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Rathna Kumar: Cannot imagine my life without Kuchipudi
- Lalitha Venkat

October 27, 2011

Hailing from a family of musicians and writers, Rathna Kumar is an internationally renowned dancer, teacher and choreographer. She trained initially in Bharatanatyam under Guru KJ Sarasa, and in Kuchipudi under gurus Vedantam Jagannatha Sharma and Vempati Pedda Satyam. She later learnt from Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam at the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai. A child prodigy, Rathna Kumar was known as 'Rathna Papa' and performed around India from a very young age. She emerged as a front ranking Kuchipudi dancer in the 1970s. She subsequently moved to the United States, where she established the Anjali Centre for Performing Arts (1975), the first Indian dance school in Texas and one of the first in the US, and the Samskriti Society for Indian Performing Arts (1994) at Houston. She has served as Dance Instructor at Rice University, USA, since 2002. As a performer-teacher and as a member of several organizations and committees, she has contributed significantly to the practice and promotion of India's dance forms in the USA.

Rathna Kumar has published two books on the basic techniques of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi titled Adavu and Kuchipudi Adavu Sammu. She has been featured in an award-winning documentary film produced by Helenvision of Paris under the direction of Claude Lamorisse. She has participated in international conferences on arts including the First World Conference on Art Education organized by Unesco in Lisbon, and later in Hong Kong where she was the key speaker.

Rathna has trained over 2000 students from different ethnic backgrounds from all over the US. On April 29 on International Dance Day, after the inauguration of the 41st Houston International Festival, Minnette Boesel, liaison for City of Houston Mayor Annise Parker, presented a proclamation to Rathna on behalf of the Mayor, declaring it 'Rathna Kumar Day' in recognition of her longstanding participation in the festival (35 years) and her contributions to enhance the Houston arts scene.

Rathna Kumar received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in July 2011 for her contribution to Kuchipudi dance. She shares her candid thoughts with in a long overdue interview!

Vice President Hamid Ansari honoring Rathna Kumar in New Delhi on July 22, 2011

What was your feeling when you heard you were receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award?
Complete surprise, amazement, disbelief, followed by elation! I got the call from Sunil Kothari at 2pm (1am India time) and thought he was pulling my leg! The SNA had never before given this award to any artiste outside India, so how could this news be true? Sunil must have heard it wrong! I took a deep breath and told myself not to get too excited but could not resist calling my husband and my mother to give them the unexpected good news. Then I waited for the official letter to arrive before sharing it with my friends and other family members. There are no adequate words to express my happiness at this wonderful recognition because it gives greater credibility to the work I have been doing in the US for the past 36 years.

In these past three and a half decades, I have received Certificates of Appreciation from former President George W Bush, Texas Governor Rick Perry (who is running for President right now) and four Houston Mayors, a Congressional Recognition, a Lifetime Achievement Award, an Asian Legacy Award, Outstanding Asian award, and many more, and have been the only Indian woman to have been nominated to the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. But everything pales in comparison to the SNA award - I value this most of all - and receiving this has been the best and the most significant achievement of my five-and-a-half decade long dance career.

When you first started teaching Kuchipudi in the US, what was it like, and how is it now?
Very few had heard of Kuchipudi, and most wanted to learn Bharatanatyam, with which they were more familiar. So I started teaching only Bharatanatyam at first. Then, one of the Telugu ladies saw my Kuchipudi performance at a reception for the Indian Ambassador to the US, and requested me to teach her daughter only Kuchipudi. Then others followed, and soon I had many students opting for Kuchipudi, because, according to them, they found it exciting and different. Everyone was particularly fascinated by the Tarangam, especially the dancing on the plate. Of course, I am talking of the year 1975! Today, in 2011, after 36 years of teaching, I have more Kuchipudi students than I did when I began, but the numbers are nowhere close to those that choose to learn Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam still remains the most popular form learnt in Houston, and has the most number of teachers propagating it.

Some people complain that Bharatanatyam is overshadowing Kuchipudi. Your comments.

