Kuchipudi Then, Kuchipudi Now

Kuchipudi! Brand me a killjoy if you will, but let no one be fooled. The Kuchipudi you see today is a measly fragment of the composite, rounded art it once was. The drift started precisely half a century ago, and there has been no let-up. What is now bombarding the scene is by and large an anomalous, splintered version of the original. For a tradition to grow and change gracefully with time is one thing; for it to be deliberately, consciously, impatiently altered, which is what overtook Kuchipudi, quite another. Of course only those who have known the Kuchipudi that was and are not immune to nostalgia will share the let down I am harping on. The others probably couldn't care less.

 It is commonly held that the Kuchipudi art was brought into being, on Sree Krishna's behest, by one Siddhendra Yogi, around the middle of the 17th century. The art, however, was not entirely of Siddhendra Yogi's making. He based his creation, in terms of both text and technique, on the forms of dance and drama then obtaining in the region, of which there were quite a few. Added impetus came from the bhakti movement which was then at its peak. The cult, be it remembered, acknowledged adoration as pure and exclusive love and ardent yearning for one's chosen god, expressed through such means as ecstatic singing and dancing in glory of the Lord. The Kuchipudi players were accomplished artists all right, but they were also inspired men who led saintly lives. They were brahmins, and they performed not for livelihood or entertainment but as sheer offering on their part. As the art had as its cradle and nursery the village of Kuchipudi, in course of time the art itself came to be known by that name.

Kuchipudi has two temples, of Ramalingeswara, which also accomodates an image of Krishna as Rajagopala, which Siddhendra Yogi worshipped, and of Balatripurasundari, highly venerated by Kuchipudi actors. The Ramalingeswara temple sported a pucca stage on the outside for Kuchipudi performances, which for a long time were presented regularly every Friday. The stage was demolished some 30 years ago, because it was not being used any longer. Though the village of Kuchipudi remained its focus, in time the art spread to some other rural pockets as well. The different centres bred their own melam-s or mandali-s, which were patronised by the temples, petty chieftains, zamindars and the common people.

It needs to be remembered, clearly, that, from its very inception, Kuchipudi was intended as a dancedrama requiring a set of characters, never as a soloist's delight. Not that there were no solo dances, but what there was of this was used only as adornment for the play. The most common ploy was the durbar scene where the king holding court would demand a diversion, whereupon promptly would breeze in a nartaki to deliver the goodies. There could also be intentional interruptions in the sequence of the play, to introduce an interlude, adivertissement. This might be an abstract, ornamental number, like the jatiswaram or tillana, or a regular expressional piece.

The expressional numbers, projecting only songs in Telugu or Sanskrit, were borrowed from a% variety of sources. The most popular of these was the dance opera Krishna Leela Tarangini, of which the first section, Balagopala Tarangam, was a lasting favourite. Compositions of inspired singers and poets like Tyagaraja and Kshetrayya, too, were common, next to which came snatches from the Geeta Govinda and the Adhyatma Ramayana. Also seen were sabdams, which are in praise of a deity or patron, and abhishekam-s, which glorify divine personages. The dancers, be it noted, were no extras but the very performers who had roles in the play, and the dances offered were often on request from the audience.

The performers in Kuchipudi, from its very inception, were only men and boys. Also to be remembered is that, being a dance-drama, the characters were obliged to both act and dance, and, in addition, to speak their lines and sing wherever required. In the tradition, training began at the age of seven and continued for five to seven years. The boys were given a broad education in Telugu and Sanskrit and were taught the theory of dance, music and drama through such acknowledged texts as the Natya Sastra, Abhinaya Daipana, Rasamanjari, Sabharanjani and Abhinaya Swayambodhini. Though they were rural people, there was nothing folksy in their dance upbringing: their grounding was solid, the development consummate. They received vigorous practice in acting, dancing, singing and bhinaya. Special attention was paid to vachika abhinaya, or the use of the voice in expressional communication. For songs, concentration was on those pertaining to sringara bhakti, or erotic love sublimated to an elevating experience, which indeed represents the essence of the Kuchipudi mould. Though other plays came to be written, in terms of eminence and popularity the very first play, Parijatapaharanam which is commonly known as Bhama Kalapam, written by Siddhendra Yogi, remained unbeaten, and the role of the heroine Satyabhama the most challenging one. In fact in all the plays, except Prahlada Charitram, it is the female role, such as that of Rukmini inRukmini Kalyanam and of Usha in Usha Parinayam, that dominated, and the male roles, including that of Sree Krishna, remained pathetically marginal. The prize character all Kuchipudi artists aspired to portray was that of Satyabhama in Bhama Kalapam and all the great masters of Kuchipudi of the past are best remembered for their appearance as Satyabhama.

