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Reviving Kuchipudi Yakshagana demands more than showcasing

October 13, 2016

To bring back the glory of Kuchipudi Yakshagana is what every lover of dance would welcome. And this would seem to be the aim of the new effort which has been named International Dance Research and Training Centre at Kuchipudi, the village where the entire story of this dance began centuries ago. Abu Hassan Tanisha, the Nawab of Golkonda (1672-1687 A.D), on a visit to Machilipatnam where he was treated to an impressive performance by a Nataka group (harnessing music, dance and the spoken word in a total theatre form) gifted land in appreciation to the actors, for establishing a dance village. But today's sleepy Kuchipudi village, with hardly any survivors from the halcyon past of the Yakshagana tradition, lives largely on memories.

"We want to recapture the real Natya Mela, which from Rangapravesha to aharya strictly adhered to every facet of the Natya tradition as mentioned in the Natya Sastra," says Tadepalli Dr. Satyanarayana Sharma, Director of the Centre. "Scholars like Pappu Venugopal Rao and Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, also agree that few forms are so completely in synch with what the Sastras prescribed for natya as Kuchipudi Yakshagana. We want to revive the 'pure' tradition as in the days of Chinta Venkataramiah. And at the same time we want to encourage interaction with dancers all over which will give us ideas which enrich (without breaking the tradition) because today one cannot exist in solitary confinement and hence we have called it International Centre."

Between 1880-1920, Chinta Ventakaramiah's group called Chinta Vari Melam produced eight Yakshagana plays - Prahlada Natakam, Usha Parinayam, Mohini Rukmangada, Rama Natakam, Gaya Natakam, Sasirekha Parinayam, Rukmini Parinayam and Harishchandradreeyam of which Usha Parinayam, Sasirekha Parinayam and Gaya Natakam were very popular. Later renamed Venkatarama Natya Mandali, the group was headed by his son Chinta Krishnamurthy. And from this line came four generations of artists. Today, barring a spurt of once a year activity when somebody living outside Kuchipudi, connected with one of the traditional families decides that he has to preside over the destiny of this art form by organising a week-long festival here, little happens in this village.

The International Centre, with A.P. Bhavan, New Delhi, and Department of Language and Culture, has decided to jointly mount a four-day festival of 'Natya Sampradhayam' of Kuchipudi, at the Andhra Bhavan, New Delhi from 20th to 23rd October, the performance event to be substantiated by a photo exhibition comprising old images from the vibrant Yakshagana tradition and also morning symposium and lecture sessions and workshops by various scholars and artists. The curtain raiser is with Vystha Nruthyaamsam by Pasumarthi Mrutyunjaya Sarma (solo) followed by Abhinaya Nagajyoti and group. The second half of the evening brings Bhama Kalapam (Kuchipudi) by Dr. Vedantam Venkata Naga Chalapathi and Guru Pasumarthi Rattiah Sarma. On the 21st, Vystha Nruthyaamsam (solo) by M.S.V. Vaishnavi followed by T. Reddy Lakshmi has in the second half nritya natika Mohini Bhasmasura by Chinta Ravi Balakrishna, Kuchipudi. On the 22nd Nereesha Sanna Reddy's Vystha Nruthyaamsam (solo) is followed by Sri Krishna Parijaatham (nritya rupakam) by Guru Vempati Ravi Shankar, Kuchipudi, and Vempati Priyanka. On the 23rd, Yugala Nartanam (duet) by Srimati Girish Chandra and Devi Girish of Hyderabad is followed by Bhakta Prahlada (Yakshagana) by Dr. Vedantam Venkata Naga Chalapathi.

Tadepalli Dr. Satyanarayana Sharma goes into a lengthy description of how the dance which in the 13th century comprised only anchita, kunchita and samapada feet with more vachikabhinaya, went through various stages to what we see today with dance dominating over the spoken word, and with music playing an accompanying independent role. Lakshminarayana Sastry's encouragement of the female dancer in what was an all male tradition, and the solo projection, were prompted by compulsions of having to compete for proscenium space with Bharatanatyam, while still retaining the norms and grammar of traditional natya sampradaya. Then came Vempati Chinna Satyam's era where dance drama acquired a special place in Kuchipudi, the changes not forsaking traditional values of the Kuchipudi art form. The yugala (duet form) form is now very popular with a male/female combination in a tandav/lasya representation.

While one does not have to be convinced about the wisdom of recapturing the best in the tradition, one realises what a mammoth task rests before those undertaking this task.

Who are the teachers who have the full knowledge of the past, living in the village?