If that is how it is perceived by practitioners of Kuchipudi, then it is the responsibility of every Kuchipudi dancer and scholar to elevate the dance form to a higher level and spread its message to the whole world, so that this widespread awareness will bring it greater name and fame, and it will be second to none. If there are strong Kuchipudi proponents who can articulate the greatness of the Kuchipudi dance form, both through performance and spoken word, who can be creative without sacrificing the idiom, and who can produce good, strong and new work that can capture the attention of the public, then Kuchipudi too will become as popular as Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam dancers outnumber all others and that is also part of the reason for its popularity. It is popular therefore more students opt for it, and because more choose to learn it, it steadily gains in popularity! There is also a constant search for new material, rare and off-beat themes, and innovative ideas, in Bharatanatyam, because the audience is also looking for something new and exciting. Kuchipudi has still not evolved to that extent. When more Kuchipudi dancers become bold enough to think 'out of the box' (and beyond hackneyed, run-of-the-mill themes and items, as well as costumes) people will start taking notice of its immense potential. But as long as we keep presenting the same old repertoire of dances forever, however beautiful they may be, the audience will tend to get bored, and then lose interest altogether.

My guru Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam was an innovator who took the dance world by storm and put Kuchipudi on the world map. He kindled an interest in many young dancers like me and my sister Seetha Ratnakar, who had learnt Bharatanatyam, to take the challenge and learn this fascinating new style that seemed so fluid and graceful on one hand and bold and vibrant on the other. I am so glad that my mother insisted on my learning Kuchipudi, because I cannot imagine my life without it.

Do you think Kuchipudi is more popular now than a few years earlier?
Actually, Kuchipudi became very popular in the 60's and 70's, with even some top notch Bharatanatyam dancers learning it, but I personally feel that Kuchipudi is losing its edge nowadays, and there are not as many really dedicated students today as there were in my day. On the other hand, thanks to the Central University and the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University in Hyderabad opening the doors to researchers in the field, Kuchipudi has found a new niche as a subject for in-depth study, and has spawned quite a few scholars, under-graduates and post-graduates. So scholarship in Kuchipudi has grown, but not the number of high caliber performers as there should be. There is no denying the fact that there are excellent Kuchipudi artists who have done yeoman's service to the dance form, but when compared to their Bharatanatyam counterparts, they are fewer in number.

Over the years, what difference have you seen in students, teachers, or audience for Kuchipudi?
In general, I am seeing less interest among Indians in the US in all classical dance forms, including Kuchipudi, and more focus on Bollywood and /or 'Fusion'. Often, it is the non Indian organizations that request us to present 'traditional dances', whereas the local Indian organizations ask us to do folk, Bollywood or 'Fusion', without knowing what exactly the word means! I also notice a slackening of interest in Chennai for Kuchipudi, both in the number of students as well as performances. When my guru Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam was reigning supreme as THE Kuchipudi guru in India, the Kuchipudi Art Academy was teeming with hundreds of students, there were constantly rehearsals going on for some new dance drama or other, or Master would be seated in the big hall, surrounded by students eager to learn his new choreographies. That scene has changed, at least in Chennai.

When there are no challenges, things cease to be of interest. I feel that Kuchipudi has become somewhat stagnant, either because of complacency or lack of opportunities / encouragement. Raja and Radha Reddy and Swapnasundari have revitalized Kuchipudi to a great extent, but they are among the minority. As far as Houston is concerned, I can say, quite honestly, that there has been a sustained interest in Kuchipudi among students of dance during all the 36 years that I have been teaching here. However, audiences here, especially the Indians, seem to enjoy Bollywood dances more than Kuchipudi! But I continue teaching it and my students, some of them brilliant dancers who could become professional dancers if they wished, continue learning it, and we are very happy with what we are doing here.

Do you think these annual Kuchipudi conventions achieve anything?
Depending on the purpose behind them, and what they hope to achieve. I fail to see the intrinsic value of putting a 1000 dancers of all shapes, sizes, calibre and capability on stage at one time, especially if the event cannot generate any greater interest among young people to pursue the art form or create the proper awareness among the viewers. But there have been meaningful conventions in the past which have discussed topics of interest and importance, and thrown a lot of light on many aspects of Kuchipudi Natyam. Samskriti, of which I am the Artistic Director, can take credit for organizing the very first North American Kuchipudi Conference in 2003, which brought together a vast majority of Kuchipudi dancers / teachers / choreographers that live and practice their art in the US. We saw samples of each other's work, interacted, learned a lot about how much of work was being done in the field in different cities, exchanged salient information, and above all, developed a greater respect for one another.

