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A tribute to legend Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma (Sept 9, 1935 - Nov 16, 2012)
- Sridharachari

November 29, 2012

Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, a legend of Kuchipudi dance, was admired, acknowledged, revered as one of the best when it came to portrayal of female impersonation roles to such perfection that it was hard for the audience to believe that the performer they saw and appreciated on stage was in fact a male. Such a towering personality is no more among us in the mortal world though his stupendous work is for the benefit of posterity. His portrayal of female roles in Kuchipudi Yakshaganams such as Usha in Usha Parinayam, Satyabhama in Bhama Kalapam, Deva Devi in Vipra Narayana, Mohini in Mohini Rukmangada, Sasirekha in Sasirekha Parinayam and Gollabhama in Gollakalapam, have been much appreciated over a period spanning almost six decades.

How an artist from a small village in Andhra Pradesh reached such great heights, how he assiduously pursued his art through his lifetime with a view to excel, present the art and himself at the best, became a role model, is the story and journey of Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma in the Kuchipudi dance world which is worth studying and emulating. Born in a traditional family in Kuchipudi village, Vedantams are one of the nineteen families who are torchbearers of the art form for centuries. Hence Satyanarayana Sarma was born with dance in his genes. Without any customary childhood diversions, he took to dance like how fish takes to water and like all members of the Kuchipudi traditional families he was initiated into dance at the early age of five years five months and fifth day which is considered to be an auspicious time.

He had the good fortune of learning from his own brother, the illustrious Vedantam Prahlada Sarma, who was well known as a strict disciplinarian and a hard task master too when it came to teaching the art and this helped Satyanarayana Sarma to hone his innate skill. The story goes that he was ready for major female impersonation roles as early as his 14th year. However, he was considered too young for portrayal of challenging roles, so the then Bhagavatha melam decided to wait. With his entire time and effort confined to the art form, this waiting period built up internal pressure for Vedantam, who was ready to showcase his talent but was not allowed to, and this led to pent up feelings and resultant frustration. As is still a tradition among the Kuchipudi families, one had to be adept at both dancing and singing to an accepted general level, so he took to learning music under the famous Yeleswarapu Seetharamanjaneyulu. Thereby, as a young boy itself, Vedantam had the right training to be a Kuchipudi Yakshaganam artist.

In his own words, he has described the increasing feeling of uneasiness when he was left to do supporting characters - less challenging female impersonation roles in the Kuchipudi Yakshaganams. Here one can interpret easily that even at a relatively young age his zest, dedication and eagerness to learn, perform and be on the path to perfection and dedication to the art form was very evident. Vedantam goes on to share that during that time, one evening, with darkness almost on the horizon, he met an old man who allayed his disenchantment about waiting in the wings with his prophecy that by his 19th year, Vedantam would get his opportunities and from then on he would carry the flag of Kuchipudi high worldwide.

Vedantam always averred that it must have been the great Siddendra Yogi himself who had come to reassure him about his future. Soon, Vedantam had the honour of donning the role of Satyabhama to aplomb in Bhama Kalapam, the jewel in the crown of Kuchipudi repertoire which was a stellar contribution by the great seer himself, who also had taken promise from the Kuchipudi traditional families that at least once they shall don the role of Satyabhama while preserving and propagating the meaningful Kalapam.

The growing pangs of pain before one embarks on a missionary zeal to totally offer the self to art of any kind was seen in Vedantam even before the age of twenty and from then on opportunities came one after the other and he held to them with a sense of gratitude. He was part of Pasumarti Kondalarayudu's entourage and his success in Delhi for his performance as Usha in Usha Parinayam made the art world sit up and pay attention to his natural flair and skills to enact the female impersonation role with Úlan and grace.

His success also led to the unification of the major troupes at Kuchipudi village, which appreciated and shared in his success to garner enough mileage for all and showcase Kuchipudi Yakshaganam and Kalapams to the world. He was later part of the famous Chinta Krishnamurthy entourage and there are innumerable recorded instances of his enchanting performances in the female lead roles of Kuchipudi Yakshaganam and the emotions that the audience would experience after knowing that the female character they had seen and appreciated on the stage was in fact portrayed by a full blooded male. It is said that once even Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sat coyly next to Vedantam in the audience recollecting the role that Vedantam had played as a female and the immediate reaction to consider him as the character itself and the basic etiquette that a female is required to show in public.

