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In praise of Kuchipudi exponent Sumathy Kaushal
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

July 24, 2019

Senior Kuchipudi exponent, Guru Sumathy Kaushal passed away on Guru Purnima day on 15th July 2019 at her residence in Rancho Cucamonga, California, USA. She had migrated there by 1981 and settled there with her two sons - Adarsh, who was a photographer (he passed away recently) and other son Abhiman who is a tabla player of renown.

I had visited Sumathy's residence three years ago during my visit to USA to take part in celebration of her institute Nritya Shikhar's completing more than 52 years. Her few students from different parts of USA and a film actor from Hyderabad had specially come to be with her. We caught up after a long interval. She told me she was happy conducting classes and occasionally visiting Hyderabad also.

It was in 1964 that I had met her in Hyderabad. I had gone with her and her mother Sowbhagyam to a Kuchipudi seminar when I met senior most guru and exponent Chinta Krishnamurty. After attending All India Dance Seminar in 1958 in New Delhi and watching demonstration of Kuchipudi by one Kanchanamala and meeting Banda Kanakalingeshwar Rao, I was keen to study more about Kuchipudi. When in Hyderabad, I was introduced to Sumathy and saw her rehearsing with traditional guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri. Whenever later on I visited Hyderabad, I invariably used to meet her.

Sumathy had also shown interest in learning Odissi under Guru Pankaj Charan Das. She learnt from him, his favourite Panchakanya item. Other dancers who also studied Panchakanya were Yamini Krishnamurty and Ritha Devi, besides few young Odiya dancers. Sumathy had earned enough name and fame as a leading Kuchipudi dancer. She had studied Bharatanatyam under K.J. Sarasa and Nataraj Ramakrishna. When Films Division made a documentary film in two parts on Kuchipudi, the director selected Sumathy to perform Kuchipudi in an improvised temple. One of the rare recordings of her early dancing is thus preserved in this documentary film.

She was married to Ranjit Bahadur Kaushal who supported her in her dance career. During early 70s, in Mumbai I was closely associated with Sur Singar Samsad and assisting its director Brijnarain for annual Haridas Sammelan. We had invited Sumathy for presenting Kuchipudi and also Odissi. At that time I was introducing dancers in a series in Femina, a women's magazine of the Times of India group. We carried photos of Sumathy in both Kuchipudi and Odissi dance styles. Later on she often performed in Mumbai.

Sumathy received several awards and honours when she was based in Hyderabad. Among them she cherished the 'Satyabhama Jada award' given to her by Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, aka Vedantam Satyam. She performed for TANA Association and World Telugu Conferences in USA winning many laurels. Sumathy also choreographed dance sequences for few Telugu films. Besides, she choreographed dance-dramas like Devi Vaibhavam, Harihar Sangamam, and Ayyappa Jananam which were scripted by her maternal grandfather Mahadev Sambho who was a renowned vaggeyakar. It was Sumathy's great wish that for Ayyapa Jananam, K.J Yesudas should sing one song.

In California, Sumathy succeeded in generating interest in Kuchipudi. She was also visiting Professor at the California University and trained several young dancers of NRIs who flocked to her school. Though she had been honoured and much respected, by temperament she was self effacing and low profile. She belonged to that generation of dancers who were privileged to learn from great masters when Kuchipudi was gaining recognition as a classical dance form. She always felt it was a blessing to learn from Lakshminarayana Sastri, his son Jagannath Sarma, Pasumarthy Venugopal Krishna Sarma, Chinta Krishnamurty and Vedantam Satyam. Thus the foundation was very strong and as passed on by the traditional gurus.

Whereas her elder sister Uma Rama Rao chose to teach, and carried on the legacy at University level, Sumathy with her performances generated an awareness of a dance tradition. Coming as they both did from nontraditional class with higher education, their services were well recognized to take up dance as a career.

Sumathy also wrote a book Natya Darpana. Her interest in theory was very deep. In California when I met her, she told me that she had the recordings of Panchakanya and various notes and details of style of Pankaj Charan Das. The well known writer and critic Shyamhari Chakra from Bhubaneswar was given Govt. Ministry of Culture fellowship as he was working on the works of Pankaj Charan Das. I had put them in touch with each other. She was very keen that Pankaj Charan Das's work be preserved.

Her son Adarsh's passing way after heart attack affected Sumathy and she was not keeping well. Abhiman wrote to me that she often recalled old days. She was ailing and full of grief of Adarsh's passing away.

Sumathy will be remembered for her pioneering work in Kuchipudi.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic, Padma Shri awardee and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.

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