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In praise of Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

August 4, 2012

I am writing this obituary with a heavy heart. The news came around 10.45am in the morning when a seminar at National Gallery of Museum (NGMA), Bangalore, under the title Kala Vimarshana - Writing on the arts - was inaugurated. A large assembly of people, dancers, critics, musicians, scholars stood up observing silence for Master Garu's departed soul. He was recovering since February and had passed through a critical stage being looked after by his wife, elder son Venkat, Ravi, all members of the family. Like a devoted son, Venkat left no stone unturned to serve his ailing father. I used to stay with Vempati Garu whenever I visited Chennai since last nine years. He treated me like his younger brother and looked after me during my month long stay in Chennai in December.

He was a giant of a Guru in Kuchipudi. What he did for Kuchipudi is amazing. In the post independence era, four major Gurus I came in close contact with were Manipuri Guru Bipin Singh, Odissi Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Kuchipudi Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam and Kathak Guru Pandit Birju Maharaj. They changed the course of the respective dance forms, contributing to its growth and development, transforming them with their creativity, lending the forms a new life, look and sophistication.

In Kuchipudi, there was a galaxy of great gurus from 18th Century AD. The names of old guards like Bhagavatulu Vissayya, Tadepalli Perayya Sastry, Vempati Kodandaramayya, Chinta Venkatramayya, Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri, Chinta Krishnamurty are known to all. Others like Pasumarty Venugopal Krishna Sarma, Vedantam Prahlada Sarma, Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma (Vedantam Satyam), Vedantam Raghavayya, are also remembered with admiration.

Of all the illustrious gurus from the Vempati family group, Vempati Chinna Satyam's contribution to Kuchipudi has been outstanding. Born in 1929, he studied under Tadepalli Perayya Sastry, Pasumarti Kondala Rayudu, his elder cousin Vempati Pedda Satyanarayana and Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri. As a child, he played the roles of Lava, Kusha, Lohitasya and Prahlada, and then graduated to the female roles of Satyabhama and Gollabhama. Well versed in other male roles, he was known for the role of Lord Shiva in Ksheerasagara Mathanam, a dance-drama choreographed by him.

Following the footsteps of Vempati Pedda Satyanarayana, he too migrated to Chennai and in the early years gave direction for dance in films. However, when he came under the influence of Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri, he was extremely impressed by the guru's approach and erudition. When he got involved as a guru training dancers in Kuchipudi, he established Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai in 1963 and began choreographing and composing dance numbers for solo presentations. He had already made deep study of the Natya Sastra and other texts and was obsessed to place Kuchipudi on par with other classical dance forms. He received good exposure during his initial stay in Chennai feasting his eyes on the productions of Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra. He realized that Kuchipudi had to acquire posh and perfection with aesthetic presentation.

With his creative genius he brought a sea change in the execution of the nritta movements. The nritta numbers in the dance-drama lacked in beauty of movements, were crude and rustic. He introduced sophistication, clean lines and a scintillating quality with perfect resolutions of movements of various dance units and created innumerable jatis and dance patterns. He classified them, correlated them with the Natya Sastra text, emphasizing the sastric nature of the Kuchipudi dance form. He brought an order to the solo presentation of Kuchipudi dance on the lines of Bharatanatyam and other solo forms.

He brought in changes in aharya, costumes, as well as music emphasizing its classical character. He received support from P Sangeeta Rao, the veena player and music director. Bhujangaraya Sarma wrote at his behest, a homage to Siddhendra Yogi in the form of Brahmanjali with the words Brahmanjali tandava nritta shreshame. It was set to Todi raga by the young vocalist K Suryaprakash Rao. Most of his disciples perform it as an opening number with slokas from the Abhinaya Darpana. He composed and choreographed jatiswarams, tillanas, varnams and lyrics of contemporary lyricists like Devulapalli Krishna Sastri from the dance-drama Vipranarayana viz., Koluvaitava ranga sayee and Vedalera vayyarulu, which became extremely popular.

