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Kuchipudi: Resurgence or Funeral?
- Amrita Lahiri

June 4, 2016

This may be a momentous period in the evolution of Kuchipudi. Rarely ever does this lesser-known, country-cousin of Bharatanatyam get as much attention as now. Some critics are despairing that it is in the ICU….predicting its demise…pointing fingers…questioning…looking back and asking what went wrong? Is it a time for resurgence? Or an impending funeral?

The spotlight recently fell on Kuchipudi when Sangeet Natak Akademi awarded two relatively unknown Kuchipudi dancers, sparking debates on transparency. Perhaps the more important question is what is the significance of this debate in the larger scheme of things? As far back as 500 BC, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "There is nothing permanent except change". Clearly some changes are good, while others are not. And what is good can be a matter of debate. Like the village with the same name, Kuchipudi dance is also under the pressure of change.

A couple of months ago, I had an enlightening adventure in the village of Kuchipudi to which this dance form owes its name. The visit was planned to coincide with the Yakshagana Festival at the dance college, Siddhendra Yogi Kalakshetram, one of the campuses of the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, a government institution for Telugu citizens, whose mission is "to inculcate a sense of identity in them as citizens of India and as responsible representatives of Andhra Pradesh." It was a time of bustling cultural activity in Kuchipudi village.

My visit had a rough start with a stomach infection. After retching every half hour for five hours in the first night, I was in severe pain, and dehydrated. I troubled my friend at 4am, and asked her to take me to a doctor. Finding a doctor and transport was not easy, to say the least. I lay on the floor of the hostel, on my mattress, curled up with stomach pain, dehydrated, and acutely aware of the privileges of my usual urban life. After half an hour of futile phone calls, my friend found a watchman near the gate of the hostel who went to find an auto rickshaw. Another hour later, shivering and in severe pain, I was at the doctor's clinic. Dr. Jaya reluctantly woke up and came down to her office - a basic concrete structure, on the ground floor of her home, with cement benches for patients to wait.

I was quickly jabbed with an injection in my hip, a needle inserted into a vein on my hand and two bottles of IV solution dripped slowly. I lay on the dark green rexine bed, no bedding, no sheets, no blankets. I was alone, in an unfamiliar village, amongst people whom I don't know, who speak a language I don't understand, and yet, I felt incredibly secure and safe. My love for Kuchipudi dance has given me some connected sense of belonging to the village and its people! The nurses and cleaners came in and out of my room casually chatting and staring at me as though I was an exotic bird. "You have come alone?! Where are your parents?? From Delhi??! Why have you come here to Kuchipudi!?" utterly amused by my accent and language.

Only when you actually experience the lack of urban privileges do you realize how Indians in rural areas live on the edge and how embarrassingly little the Indian government provides 70% of its people who live in these areas. In a village like Kuchipudi, an infant, or an elderly person, in a medical emergency, is unlikely to get help in time, especially at night. (Luckily I only had food poisoning!) One would have to travel 50 km by road to Vijaywada to reach a specialist doctor.

In light of this, an enthusiastic young dancer with a medical degree had started a medical camp in Kuchipudi village in 2012. Wanting to make a positive change in the village, she hired a full-time physician and nurse from Hyderabad to be on site, as well as a manager for administration. Over 300 local people sought medical services at this makeshift clinic, until the partnership with the local Kuchipudi leaders soured. Communication failed, funds were mismanaged, and the medical camp stopped. Hopefully, next time, recognizing the value of such efforts, there can be a more fruitful partnership between outsiders, who have the resources, and locals, who have influence on the ground, and who benefit most from such initiatives.

Yakshagana roots
After 7 hours of recovery in Dr. Jaya's clinic in Kuchipudi, I was ready to join the audience gathered in the evening for the Yakshagana performance.

As darkness fell, plastic chairs filled up with local families. The audience was talking occasionally the loud music, making phone calls, feeding children while the performance continued on the open-air stage. Far removed from the 'concert hall silence' of urban theatres! They laughed at the dialogues and applauded their star performers. Some of the dancers I saw in Kuchipudi had performed in the dance festival of the Madras Music Academy in January. I was one of 10 people left in the audience when that performance finished in Chennai. In Kuchipudi, I was one of 600 audience members still sitting and watching attentively at 11pm.

The first program was Sashirekha Parinayam- the story of Abhimanyu's marriage to Sashirekha. The costumes and crowns were dazzling. While some of the smaller supporting characters were amateurs, the leading performers - Vedantam Venkatachalapati (Venku) and his brother Vedantam Raghavaiah (Raghava) - shone bright. Completely into the skin of their characters, equally adept at abhinaya and strong footwork, they were applauded even before they began to dance - the stars of the village!

