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Wife of corporate leader is returning to stage for dance performance in aid of children with special needs

WHAT would it take for a former Bharatanatyam dancer who has been away from the spotlight for about 15 years to don her anklets again? In Datin Umayal Eswaran’s case, it was a completely different project very close to her heart that gave her the push to get back onstage: her desire to start a local school for children with special needs.

As the wife of QI Group executive chairman Datuk Vijay Eswaran, Umayal is heavily involved in the company’s philanthropic activities, and helped set up the RYTHM Foundation, QI’s global corporate social responsibility arm. She was also recently made chairperson of the Vijayaratnam Foundation (VF), the Malaysian chapter of RYTHM.

However, Umayal is not one to merely sit back and make monetary contributions to charities of her choice. Her concept of philanthropy is to get down to the ground and involve herself. As part of VF, one of her pet projects is Taarana, a centre (currently based in Taman OUG, Kuala Lumpur) that caters to the requirements of children with special educational needs.

Vijayaratnam Foundation chairperson Datin Umayal Eswaran will be performing in the Bharatanatyam dance drama featuring some of Malaysia and India’s finest talent.

“What I want is to give these children the ability to go out and have a life. I want them to be a part of society, instead of being sidelined. So my hope is for Taarana to be a full-fledged school in five years,” Umayal shares in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Her eventual goal is to provide an educational facility for special needs children between the ages of six and 12. Once launched, it is planned for Taarana (which means “awakening” in Sanskrit) to partner with the Association for Persons with Special Needs Singapore, to provide a curriculum that focuses not just on academics, but also life skills, physical education and the arts.

In order to realise this aim, Umayal, a trained Indian classical dancer who has performed professionally in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka, decided to merge her passion for dance with her commitment to social work. To help organise a fundraising event for Taarana that would incorporate bharatanatyam, Umayal turned to her long time friend and fellow Natya exponent Shangita Namasivayam, founder of local group Kalpana Dance Theatre.

The two women, who learnt dance together during their childhood days in Sri Lanka, then roped in Gayatri Balagurunathan, an accomplished dancer and alumna of the world-famous cultural academy Kalakshetra in Chennai, India, to work on the choreography.

And thus, Dasavatar was born.

The Bharatanatyam dance drama will see some of Malaysia and India’s finest dance talents coming together to collaborate as a team. Based on the story of the 10 incarnations of Lord Krishna (Dashavatar) as recounted in the collection of poems called the Gita Govindam by 13th century poet Jayadeva, the show will present some of the most well-known Indian stories, such as those of Rama, Narasimha and even Buddha.

Besides Umayal, Shangita and Gayatri, the performance to be held in Kuala Lumpur on March 4 to 6 will feature a line-up of illustrious Bharatanatyam names such as P.T. Narendran, Apsara Ramgopal and Vennila Mardemootoo. Accompanying them will be a high-calibre live orchestra, with vocals by O.S. Arun.

Gayatri, who will be performing for the first time in Malaysia, says she is eager to show dance lovers here how a dance drama, which Kalakshetra is renowned for, can be done.

“We picked the story of the Dashavatar because it is very relevant today. It is essentially about good triumphing over evil, and it is all basic human emotion. In a world filled with terrorism and social disharmony, it has a simple but important message – that of humanitarianism,” she explains. “And since we are doing it for a good cause, I readily agreed.”

For Shangita, who was also trained in Kalakshetra, Dashavatar presented an opportunity to get back to performing, something she has less time to do since she started organising shows for Kalpana. Having last performed onstage here in 2005, she is excited about taking part in a show that not only fulfils her artistic side, but is also for a worthy cause.

“I won’t say it’s been easy, though!” Shangita shares with a laugh. “This is a more dramatic piece, and each of us (dancers) is taking on varied roles. It’s been a challenge for us as dancers, and it’s been a challenge, too, for Gayatri to whip us into shape.”

Umayal agrees that returning to performing seriously after a long hiatus is no child’s play.

“We’re in all sorts of aches and pains after each rehearsal!” she says. “But Gayatri’s positive energy helps so much. If everyone attends Dashavatar with the same positivity that we are feeling, I’ve no doubt that turning Taarana into a school will succeed. I’ve always wanted to go back to dancing, and it’s great to do it for an important cause like this.”