Nayika: Women in Kuchipudi
- G. Ulaganathan

March 20, 2017

Nayika, an innovative seminar on Kuchipudi style of Indian classical dance, was organised by the Shambhavi School of Dance headed by Kuchipudi exponent Vyjayanthi Kashi on March 5 at the Seva Sadan, Bangalore. The day-long event is the fourth edition of Nayika, and brought together four women dancers and gurus who narrated their personal experiences and also demonstrated their artistry with a couple of brief, interesting items. Vyjayanthi, who has been singlehandedly organising this event for the last four years in various cities in the south, says that it is aimed at discovering, demonstrating and discussing the contribution of women to Kuchipudi.

Sumathy Kaushal receives Natyashastra Award
The Shambhavi School or Dance also honoured one of the well-known Kuchipudi gurus from Hyderabad, Sumathy Kaushal who has shifted base to the USA, with the Natyashastra Award. Sumathy, who has trained more than 100 students who have had their arangetrams or Ranga Pravesham as they call it in Andhra Pradesh, was a very popular figure in the arena of dance a decade ago and I have personally attended and reviewed many of her disciples’ performances.

Vyjayanthi, introducing the guests and speaking about Kuchipudi, said it was originally a natya technique called as Kuchipudi Bhagavatam or Yakshagana. “In the early days, it was presented only by young Brahmin boys who narrated stories from the Bhagavatam. Even the feminine roles were played by men. With the passing of time, Kuchipudi has also branched out as a solo form, welcoming women into its fold. It was Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry who was instrumental in introducing women into this art form and ever since, there has been a remarkable contribution made by women,” she said in her opening remarks.

“Today, the number of students learning traditional dance has increased tremendously. At the same time, students invest less time in knowing about the history and challenges of the dance forms. Knowing the past helps one to understand the approach and philosophy of an art form. One need not try and become a ‘photocopy’ of the past, but there is a need to understand the larger gamut of art and create something which will inspire the youth and the future generations to come. Through this seminar, we wish to document and bring to light the challenges faced by women of different generations who have grown to become gurus, performers, researchers, organizers, nattuvanars, cultural ambassadors or critics in preserving, promoting and popularizing this art form. And also to understand the challenges, repertoire and training methods followed by artists of yester years,” she added.

First to take the stage was Smitha Shastri who spoke elaborately about learning the art from Guru C.R. Acharyulu in Darpana. “My first major challenge was the language. He could only speak Telugu and a few words in Hindi and we mostly communicated through gestures. My father was initially very skeptic  about my interest in learning a south Indian dance style. Guruji would teach me at least four to five different movements but finally leave it to me to decide which suited me best,” she recalled. “When I asked him what he would like me to give as guru dakshina, he only wanted me to go around Gujarat and popularise Kuchipudi. He lived and breathed Kuchipudi till the end. In Gujarat, there were only three girls learning Kuchipudi those days. Now many young boys and girls are willing to take up dance and there are Kuchipudi schools in Surat and Ahmedabad,” she says with pride.

Sumathy Kaushal, who is past 70 now, fondly recalled her rigorous training under the legendary gurus Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma and Chinta Krishnamurthy. “While Sharma taught me the perfect Satyabhama moods, gestures and style, Chinta Krishnamurthy taught me the nuances of many dharuvus. Though I was from a big city, I learnt to live in Kuchipudi village. It was difficult in the beginning but gradually I got adjusted and the whole village treated me as their own daughter,” said Sumathy. Though her body has slowed down, her spirit is still very high and she got on stage and demonstrated a few brilliant scenes from Bhama Kalapam.

Smitha Shastri

Maddali Usha Gayathri

Then Usha Gayathri performed a couple of traditional Kuchipudi items and explained how children these days are dedicated to the art as in olden days though they have a lot of other pressures and distractions.

The scene stealer was of course Bala Kondala Rao from Vizag who spoke at length about how she began, and how she became the star attraction in Vempati Chinna Satyam’s dance dramas. In chaste Telugu, with a sprinkling of English, she walked down memory lane—from the time she struggled to get acceptance as a young aspirant as she was from a non-Brahmin family, how Vempati took her in despite his wife’s strong objection, how she struggled hard as a 14-year-old in the new city of Madras, and how her mother and she occupied a small room in Kuchipudi Art Academy, and so on.

“I had to get up at about 3am every day, start practicing at about 3.30am.  Master would come soon and it was rigorous practice sessions for long hours. He saw some spark in me and appointed me as a teacher early in my career. Then I got to play lead roles in memorable dance dramas like Rukmini Kalyanam, Chandalika, etc. I never imagined that I would be able to play these roles as I was short, not very fair and did not have any characteristics of a classical dancer. But it was my great fortune that Master encouraged me and gave me important roles to perform. He was very strict and we learnt discipline and commitment from him,” Bala said with a lot of emotion. She also gave a glimpse of her immense talent by donning the role of Rukmini in Bhama Kalapam. She did this with support from one of her students who donned the role of Madhavi. It was pure vintage stuff.

Bala Kondala Rao

Vyjayanthi Kashi

Then followed a brilliant solo recital by Vyjayanthi and she rendered an interesting item from Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashi.This was choreographed by Kashi under the guidance of her Guru Korada Narasimha Rao several years ago. It tells the origin of Natyaveda on earth, according to the Hindu mythology. Vyjayanthi transformed herself into Urvashi, the celestial dancer of King Indra’s court. Urvashi who is proud of her talents as a singer, dancer and scholar, loses her concentration on seeing her beloved Pururava, who is one among the invited guests in Indra’s court. She misses her rhythm and an angry Indra curses her to take birth on earth as a mortal. At Urvashi’s pleading, Indra modifies his curse that she would be a divine preacher of the art form Natya Veda and teach it to those women who can dance. The clan who learnt from her was called the Devadasi clan. This number was performed by a court dancer named Macha La Devi in the court of the Kakatiyas of the 13th century and it was beautifully adapted and presented as a colourful Kuchipudi dance.
Nayika was an interesting attempt to bring to light the past history of Kuchipudi and also introduce to the audience the trials and tribulations in the lives of dancers and gurus. Sometime could have been allotted for interaction session with these dancers and gurus and maybe next year it could be planned as a day-long session.

G. Ulaganathan is a senior writer and journalist based in Bangalore.