Kuchipudi: An Emerging Art Form

It was the year 1964, perhaps. An eager and expectant audience had gathered at the Sapru House auditorium in New Delhi, to witness the great Kuchipudi dancer Vedantam Satyanarayana perform his masterpiece the Bhama Kalapam. As the curtains rose, the drone of the whispering crowd came to a stop, and during the expectant hush that followed, the Sutradara and the musicians walked onto the stage, heralding the commencement of the performance. After the traditional invocatory preliminaries of song and dance were over, a group of three came onto the stage, with two of them holding up a 'thera' or a curtain behind which walked a bejewelled •voman, with her heavily ornamented plait hanging over the top of the curtain.

With the removal of the curtain, the beautiful Satyabhama introduced herself with the now famous 'daru': Bhame ne, Satyabhamane! T h e audience went wild and started clapping loudly when it realized that the graceful Bhama was a man. the great Vedantam Satyanarayana in person. What an unforgettable evening that was! What a feast it was of nritta, nritya, natya and abhinaya! T h e Kuchipudi dance-drama, with its characteristic technique, goes back, really, to the period between the sixth and the tenth centuries when the cult of bhakti or devotion with its emphasis on a personalised love for the godhead, beginning in Tamil Nadu, spread like wildfire all over India. The mystics and the seers who preached this cult went from place to place, dancing and singing in praise of the lord and soon built up a sizeable following, particularly because they used the language of the common people and simple lilting melodies that could be sung by anybody.

These were the Bhagavatulu of Andhra Pradesh and the Bhagavatars of Tamil Nadu. T h e Kuchipudi. the Bhagavata Mela nataka and the Yakshagana of Karnataka, all closely related, can be traced back to the efforts of these seers. It is not known for certain which of these came first. However, it is evident from certain inscriptions that these styles existed before the sixteenth century A.D. when they were formulated and defined, in the shape of earlier forms such as the Siva Leela Natva. It is to Tirtha Narayana Yati and his disciple Siddhendra Yogi that we owe a debt of gratitude for creating the basis for Kuchipudi as it is practised today. These two yogis believed that a synthesis of music, dance and drama could be used not only for expounding the philosophic truths of the epics and the puranas, but also for realising God.

Tirtha Narayana Yati belonged to a family of Telugu brahmins settled in Tanjavur during the time of the Vijayanagar kings. From his childhood, he was interested in music and Bharatanatyam and was a great devotee of Sri Krishna. It is said, that people believed him to be a reincarnation of Jayadeva because of his excellent musical rendering of the ashtapadi-s of the Gita Govinda. Inspired by a personal vision of Lord Krishna, he wrote his exquisite opera Krishna Leela Tarangini and presented it in the form of a dance-drama at the Varahur Temple, in Tanjavur district, thus beginning a tradition which continues even today on the occasion of the Krishna Jayanti festival. Siddhendra Yogi, considered by many as greater than his teacher, was a Telugu brahmin too and a devotee of Krishna. Reportedly inspired by a vision of Krishna and hoping for nirvana, he wrote the famous sringara kavya called Parijatapaharana. The story of this dance-drama centres around Satyabhama who, annoyed with her beloved Lord Krishna for giving her rival Rukmini the parijata flower, tries to secure possession of the plant itself! Desirous of propagating this play and the unkjue dance form he had created for its presentation, the yogi went to his village Kusheelapuram where he gathered a troupe of brahmin boys and trained them. He then presented his creation at the local temple.

It is said that Lord Krishna appeared to him in a vision after this and highly commended his efforts and that, pleased with this vision, Siddhendra Yogi took a vow from his actors that they would henceforth enact the play every year — a vow that had to be kept by their descendants as well. T h e Nawab of Golconda saw the play in 1695 and was so pleased with it that he gifted the village of Kuchipudi to the actors on the stipulation that they and their descendants would preserve and propagate the art forever. The plays are enacted there even today. on an open-air stage erected in front of the famous Ramalingeswara temple, and no Kuchipudi performance starts without an invocation to 18 Balatripurasundari, the female deity worshipped at this temple. Kuchipudi, so called because of the place of its origin began to be performed in other places as well, such as Srisailam, Banganapalli, Marampalli and so on.