Yakshagana is one of the main roots of Kuchipudi. It can only loosely be translated as 'dance-drama'. It is a theatrical form, tells mythological stories, and the actors use some footwork in their roles to accompany the song. However, the emphasis is on the script, the mood, the character and the dialogues; not on the dance movements, rhythm patterns or clever choreography.
Davesh Soneji writes, "Essentially, a Yakshagana text may be defined as a text consisting of several compositions that are linked to a particular subject or more commonly, a particular narrative. The compositional genres that make up the Yakshagana are generally daruvu (song), vacanam (prose, dialogue) and padyam (verse). The "link" might seem obvious in the daruvu compositions themselves, or might be provided by monologue (vacanam, padyam) or dialogue (samvadam) that "fill in the gaps" between the compositions." In other words, it is a form of opera/literature/text that is enacted with song, dance, spoken word.

Historically, boys of the Kuchipudi Brahmin families performed Yakshagana around the countryside. Over generations, they learnt these roles from their fathers and uncles. Venku and his brother Ragahava, have imbibed the technique and finesse of the form from their late father, Vedantam Rattaiah Sarma. Some of the other male inheritors of the dance form have not absorbed the nuances as well. Perhaps genetics has not been kind! In other cases, the nuances of Yakshagana have been sacrificed for more lucrative office jobs. The government of India has given awards to the few men of the current generation of Kuchipudi families who have committed their lives to their inherited dance form.

Fiction and Faction
In Kuchipudi village, during the festival, I heard some discussions and debates about Yakshagana. There were concerns about saving 'traditional' Kuchipudi, 'original Kuchipudi'. I heard the laments of gurus like Pasumarti Rattaiah Sarma against 'cinematic dance' and the ever-popular Vempati style. There were echoes of the discussions and debates around sadir and Bharatanatyam. One is reminded of the African proverb, "Until the lions learn to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."

Like all 'classical' art forms, the way that Kuchipudi was classified and recognised as the dance form of Andhra was political to begin with, and the narrative we hear today has some facts, some fiction. Kuchipudi is not the only dance form of the Telugu people. There are folk forms and other resurrected 'classical' forms. There is Nataraja Ramakrishna's Andhra Natyam, Perini (which is now being promoted as the dance form of Telangana), Swapnasundari's Vilasini Natyam, and most recently, a new 'courtesan dance'. There is Yakshagana, Chindu Bhagavatam, Pagati Vesha, Veedhi Natakam, each seemingly more 'authentic' and 'original' than the other. Andhra has a reputation for being fractious, evident even as recently as 2014 when the state of Telangana was formed. There are similar disagreements and factions in the dance world of the state as well.

Andhra Pradesh was formed in 1953 from the Telugu-speaking northern districts of Madras State. During this tumultuous time, out of the many dance forms in Andhra, the dance form of the male Brahmins of Kuchipudi was recognized by the government of India as the 'classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh'. In 'Revisiting the Classical' which traces the evolution of Kuchipudi solo repertoire, Rumya Sree Putcha asserts that 'it is clear that the original source of Kuchipudi's solo repertoire was not the men of Kuchipudi village, but the courtesan women, also referred to today as kalavantulu, with whom they interacted'. She focuses on the elision of women from the historical narrative of Kuchipudi and the history of Telugu dance. The distinction between natya mela (drama forms done by men) and nattuva mela (solo dance forms done by women) became more emphasized during the anti-nautch movement, obscuring how repertoire actually flowed across caste and gender lines.

How do we reconcile this with the resurrected kalavantulu dance forms that are gaining popularity over the past decade as distinct new Telugu forms? How do we account for the Telugu javalis and padams that are legitimate part of solo Kuchipudi repertoire, but are never performed by the men of the village and are slipping away from solo Kuchipudi repertoire?

The history of Kuchipudi as we most often hear it almost always brings up three words 'Telugu Brahmin Men.' Ironically, the dominant image of the classical dancer of Andhra is of the silk costumed, temple jewelry clad female dancer. Not the Yakshagana artist, with his large macho mustache, towering golden crown, and fierce expression depicting kings and demons. Not also the turbaned sutradhara with ash smeared on his head wearing a dhoti, providing philosophy and humour in equal doses, keeping the audience in the Telugu countryside thoroughly engaged through hours of Yakshagana.

The typical image of Kuchipudi dance is not also of stree vesham, men performing as women, which the Kuchipudi men pride themselves on, even today. Vedantam Venkatachalapati Rao (Venku) is best known for his roles of women, dressed in full female costume. He simpers and coyly adjusts his sari like no woman today can. He looks shyly from under his lashes and teases the hero of the drama with convincing over-acted female impersonation that is strangely natural and delightful!

These were not, and are not, the dominant image of Kuchipudi past, nor present. Right from the start, the dance that we saw as solo Kuchipudi performance on a city stage, and what we hear of its historical origins often did not match, because it has plural origins and is constantly evolving.

Ironically, internationally, the face of Kuchipudi is Shantala Shivalingappa, a non-Telugu, Paris-bred classical and contemporary dancer, whom most Kuchipudi gurus have never heard of. Those who have, accuse her of not being authentically Kuchipudi in technique. She won the Bessie award (like an Oscar in dance) for her Kuchipudi performance 'Shiva Ganga' in 2013!