The repertoire he created over a span of thirty years is remarkable and Vempati's style acquired a distinct characteristic, setting his style apart from other gurus. His students are a legion. With star pupil Chandrakala, who left Kuchipudi to join films and Sobha Naidu, Vempati succeeded in having a large following in no time. From the leading lights of Bharatanatyam like film stars Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Meenakshi Sheshadri to the celebrated dancers like Shanta Rao, Yamini Krishnamurty, Sonal Maningh, Lakshmi Viswanathan, Swapnasundari, Kamala's sister Rhadha, a host of dancers studied under him in the seventies, performing some numbers learnt under him in their repertoire. However, in the earlier years, it was Sobha Naidu who as his prime disciple became synonymous with Vempati Chinna Satyam's style. Later on when he opened a branch in Hyderabad, he deputed Sobha Naidu to teach there and run the academy. Similarly, he sent Bala Kondala Rao to Visakhapatnam and spread Kuchipudi in Andhra to other cities with great success.

Kamala Reddy, Sasikala, Anuradha Nehru, Padma Menon, Manju Bhargavee, Rathna Kumar, Kamdev among others acquired a status of a star followed by so many including Kalpalatika, Anuradha Jonnalagadda, Shanta Rati Mishra and Shantala Shivalingappa based in Paris. Shantala has worked with Peter Brook of Mahabharata fame and renowned German choreographer Pina Bausch. There are countless exponents who have trained under him and follow his style, a majority of them settled in USA. For want of space, I have mentioned a few names only.

Besides solo numbers, Vempati Chinna Satyam choreographed a number of dance-dramas with imagination and deep understanding of how dance-dramas should be presented for metropolitan audiences. He has choreographed more than fifteen dance-dramas of which Padmavati Srinivasa Kalyanam, Rukmini Kalyanam, Hara Vilasam have received unprecedented success. Their production values and dramatic impact, music and uniform good performances by the well trained dancers have received appreciation not only in India but also abroad. Several USA and European tours are a testimony to the Guru's genius. The tremendous support he received from Telugu NRIs abroad is historic. The services he rendered to Kuchipudi dance-drama and solo dance form is unparalleled.

Ananda Kuchibhotla of Silicon Andhra honoured him at Cupertino, near Stanford in USA which brought the entire Telugu community to pay tributes to him. For the Guinness Book of World Records, one in USA and the other at Hyderabad, hundreds of Kuchipudi dancers performed Vempati's choreographed jatiswaram and tillana numbers and created history. Vempati has devised a course of training which is quite rigorous. Training in music and Sanskrit literature is compulsory along with practical lessons in dance. He himself used to supervise the classes, till his health permitted. He conducted several workshops abroad and as a creative guru his prolific choreographic works have placed Kuchipudi on a very high level. He has written a book in Telugu on Kuchipudi with hundreds of sketches for the technique and explanations of Natya Sastra principles.

Several honours came his way for his excellent work. Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Fellowship, Padma Bhushan, Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi's Bharata Kala Prapoorna award, Madhya Pradesh Government's prestigious Kalidas Samman, Honorary Doctorate from Sri Venkateswara University and several other titles were bestowed upon him. His son Venkat looked after the management part, foreign tours, documentation, annual festivals at Kuchipudi village, placing statues of great legendary masters at Kuchipudi village, and did not leave any stone unturned to promote the cause of Kuchipudi. As mentioned earlier, like a pitrubhakta Shravana, he served his father till he breathed his last.

With his own creative skills, imagination, observation and aesthetic approach, Vempati Chinna Satyam metamorphosed Kuchipudi into a highly classical dance form, meeting various norms of the Natya Sastra. He shall be remembered for long by generations of dancers for his genius. He taught with great generosity. Never charged any fee, fed dancers, allowed them to blossom and today wherever they are, they have done Vempati proud by continuing and following his tradition.

Venkat and Ravi will now have to work out various strategies to run the Kuchipudi Art Academy to carry on the legacy of Vempati garu. Venkat's daughter Vempati Lakshmi Kameswari is a brilliant dancer. Kuchipudi is in her blood and she is bound to turn into a star of Kuchipudi of Vempati bani. His son Aneesh Vempati has also been exposed to dance day in and day out and we all hope that these two grandchildren will along with Ravi, Venkat, his wife Srimayi and others continue and preserve this great heritage.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.

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