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Kuchipudi by Amrita Lahiri
- Jaya Rao Dayal

February 14, 2019

The requirements of being a Kuchipudi artiste were far too demanding: 'saushtavam', 'ang shuddhi', an in depth knowledge of dance, music, theatre, knowledge of the epics, mythology, Telugu literature, Telugu language. The reason literature and language are mentioned here separately is because apart from being conversant with the chhanda, alamkaras etc, the task of the sutradhara also lay in holding the spectator's interest through skilful oration. Music also meant being knowledgeable in the system of ragas, being well versed in singing, having an ability to play instruments. Since a major part was improvisation, the role of manodharma played a very vital role.

And when this art form moved from being a theatrical production to a solo performance format, there has been a world of change. Without talking more about the change in the art form, I present a small review of a performance which has got me asking if being a purist is not the order of the day.

Amrita Lahiri's recent Kuchipudi recital in the capital was indeed only on the fringe of Kuchipudi. This is probably the risk that we run into by stylising even the thought processes leave alone the grammar of the dance form and by presenting it to an audience that may not be so discerning. I will take up two points of critique. Firstly, rendition of an ever dynamic Kuchipudi cannot be formulaic. What I watched in 2014, as Murchhana performed by Amrita at the Tarpan Festival organised by the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya remains the same for this concert in 2019. While the conceptualisation or visualisation may have been mentored by the highly talented Odissi dancer Sharmila Biswas, there was not much differentiation in the three different themes to express Murchhana. The singer Sudha Raghuraman seemed to depict 'kshoba' , the Telugu word for angst far more effectively in the story of Tunga-vidya from the Bhagavatam.

The second issue I have is that the basic tenets of one style from another have to be clearly distinguishable. The artist's 'nadaka' or the sprightly walk had no element of Kuchipudi. The Telugu word 'usi' is used to characterise this walk. 'Usi',which has different meanings, also is the hand wave or gesture done in-between two beats while keeping the talam. By extension, it could be the flourish of the foot before it is placed in the next step as per the beat. When discussing this with a friend who is working on her thesis in Kuchipudi, she mentioned that a Bhagavathar rightly pointed out, "In the past the dancers were part dancers and part farmers ...working in the rice fields which is a tough task, probably made the Kuchipudi gait so distinctive..."

Carrying the Kuchipudi mantle forward is by no means a simplistic endeavour. When I say this it is not to demean anyone's sadhana. But we are talking about a dance form which may on the surface remind us of female impersonations done by male artistes in gaudy costumes, it is indeed steeped in deep erudition, fascinating stories told by the use of movements and music which are unmatched.

Talking about Kuchipudi, in an interview, artist Chinta Ravi Balakrishna said, "It has become the pursuit of the urbane..." Anyone who pursues the art form has a big responsibility in retaining the very basic tenets. While I laud the artist for all the years of effort put in, Amrita Lahiri's recital could have passed off as a Bharatanatyam concert with flashes of Kuchipudi.

Jaya Rao Dayal is trained in Bharatanatyam, and in the last decade, she has been pursuing research in Indian aesthetics. She submitted a dissertation to Jnanapravaha in Mumbai as part of a post graduate program in Indian aesthetics.