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YULIA KOIRALA – Breathing Life Into Art

Aakriti Maya of WOW converses with the versatile and multifaceted Yulia Koirala of Sushila Arts Academy about her love for arts and art promotion, life balance and what inspires her to do what she does.

A tenacious woman sits commanding the space around her while sipping delicately on the jasmine tea before her, a picture of the very duality in which she thrives; a duality that traces all the way back to her childhood in Kazakhstan where she was first exposed to the arts through the structured reality of the Soviet Era.

Yulia Koirala studied at an intensive music school as a child learning everything about music from theory to classics, and later graduating with honours and earning many well-merited national awards for her piano playing. It was then that she decided to switch gears and do an MBA which she completed from the Moscow University before working for an oil and gas company for 12 years in London.

Though the world of business and arts seem to be diametrically opposite, Yulia always found great fulfilment in both. The first chapter of her life was consumed by music, while in the next she dived head first into the corporate world. It was the third chapter in which she has found the perfect balance, a chapter that begins when she met her husband, Siddharth Koirala, fell in love and eventually moved to Nepal and gave birth to a baby daughter.

“When my daughter was just one year old, I took her to Kazakhstan for this big children’s theatre production. She just loved it so much and was so excited to be there. So when we returned to Nepal, I went straight to my mother-in-law and told her that I could not believe that her grandchild won’t be exposed to what she loves: the arts, music and dance. I stated that I had to open something for this. And I just had to”, Yulia recalls with a soft intensity in her voice.

Equipped with expertise in both the creative world and the practical reality of business and now her family support, she began developing concepts for such a project. Her own toddler’s exuberance at her first exposure to theatre was the final push Koirala needed to create what would eventually become her legacy: Sushila Arts Academy (SAA).

The academy started small. “From one idea, one production, one show and slowly it grew,” she remembers. Today, SAA is a thriving institution that offers a range of classes including art, music, theatre and dance for toddlers, aspiring professionals and everyone in between. SAA fosters professional dance companies for ballet and Bharatnatyam complete with internationally recognised degrees and showcases large scale theatre productions, giving jobs and platforms for actors and performers. Yulia articulates, “SAA is a multidimensional endeavour, seeking to inspire young children and carry artistic interest to a professional level.”

For Yulia, giving art culture legitimacy and importance in society starts with artists developing a professional, committed approach to learning. “I don’t believe in just talent. In fact, in many cases I have found that talent spoils people – they take it for granted and stop working hard. Talent is important but it is not everything,” she expresses adding that the traits she values most is commitment. She puts it as ‘greed for knowledge’.

She works tirelessly to dismantle the notion that one can find success in a career in the arts by pursuing it casually. “You need to commit, work hard, make time for your practice. Commitment is the key to everything. If you don’t put in the time, you won’t become a professional,” she asserts.

In her youth, Yulia was insatiable. She says, “It never mattered to me whether it was a small or big job; I always took every chance that I got.” She states that having a false sense of pride is a great weakness, crediting her success today to all the diverse opportunities from her past. “In a production, one must learn to be a team player. If the stage needs sweeping and everybody looks busy, I pick up a broom and sweep myself. It’s all learning. It’s all being professional,” she says. Work ethic is important to Yulia for she believes that there is no shortage of artistic talent in Nepal.

“The amount of talented expression I see here is just phenomenal. The role natural beauty plays in our everyday landscape; there is something so slow motion about it. People have time to be attentive. I feel that art needs space to breathe, time to pay attention and reflect. That is when art is born. Nepal is full of bliss in that sense because our surroundings help art grow,” she tells.

Yulia muses that Nepal has helped her grow as well. Though she has been balancing the role of artist and businesswoman all her life, she is used to performing both roles meticulously with planning and structure. The Nepali way of life has reminded her to breathe, to be intelligent to seize valuable opportunities, and sometimes just to let go. Yulia claims that she is blessed to meet so many visionaries with fascinating ideas, but the truth is that she is being modest. It is evident that talented artists, performers, directors seek her out because of her exceptional ability to make things happen. “I do believe that anything is possible. That is my personality,” she shares.

Yulia’s ambitious nature shows in her many accomplishments. In addition to founding and directing the Sushila Arts Academy, she has produced several large scale theatre productions including Bodhi Chhaya, the longest running production Nepal has seen. Koirala also takes pride in her work creating the Ruslan Broadway format, a form of theatre that combines multiple artistic elements including dance, music, acting, extravagant show techniques and costume. She continues to grow her academy by uplifting the level of training and bringing in additional programs, as well as increasing the already notable amount of scholarships SAA offers to struggling Nepali artists.

When asked about the importance of the arts today, Yulia smiles and says, “I could talk about this for hours,” adding that at the core of her passion lies her essential belief that art makes us human. “In our evolving society that is becoming increasingly virtual, art makes us empathise, comprehend and be motivated to do good things – human things. In its truest form, art allows us to dream and create reality from the dreams, generating emotion, making us cry and laugh,” she concludes.