How Bharatanatyam shaped dancer-choreographer-entrepreneur Mayuri Upadhya’s Life

Dance and entrepreneurship are not really things one expects to go together. Establishing a career in performing arts is quite a challenge in itself and starting a ‘dance company’, which is far-removed from the traditional guru-shishya model, is a path even lesser travelled.

Bengaluru-based dancer, choreographer, and entrepreneur Mayuri Upadhya (40), however, has danced her way to success on this unconventional path. Founder of dance company Nritarutya, she and her troupe have performed in front of celebrated figures, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Queen Elizabeth II.

Mayuri Upadhya

Baby steps

Mayuri’s tryst with dance started when she was six years old. In an interview with MAKERS India, she says, “I took to rhythm at a very young age. I would escape into a world of imagination and that was more fascinating than what was happening in class. I was a hyperactive child, and functions and events at school gave me a lot of impetus. Seeing this, my mother enrolled me for Bharatanatyam classes when I was six.”

Dance continued to be an important part of Mayuri’s life as she grew up. When she started college, Mayuri joined a contemporary dance group. She even paid her college fees with what she earned from the performances.  

Ultimately, Mayuri found the conviction to establish a career in the world of dance. She started her dance company Nritarutya in 2004 – the very day she finished college.

She recalls, “When I started the company, there wasn’t any formal structure. It was just a team of people from different walks of life who wanted to understand their bodies better. My terrace was a makeshift studio where we would rehearse. We did not focus on any specific dance form; we would just explore and try to arrive at a common understanding.”

Beginner’s luck

Mayuri says she was blessed to have an emotional safety net in the form of encouragement from her family members. Besides her sister who is also a part of Nritarutya, Mayuri’s parents also appreciated art.

She says, “I had the freedom to do what I wanted. They would tell me it was okay to fail; but they also taught me that I should take the responsibility, should that happen.”

In the initial days, the major challenge was to get an opening at the right place at the right time. It is no secret that the world of performing arts can be quite unforgiving monetarily for artists beginning their career. Mayuri wasn’t spared of those struggles either.

“Money was a pain point during the early days, and it will always be a hurdle for artists, especially if you compare incomes with those working in corporate jobs. It took me four years to implement a working methodology and work out the kinks in establishing an unusual structure where dancers are paid salaries,” she explains.

At present, Nritarutya has six permanent employees and 25 to 30 dancers work on rotation basis for which auditions are conducted all through the year. The organisation offers commercial services for corporate events, films, advertising campaigns, weddings and social events, and choreography consultations.

Dancing to the tune of success

Mayuri says, “I have always tried to create something new. For instance, I have done choreography using laptops for corporate events to communicate in their own language through dance.”

This creativity and drive for innovation can be credited for the troupe’s outstanding repertoire.

In 2015, Nritarutya was commissioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to showcase the country’s cultural diversity for the ‘Make in India’ event held at Hanover in Germany. The group, in collaboration with singer Raghu Dixit, also represented India at Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee Celebrations at Royal Windsor Show in 2012.

Nritarutya’s magnum opus, Mugha-e-azam (2016), was a milestone for both the company and Mayuri. Directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, it is a large-scale musical stage adaptation of the 1960s classic film. Mayuri won the Broadway World India Best Choreography award for her work.

The two collaborated once again for Raunaq and Jassi (2019), a musical stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which also received widespread critical acclaim.

Other notable large-scale productions include Madhushala (2012), which was commissioned by Amitabh Bachchan for reinterpreting the poem of the same name written by his late father Harivansh Rai Bachchan.

To ensure that each performance is nothing short of a divine spectacle, the group collaborates with industry stalwarts like Manish Malhotra, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, and Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla for costumes, and musicians like Aadesh Srivastava, Raghu Dixit, and Ajay Atul.

Individual works and awards

Mayuri has carved a niche for herself through her choreography in films as well. She was the creative consultant and concept designer for the song Ghar More Pardesiya in Dharma Productions’ big budget movie Kalank (2019) and the choreographer in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya (2015).

She was also the curator of dance at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa last year. Mayuri has become a household name in Karnataka for her stints as a judge on TV reality shows Master Dancer, which aired on Colors Super and Dancing Stars on ETV Kannada. She has also done choreography for Kannada film Pancharangi (2010).

Mayuri has won several accolades rewarding her hard work, dedication, and passion. In 2012, she won the International Competition for Choreography Concept Award in South Korea and, in 2017, the Uday Shankar award for best choreography.

She is currently working on a sound and light show for Red Fort, in association with the Government of India, and Parched – Choreographer’s Cut, a full-length production themed on the impact of water scarcity.

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)