There are instances when the Guest of Honour would pose shyly with the still saree clad Vedantam on stage after the performances since the impression that he created with exact enactment of female impersonation would still be fresh in their minds. Awards and rewards were delivered to him quite rightfully and he has the honour of being the first recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for a Kuchipudi artiste in 1961. He got his Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1967, followed by Padma Shri in 1970. He was also conferred the Kalidas Sammam award in 1988.

Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma never rested after his initial laurels as one of the best in the female impersonation genre in classical dance. He kept on improvising and learning from observation of how a woman moves, emotes, the natural grace and finesse they generally transmit, the jewellery they preferred; the style of the attire and the manner in which it was carried off were all brought into the roles that he primarily played, Usha and Satyabhama. He would wear the entire attire as how a woman would do including the saree in the most traditional fashion.

The fact that he ruled the Kuchipudi art world for over six decades with almost no controversies and eliciting spontaneous response from one and all concerned speaks volumes about his nature. He was simple, focused, with no airs about him, humble, contented but at the same time never complacent and ever attentive and proactive to make his mark in the dance world and showcase the uniqueness of Kuchipudi on the world stage. The fact that he has to his credit over 5000 performances is indicative of his ability to care about the accompanying performers, musicians and the entire entourage with a kind heart and humility, never separating his success and acknowledging the fact that success of such magnitude always entails a direct and indirect wholehearted participation from one and all. He would be with the entire entourage through thick and thin and always in his impeccable demeanor of friendliness.

Along with Vempati Chinna Satyam, Vedantam had his task cut out to be the brand ambassador of the centuries' old art form. He came at a very crucial period, having been born more than a decade prior to Independence, saw the unification of the States and India becoming a republic, opening up of new vistas within the country first for the art form and then abroad with the additional responsibility of representing the art form and the young Indian republic.

He was a traditionalist at heart and a purist too; hence, he took additional care and sense of responsibility when it came to promoting, propagating and preserving the art form. One would see him always provide encouraging words to young artistes and politely put across suggestions for improvement in a humble way. Till the end he was easily approachable in the quiet village of Kuchipudi where he lived all his life. One would definitely miss seeing him walking the streets of the village at least thrice a day on his way to the temple, bhajans or to the sprawling Kuchipudi Kalakshetra acknowledging one and all and eager to share his wealth of knowledge and experience with the discerning students.

The general adage that masterpieces are always in the singular is quite true in the case of female impersonation roles in Kuchipudi in the earlier century. While there were quite a few experts at that including the legend Vedantam Raghavaiah, it is Satyanarayana Sarma's mastery in female impersonation roles that made him synonymous with the ability to elevate the roles to unbelievable heights. Till the end he was eager to teach the younger generation from the Kuchipudi traditional families and provide them opportunity to master female impersonation roles in the current juncture of not so popular and favourable stance offered to the ability to perform such roles in Kuchipudi which also had undergone sea change during his lifetime with the advent of almost full attention to showcase the kelikas vis-Ó-vis the much grander Kuchipudi Yakshaganams and Kalapams of yesteryears.

This has robbed the current generation from seeing and appreciating the talent and also learning the art of performing such roles in particular Kuchipudi. The need of the hour is to draw inspiration and direction from the life and works of such legends like Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma and carry on the baton of excellence while striving to live up to the levels of the legends. This would give an entirely new meaning and dimension to all their travails and the resultant character of strength that they gained to attain their goals. It is the base provided by such legends that its fruits are enjoyed by the current generation of Kuchipudi artistes, be it recognition, additional infrastructure, facilities to perform, better career path, availability of easier avenues to showcase one's talent, and so on.

There may have been only one Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma in the 20th century, but the lessons learnt and acted upon from one such luminary would enlighten a whole lot of youngsters for generations to come who would benefit immensely from imbibing his unique qualities and standing for the principles that he so wonderfully lived for till the very end and now forever in our hearts. That would be the best tribute one can offer to Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma who ruled the art world like someone with a divine agenda, i.e, to take Kuchipudi art form to greater heights and wider reach globally.

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