With the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, however, there was a general decline of the art form, but the Telugu Nayak rulers took the art with them to Tanjavur where it developed into the closely related form of the Bhagavata Mela Natakam but with a distinct identity of its own. As a matter of fact, one fundamental difference between the two forms is that, while the Bhagavata Mela lays stress on pure bhakti. Kuchipudi emphasizes sringara bhakti. The art survived mainly in the village of Kuchipudi and parts of Andhra until the early fifties and sixties when well-known Bharatanatyam dancers like Indrani Rehman and Yamini Krishnamurti learnt Kuchipudi and began presenting it in their programmes. This was followed by the great dancer-teachers of Kuchipudi coming out of their villages and performing across the country. All this brought attention to Kuchipudi which was eventually recognized as one of the leading countries.

Today we nave several schools of Kuchipudi all over the country like Vempati Chinna Satyam's Kuchipudi Art Academy in Madras and a whole generation of young Kuchipudi dancers like Raja and Radha Reddy, Swapnasundari, Shoba Naidu, Ratnapapa Kumar and Mallika Sarabhai. But, unfortunately, the present popularity of this form has also led to the growth of mediocre schools, teachers and performers as in every other field. In the traditional Kuchipudi dance-drama, also known in the olden days as Ata-Bhagavatam, all the roles were once portrayed by men only though this is no longer the case. The language used is pure Telugu. The technique is a dynamic and vivacious combination of pure dance (nritta) interpretative dance (nritya) mime (abhinaya) natya (histrionics) and poetry and music of a high order. It also has in it the additional element of vachikabhinaya — expressions conveyed through song and speech.

It is this which makes the art of Kuchipudi a dancedrama. Though the basic technique of Kuchipudi is similar to that of Bharatanatyam, with adavu-s, (basic units of dance) jati-s (combinations of adavu-s) and teermanam-s (rhythmic conclusions), it has a positively distinct identity of its own. The foot is stamped even in the lighter beat of the rhythm, namely the laghu, and instead of the araimandi position of Bharatanatyam, the Kuchipudi dancer uses an up and down, bobbing type of movement, with a slightly exaggerated movement of the torso. The tempo is fast and the dancer covers the stage with brisk movements. Kuchipudi. like Bharatanatyam, follows Natya Sastra and Abhinaya Darpana. There are in Kuchipudi nine head movements, eight eye movements, four gestures requiring neck movements and twenty-eight asamyuta and twentyeight samyuta hasta-s and various types of feet positions, leaps, pirouettes and gaits — all based on Natya Sastra. T h e differences between the two dance forms are subtle. There is a greater preponderance of the natya element in Kuchipudi in which the dancer sometimes sings and speaks as in a play.

There is also greater emphasis sometimes on the lokadharmi element in Kuchipudi, as against the natyadharmi in Bharatanatyam. A characteristic item of the Kuchipudi is the konnakole, reminiscent of the kind of spontaneous rhythmic dialogue between the dancer and the percussionist in Kathak. To this category belongs the saptataldadavu wherein the dancer takes up seven different tala-s and renders intriguing jati compositions in each tala. On the whole, we find that classical Bharatanatyam, which is essentially a solo lasya form, is restrained and perhaps geometric while Kuchipudi is freer, more flexible and is essentially a natya form. Because the performers in Kuchipudi dance, sing, mime, chant and speak, the training expert-dancer has to be as well an accomplished singer, a consummate actor and a Telugu and Sanskrit scholar. However, there are also a number of solo items in Kuchipudi which are nritta and nritya pieces either presented as additional items within the dance-drama, as independent items in a solo recital, or as divertissements in between the acts of the play. In this group are to be found the puja nritya, the jatiswaram and tillana — the last two being very similar to their counterparts in Bharatanatyarn.

T h e puja nritya, performed at the commencement, is comparable to the alarippu but is different in the sense it is longer and often contains a sloka in praise of Nataraja to be interpreted through abhinaya. The sabdam in Kuchipudi is a very interesting composition, highly poetic and dedicated to a particular deity as in Bharatanatyarn but the similarity ends here, for the Kuchipudi sabdam is highly elaborate and has a character of its own. For instance, the Manduka Sabdam which describes Ravana's union with Mandodari the Frog Princess, has incorporated into it certain rhythmic syllables. when chanted, sound like the croaking of a frog. The Dasavatara Sabdam describes the ten avatars of Vishnu in detail.