You make your annual pilgrimage to Chennai during the season. What are the good / bad trends you see?
With the instincts of a homing pigeon, I fly back to Chennai every December, because my desire to go home starts building up from November and reaches a crescendo by the beginning of December. I teach a course in Bharatanatyam at Rice University, and the first thing I look for on the calendar is the date of the last working day for the semester. Then I call my travel agent and book my ticket! I see that there are many young dancers today who are very serious about their art, and it is heartening to see their interest and dedication, especially at a time when movie dances have almost taken over the world. But there do not seem to be that many opportunities for them to perform, in spite of the innumerable sabhas that have mushroomed all over the city.

When I come to India, I myself feel like performing, and even for an established dancer like me, performances do not come easy. Some sabhas expect me to offer money, just because of the misconception that all NRIs have money to 'buy' programs! In spite of my long years of service to dance - both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi - the SNA award is the first 'acknowledgement' from a prestigious body of artists and connoisseurs, of my expertise in the field. But I have not succeeded in getting even a local 'Kalaimamani' in spite of being born and raised, and trained in Tamil Nadu! I have watched many younger dancers receiving awards that, had I stayed back in India, I may have received (who knows!), but that in no way mitigates my passion for dance nor my interest in continuing my work exactly as I have been doing it all these years.

As the Artistic Director of Samskriti, I have presented many a dancer and dance ensemble in Houston, not really expecting anyone to reciprocate the gesture and organize my dance performance in India, and, except in three cases, it hasn't happened. But I love dance and live for it, and will continue to present good artistes in Houston because I want everyone in this city to see how extraordinarily beautiful our classical dance forms are. That is why I come 'home' to Chennai every December - to witness as much good dancing as possible, and return to Houston a happy person, learning something new each time.

Through Samskriti I have had the honour to present, in Houston, Dr. Vyjayantimala Bali, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Alarmel Valli, the late great Kelucharan Mohapatra and Sanjukta Panigrahi, Mallika Sarabhai & the Darpana Dance Academy, Ramli Ibrahim & the Sutra Dance Company, Leela Samson & the Kalakshetra Repertory Company, the Dhananjayans, Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam & the Kuchipudi Art Academy, Dr. Anita Ratnam, Swapna Sundari, Sobha Naidu, Priyadarsini Govind, the Rudrakshya Odissi ensemble and Rama Vaidyanathan, to name a few.

If there is one improvement you could bring to any organization / sabha in Chennai, what would that be?
I would put a 'cap' on how many 'dance festivals' would be allowed in the month of December, because their increasing number makes it hard on the audience, which keeps dwindling as more venues start organizing these events. Looks like these festivals have suddenly multiplied, thanks to the increase in NRI dancers, especially the younger ones, who are asked to pay for their performances. This is a great money-making scheme indeed. I am against the idea of dancers paying sabhas money in order to get a chance to perform. But I do understand that it must be so frustrating for up-and-coming artistes to be forever waiting in the wings for a performance opportunity to come their way, and paying a sabha is their only chance to perform. There have been sabhas doing these festivals for a very long time and they have excellent track records. Let them continue the wonderful work they are doing and let others conduct their mini festivals during the rest of the year. If the festivals are staggered, there will be better/larger audiences for all the shows.

What is the most challenging work you have done in your career?
Researching and choreographing an entire Margam on Christian themes for a special Arangetram. Though I had studied in Catholic institutions for 17 years (both school and college), finding lyrics for appropriate songs for these dances proved quite daunting. I had to sit with the student's mother, choose verses from the Bible and other sources, which were mostly in Malayalam (a language that I know only peripherally), set them to music myself, compose the jati-s, and create songs and then dances out of them. I had to choose verses which had scope for some sanchari bhavam, so that the Varnam format did not change in any way. The whole event turned out very well and everyone was happy. Many of my Christian students and friends could not believe that I knew the Bible so well, and that was a compliment!

The other one was a project that I had taken up, at the suggestion of my sister Seetha Ratnakar. 'Poornam' dedicated to all the physically challenged people of the world, proved a tough one to choreograph and posed many challenges. Presenting the characters of Ashtavakra (and his philosophical exchanges with King Janaka) and Helen Keller through Bharatanatyam was initially a daunting task, but as the work unfolded, I began enjoying it and the final product was indeed very satisfying, and received rave reviews.

Rathna Kumar can be contacted at:

Dear Ratna Kumar,
You are a sincere artiste and have served a lot to the field of Indian dance in USA. I am happy to know that you are honored with the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2011 which you deserve. NRI dancers are proud of you. My hearty congratulations. Thank you, SNA!
- D. Keshava
Kalasri, Switzerland
(Nov 18, 2011)

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