Coping with change
Before the performance began, on my first evening in the village, a rich sponsor from USA came on stage and spoke of his desire to transform Kuchipudi village in the next 2-3 years into a place like Kalakshetra in Chennai! One of the first transformations that has taken place is that they have drained the village pond which was the very soul of the village. My urban eyes were astonished by the quiet beauty of this pond last time I came to the village, seeing buffaloes walking slowly around the pond while the sun set in the distance. I was shocked to find the lake was a dry crater this time, with an oversized industrial excavator machine inside. These are 'efforts at development' an organizer tells me. Efforts are in place to make Kuchipudi a tourist destination, to make monuments that support this village's role in the historical narrative of the dance form and its claims to 'classicism'. Hopefully the superficial nature of development will not be mirrored in superficial changes in the art form.

In Andhra, each dancer seems to discover new aspects of Telugu dance and attempts to establish it territorially as a new form. Mainstream 'Kuchipudi' stalwarts are unwilling to acknowledge that it can include all of these forms. There was sharing of technique and repertoire across caste and gender lines, in the history of Kuchipudi, which got obscured in the making of the 'classical dance' Kuchipudi in 1950's. It is these contradictions that have put this art form in its current crisis situation. Artists continue to fight over ownership and 'authenticity' of the dance form. They create new forms, give new names and rebel against what has already been done. The focus becomes on origins and identity and ownership, rather than on content and evolution.

Even informed audiences have fallen victim to the stereotype. Kuchipudi is the ebullient, saucy, fast-paced footwork, the dancer with her gaudy colors and filmy fitted costume, the multi-leveled buns in the hair, the plate dance, and the long false braid hanging over her shoulder. But Kuchipudi is also dignified and sophisticated, intense, well-paced, varied, and deeply intelligent - a dynamic, versatile, complete artistic language. Most often it is dismissed as the rustic unsophisticated cousin of the ominipresent, all-absorbing and revered Bharatanatyam, to which it is unfortunately compared.

From birth, classical Kuchipudi was paradoxical, suffering from a sort of identity crisis. She is constantly told she is NOT this, NOT that, and becomes a rebellious teenage rogue, or broods silently in the corner. Each practitioner accuses the other of having changed it from its authentic pure form, rather than accepting that art forms will always evolve.

There are few other states in India that have such a large number of different art forms and such a zeal to create as Andhra Pradesh. Healthy ways of collaborating, investigating, researching and sharing techniques, movements, stories, music would make Kuchipudi a more robust and exciting dance form. There are scholars and artists who are going deep into the content, re-examining history, and pushing creative boundaries, who deserve to be recognized.

This discussion goes far beyond Padmaja Reddy or Boby Chakravarty. "Who?", you ask! Two dancers whom the nation's apex cultural body, Sangeet Natak Akademi, has awarded for their service to the art. In a change from the past, for the awards, the Sangeet Natak Akademi has chosen two Kuchipudi dancers who are not that well-known by the small, close-knit dance world. Time will tell if this is a good change.

During my last evening in Kuchipudi village, the Yakshagana festival organizer had a panel discussion promisingly titled "The Future of Kuchipudi", featuring the young generation of Kuchipudi dancers of traditional families in the village. My friend and I enthusiastically sat in the seminar hall, eager to hear what these men, who have inherited this great tradition would say in this discussion. Both she, Sreelakshmy Govardhan, and I, independently, have been performing as Kuchipudi soloists around India and abroad at major urban venues and festivals for the past 12 years. Neither of us are Telugu, and of course, not from any of the traditional families; serendipitous inheritors of this legacy.

The cameras in the seminar hall were ready to document the panel discussion on the 'Future of Kuchipudi', bright spotlights focused on12 empty chairs that were arranged in a neat semicircle each with a bottle of mineral water placed next to them, ready for the young men of the Vedantam and the Pasumarti and Chinta families to appear and give their comment on what they think of the future of this art form they have inherited. After waiting in the seminar hall for 20 minutes past the scheduled start time, a glum-faced organizer came to the two of us and said the panel had been cancelled as the men had more urgent commitments and had called it off. Lights and cameras were switched off, seminar hall locked. Change is inevitable. Who can predict the future?

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man." – Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.)

Amrita Lahiri is a dancer specializing in Kuchipudi. Through her performances, teaching, writing and choreographies, Amrita strives to expand and share the specific beauties of the Kuchipudi form.


Very well written Amrita..
We need more articulate voices for Kuchipudi.
- Ananda Shankar Jayant (June 6, 2016)

I wonder if one reason Kuchipudi gets lost with all the Bharatanatyam around is that there is a lot of Kuchipudi which seems more modelled on Bharatanatyam - and often loses that wonderful bouyancy and shoulder work that I have always associated with Kuchipudi (which was of course traditionally done by men, even when dressed as female characters). - Rajika Puri (June 9, 2016)

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