips, “I never knew I had so much patience!!! Teaching has made me learn so much more, as I need to keep myself updated to answer the various kinds of doubts the students ask.” Her students have also performed their Arangetrams, and she says choreographing for them has been very enjoyable. A dancer, who knows her responsibility, she does not go outside the boundaries of tradition, but tries to be innovative within them.

She has recently done her debut in acting, in a play written by her father, who is known for his natural acting, and the experience was very fulfilling, she says. “My training in dance helped me a lot as I know my body-language and am not shy on the stage, but voicing the dialogues was the biggest challenge,” she says re-counting her rehearsals and training sessions. “But just like with a new choreography, the role and the part too grow in you and the 3rd time we performed the play, I was satisfied with what I did on stage.”

Having performed at various venues across the country and quite a few abroad, she says that the scenario outside Chennai is quite good too, contrary to the popular belief. “Performing in Chennai gives a dancer the maximum exposure one can get, and also confidence, if one manages to impress, but I performed at many venues outside Chennai too, and was very happy to perform there too. They respect artists, take care of them and also pay,” she laughs. “This field, the dance field, is like just others in the economic angle. One has to invest first, and only then can one reap any benefits from it.” This is the practical side of Murugashanakari, where she logically puts it without any qualms, that it is only through teaching that a dancer can earn bread and butter.

A recipient of many awards and titles, among which are Natya Kala Vipanchee, Naattiya Thilakam and Nritya Siromani, these have only made her more humble and not think beyond the next performance. “It is the today and now that matters,” signs off Shankari, with a laugh and a spirit, with which she throws herself into everything that she does.