We have the veteran Radhe Shyam who has known the good old days, Pasumarthi Rattiah Sarma, an SNA awardee, Ramalinga Sastry, principal of the arts college Siddhendra Yogi Kalapeetham of the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University - a great scholar who can always be consulted. We also have young Vedantam Venkatachalapati, who specialises in Stree Vesham (which we plan to bring back ) who has fortunately returned from the United States and now plans to live in Kuchipudi working for the art form. (His older brother, another fine performer and with lots of experience, is unfortunately now settled in the States).

Where do you teach? Have you a place?

At present in the Satram in the temple premises, and in Venku's (Venkatachalapati) house. Actually Venku's father's old house is available and if government can help us, we can with some repairs make that the permanent place. We even meet under a tree and discuss. I teach theory. Students go from one to the other, all of us together giving them some integrated approach.

But a real institution requires other areas of study -like Sanskrit, like music and literature. What are you doing for the music?

Now we depend on others. But gradually we want to have our own musicians.

How many students do you have now? And is the teaching open to all students?

Now all together we will not be a large group. But our classes held on Fridays and Saturdays, are meant to spread the word also. The temple has special Friday Devi pooja (for Bala Tripurasundari) and this brings people from nearby places too, which is why we have planned the classes on these two days of the week. The practitioners dancing in the temple premises, evokes the right mood. We want to have two groups. The all male tradition will have persons connected with the traditional families only. The other group is open to all students.

How do you fund a venture like this when you reclaim and go back to the past? To get all the pieces together, to rehearse, to make costumes - every aspect needs money.

What we are doing now is that out of every three of four performances our members may get per month, one is performed by the artist free and whatever the performance fetches by way of remuneration goes towards the Centre's coffers. Sometimes foreign students come to learn and pay handsomely. That money is put into this fund. At times we do get donations. We are trying various ways till the government gives us something by way of grant.

I suppose you realise that one or two great performers cannot make a whole Yakshagana performance where there are many characters and every character needs adequate representation. Very often a very old Guru who has the knowhow cannot teach and with drooping shoulders (due to age) and lack of ability to hold stances properly, the same thing gets emulated by youngsters who are disciples resulting in very poor dancing. And the quality of music is at times so deplorable that one cannot watch an old Yakshagana Guru perform. I remember seeing Guru Radhe Shyam doing a valiant Bhama Kalapam in the Music Academy festival at Chennai last year. It was sad to watch the sub standard group with him. The old performers were expert singers too. To bring that quality back is a huge task.

We are not underestimating the problem. We know it needs tremendous work. We want to do it. We are committed.

While one hopes the festival will stir renewed interest in revoking the great Yakshagana past, and wishes the venture every success, one cannot wish away misgivings, having been witness to total lack of cooperation in the Kuchipudi families (where even brothers are pitted against each other) during previous efforts. Every other non-dancer and Kuchipudi connected person who has done any work does so with motives of becoming the overlord presiding over the entire Kuchipudi scenario.

With Andhra's bifurcation, Kuchipudi's future becomes more confused. Telangana political high-ups at times have voiced their opinion that since Hasan Tanisha of Golkonda belonged to the Telangana region and it was his gift which established the village of, and for, Kuchipudi, this dance form is also part of their culture. Seemandhra however accepts Kuchipudi as theirs though even now, intellectuals and scholars are ambivalent and wary in expressing that when it comes to this dance, which is really part of the Telugu culture, it should belong to the entire Telugu speaking belt. If people only knew their history they would realise that Telengana which is the old Warangal (Orugallu) area wherefrom the Kakatiyas ruled, was the greatest supporter of the arts and dance.

All such efforts have to be guided by wisdom and sagacity dictates that the Centre without trying to exist in isolation forge closeness with powers that be like Ananda Kuchibhotla who in the present Seemandhra dispensation, heading the Natyaramam under the Language and Culture department. No government will support more than one organisation doing the same work. Natyaramam has been set up with handsome funding by the Chief Minister. That other organisations over which Ananda Kuchibhotla presided encouraged spectacular displays of thousands of dancers doing items of Kuchipudi simultaneously, which does nothing for the art form beyond creating a one-time splash, is neither here nor there. While every person privately and hypocritically criticises this, every Kuchipudi guru also takes part in this because of the handsome returns presumably. But seeking interactions and help of Natyaramam for reviving the Yakshagana tradition will help make the long road to some kind of success, less rough. What about the SNA which is bound to provide useful support to this kind of revival of an art tradition? All these avenues have got to be explored. A proper blueprint of future plans, copies of scripts of plays to be revived with the musical and performance inputs of Darus and nritta segments spelt out, for detailed discussions with Akademi and other agencies have to be systematically worked out.

And above all, the Centre will have to insist on all round quality and teachers, organisers and disciples will all have to work with dedication and complete commitment. Unfortunately, this type of sustained earnest effort has not been visible so far. Whether this Centre is the organisation that will fill these needs, time alone will tell. All our good wishes are with them!

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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