The second kind of sabdam is called the abhisekham — for example the Ramabhishekatn — and usually deals with the life of a god from his birth to his coronation or glorification. The third variety of sabdam is the kavitva — the Vinayaka Kavitva for example — wherein the literary contents and the jati-s alike are set to a tala and sung. T h e abhinaya rendered for sloka-s and pada-s is similar to that in Bharatanatyarn and is replete with hasta-s, mukhabhava-s (facial expressions) and depiction of the nine rasa-s. Sometimes Kuchipudi dancers remain seated while acting out sloka-s; then the emphasis is on facial expressions. The pada-s are taken from Jayadeva, Kshetrayya, Yati's Krishna Leela Tarangini and later composers like Sarangapani and Maganti Subba Rao. The sloka and the pada in F,uchipudi both deal with sringara bhakti or bhakti through erotic love and thus give scope for the depiction of the nayika-nayaka relationship, with particular emphasis on the human soul's yearning for union with the Infinite. T h e varna-s in Kuchipudi are similar to those in Bharatanatyarn and are dedicated to Telugu rulers. A unique feature of Kuchipudi solo dancing is the balancing feats often performed by a dancer with a brass pot on her head and her feet clutching the edges of a brass plate while doing the Balagopala Tarangam, an excerpt from the Krishna Leela Tarangini.

Unfortunately through over-usage this acrobatic aspect of the dance has become synonymous with Kuchipudi for the layperson. Kuchipudi may be said to be at its richest in its dramatic aspect. What wonderful creations the Krishna Leela Tarangini of Narayana Yati and the Parijatapaharana of Siddhendra Yogi are! The Tarangini is the story of Krishna beginning with his birth and ending with his marriage to Rukmini. At the end of each canto, there are dance syllables or jati-s woven into the song and, of course, there are the five famous stanzas of Balagopala Tarangam during which the Kuchipudi dancer attempts acrobatic balancing feats as already mentioned. Siddhendra Yogi has also composed several dance operas like Parijata, Rukmangada Charitram and Rukmini Kalyanam, and a number of pada-s and javali-s.

His Parijatapaharana, or Bhama Kalapam as it is also known, has five characters in it: Satyabhama, Rukmini, Krishna, Narada and a sakhi. Satyabhama's is a most challenging and coveted role and every Kuchipudi dancer wishes at some time or the other to play this prized part. This dance-drama is a choreographic gem and is considered to be one of the best items in Kuchipudi. The Golla Kalapam is another important dance-drama, written by Rama Sastri in the late nineteenth century and is in the form of an abstruse philosophic dialogue between a brahmin and a milkmaid! In their traditional setting, the Kuchipudi plays are enacted in the open air on an improvised stage. T h e performances take place at night and illumination is provided by oil lamps while flares are used for special effects. The costumed and made-up sutradara comes onto the stage with his band of musicians singing invocations and chanting jati-s, after which a little boy wearing a Ganesa mask capers in and out. The sutradara then introduces the play to the audience through an elaborate sloka, flourishing a curved stick in his hand. He continues to sing, act and chant throughout the play, serving.

Dancer's Choice 

Kuchipudi offers the solo dancer enormous scope for the dramatisation of characters. The rich natya element is best expressed in the portrayal of Satyabhama, the beautiful, coquettish and arrogant queen, whose character is lovable at the same time for her absolute obsession with the task of endearing herself even more to her lord and master Krishna. This she does by making the greatest demands on Him and trying to obtain total possession of Krishna, wrongly of course, for He is certainly her beloved but also master of the whole universe and lord of eight wives including Satya. Satyabhama goes through the entire process of discovering the path of true devotion and love — madhur a bhakti — and it is this transformation of her human into divine love that is unfolded in Bhama Kalapam. For me personally, it offers a vast canvas for free characterisation within a given framework and I am often able to feel one with the character of the inimitable Satyabhama, while singing, speaking, enacting and dancing her role which is vastly powerful, movingly human and utterly, delightfully feminine.