Season Of Splendor -
First International Kuchipudi Dance Conference
in North America
by Kalyani Giri, Houston
Texas: If you are an art lover and missed the First International Kuchipudi
Dance Conference in North America held right here in Houston on August
30, 31 and September 1...woe to you. The historic event, held under the
auspices of art forum Samskriti, Society for Indian Performing Arts, drew
to the city the international and national intelligentsia of this drama-drenched
yet graceful classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh. Rathna Kumar, a senior
student of Dr. Chinna Satyam, brought this dance style to Texas 28 years
ago, and through performing and teaching it, has gained it much recognition
and popularity among the Indian immigrant community and the mainstream.
For her, this conference was a dream realized.
The inaugural ceremony was held at the elegant Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall on Saturday, August 30. The traditional lamps were lit by dancer and movie artiste / dancer Meenakshi Seshadri Mysore. An invocatory dance "Swaagatham", composed by Dr. Uma Eyyunni specially for the occasion, and choreographed by Rathna Kumar, was performed by students of the Anjali Center for Performing Arts. Conference Convenor Charan Reddy welcomed delegates and guests, and commended the event's Artistic Director Rathna Kumar for her vision in planning and executing the three-day Kuchipudi extravaganza.
The evening performances included "Parampara - Young Artists Showcase" featuring students of US-based dance gurus Anuradha Nehru (Washington DC), Balatripura Sundari (Tampa, FL), Kamala Reddy (Pittsburgh, PA), Divya Yeluri (New Jersey), Sasikala Penumarthi (Atlanta, GA), Revathi Komanduri (Atlanta, GA), Rathna Kumar (Houston, TX), Srilatha Suri (Dallas, TX) and Sandhya Sree Athmakuri (Detroit, MI). All the afore-mentioned teachers are now tutoring a new generation of dancers in an immigrant community.
The feature presentation of the evening was an outstanding performance by visiting artistes from New Delhi, Swapna Sundari and her students. That the entire purpose of her life is her craft was evident in her dance. The unusual and gutsy subject matter she chose to perform was a perfect vehicle for her elevated and mature level of creativity. She described through dance, the story of a woman outwardly deformed, but gaining confidence in herself as one of great beauty when her path crosses that of Lord Krishna, who praises her. This performance also showed the evolution of dance, and the limitless possibilities for adaptation it holds if the artist has the courage and imagination to follow through. Guests of honor included Kusum Tayal, wife of the Consul General of India.
'New Choreographies' gave U S based teachers a platform to display their own choreography. Anuradha Nehru, Balatripura Sundari, Sangita Rangala, Sailaja and Siri Sonty demonstrated their pieces. Aneesha Srikar and Rumya Putcha performed items choreographed by their guru Rathna Kumar. 'New Directions in Kuchipudi Dance' was a forum allowing students to explore the possibilities of Kuchipudi lending itself to other forms of movement. Interesting fusions with Yoga, Tap and Modern Dance were revealed. The general consensus was that Kuchipudi is a growing art form that could fit many a mould.
An interesting segment of the conference was the perspectives shared by young artistes raised and trained in the U S. Rathna Kumar's student Rumya Putcha (22), told of some immigrant parents despairing of how to inculcate 'Indian values' in their children, misguidedly forcing them to learn dance. "The child may not be interested at all, but the parents believe girls would appear more cultured and attract a better caliber of husband if they learn dance. It's all for the wrong reasons." Mangala Maddali (15), a student of Revathy Koumanduri, travels 8 hours from Mississippi to Atlanta every Friday evening to spend the weekend learning Kuchipudi with her guru. "I feel blessed to have a guru teaching me a dance I love. If you have a passion for something, you make the sacrifices." Physician Dr. Sangita Rangala, also a student of Rathna Kumar, commended her guru's style of teaching. "She nurtures us to feel good about ourselves. We grew up in this country, where if you did something other kids did not understand, you were the odd one out. My guru gives each student faith to believe in their abilities." On whether language was a barrier in teaching non-Telugu students? Pallavi Ahobilla, Rathna Kumar's student told attendees that her guru has more Bengali students than any other. "Some of the best dancers in our group are girls of other language backgrounds. Rathna Aunty explains every bit of the dances to us until we understand it enough to be empathetic to it, and to be able to emote appropriately. Language cannot be a barrier if you have a patient teacher."
The feature presentation of the evening was "Keechaka Vadha", an exhilarating dance drama performed by Pasumarthy Venkateswara Sarma and troupe from India. It was a wondrous glimpse into the authentic Kuchipudi style when it was a street craft employed to educate the villagers on the scriptures and mythology. The extravagant body swings, wide foot movements, elaborate story-telling, and exaggerated facial expression was part theater, part dance - a superb testosterone-laden presentation, which involved many a comical macho moment of mustache-twirling and posturing. It was so reminiscent of the Tamil craft of Therukoothu, which is based on the similar premise. Needless to say, the audience had a lot of fun.
session was a trip down memory lane for many of Vempati Chinna Satyam's
students. Maestro Chinna Satyam is the doyen of Kuchipudi dance who, more
than fifty years ago, literally dragged the theatrical dance form off the
streets of the village of Kuchipudi, or Kuchelapuram, where it originated
- sloughed off the rough edges, and shaped it into the sinuously elegant
art it is today. Rathna Kumar, one of his first students, talked of her
guru's unusual and exquisite choreography. "Master would make us
repeat the subtlest eye movement over and over until he was satisfied,"
she said. "He is a perfectionist." She invited her guru's other students
to demonstrate their favorite pieces choreographed by the Maestro. Balatripura
Sundari, Sandhya Athmakuri, Sangita Rangala, Sailaja, Deepa Sashidaran,
and students of Rathna Kumar showcased Chinna Satyam's world-renowned works
and spoke of their deep respect and affection for their guru. Seetha Ratnakar,
Assistant Station Director at the Chennai Doordarshan Kendra, and one of
his earliest students, gave a lecture/video presentation of her own favorite
excerpts of her guru's choreographies. With her area of specialization
being dance, she has had over the years, the distinction of filming five
of Chinna Satyam's dance dramas for television.
So many logistics
go into planning an event of such magnitude, albeit at three locations
- trips back and forth to the airport picking up delegates arriving at
different times, accommodation, food, transport to the events and back.
Kudos to Samskriti, volunteers, and Rathna Kumar for the meticulous coordination
and attention to the minutest of details.
Kalyani Giri is a freelance journalist residing in Houston.