The presentation was in the open, mostly on an improvised stage comprising a platform with a thatch for covering. Illumination was provided by flaming torches or gaslight; a powder known as 'guggilam', which gives a strong glare when ignited, was used at climactic moments. The performance began about nine at night and continued till the early hours. Though the art presented was classical— remember the performers had received strict and rigorous training which included music, Sanskrit and the sastra-s— it had a charming innocence about it, a naivete, even a certain crudeness. This in no way means it was then a lesser art; if anything, it was richer, and truer. Above all, it made no attempt to tickle or titillate, or even to impress. The whole was saturated with bhakti, and it is the kick of the elevating experience that attracted audiences to performances.

The performing teams or mandali-s were poorly paid, but that was no deterrent. I well remember that, when I first visited Kuchipudi, over 40 years ago, the leading group, Venkatrama Natyamandali, of which the star performers, both doing female roles, were the brothers Prahlada Sarma and Satyanarayana Sarma (Vedantam Satyam), received in all 150 rupees for a full night's presentation of a play. I was told that only some years earlier the fee had never exceeded 25 rupees. The party travelled on foot from one village to the next, and meals were provided by the receiving village. (Over the years I must have taken a few hundred photographs of Kuchipudi, but with the present text, I have chosen to present mostly ones from my earliest visits, to bring out the flavour of performances of the period).

From its inception, the Kuchipudi art remained of interest and concern only to the Telugus. Though a large chunk of the present Andhra Pradesh was, till just four decades ago, part of what was known as Madras Presidency, no Kuchipudi melam had stirred out of the strictly Telugu-speaking areas. When Kuchipudi did, finally, venture outside, it was with a smashing compromise. This happened in January 1948 in Madras, where a function was held by the local Andhra community to honour the doyen of the art at the time, Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri, then 68 years of age, when he was presented a 'simhatalatumu', a carved golden bracelet. There was no staging of any Kuchipudi play, but a lady called Samarajyam gave a rendering oiBalagopala Tarangam. And this became the first occasion for a woman to appear in Kuchipudi on a public platform. And with this was born a trend, which soon became the vogue, and then the norm.

The idea obviously was borrowed from Bharatanatyam, where women soloists, other than the devadasis, were at the time enjoying considerable popularity. The Finance Minister, B. Gopala Reddi, who was from Andhra, was invited to preside over the event. In his address he practically stunned the audience with his fervent exhortation: "The Kuchipudi style of dance has remained to be merely a style. No great exponent has come forward to spread it. The secret for its languishing [lies] in the fact that only men [are] its exponents. If it [is] confined to men alone it is doomed to be completely dead. They should start schools in which beautiful women, with proper facial features and physical build, should be trained."

Now, the words of a man like Gopala Reddi could not be taken lightly by his people. The fallout was instant, and with pervasive consequences. The male dancedrama aspect of Kuchipudi was given the go-by and the seat usurped by women, never mind their features or build, as solo dancers. Thus when Kuchipudi was taken for the first time to Bombay, in April 1955, it was represented by two girls from Andhra, Mohana and Sumanthi. For Delhi, the first exposure was at the National Dance Festival, in December 1955, to which the prestigious Venkatrama Natyamandali, mentioned earlier, contributed not a traditional play but an assortment of dances by a bevy of seven girls along with one boy, all under 12 years of age. Apparently to impart a touch of class to the presentation, the programme was billed 'Kuchipudi Bharata Natyam'. And at the whopping Dance Seminar sponsored by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi in April 1958, at which a number of obscure dance and dance-drama traditions were brought to light, all that came by way of Kuchipudi was a demonstration of technique by a Miss Kanchanmala, B.A.

As I said, what is being palmed off as Kuchipudi today is but a pale shadow of the real thing. The shadow may be having gloss and sheen, but these are alien to the style. It is not merely that the dance-drama has been reduced to a dance. The biggest casualty has been the virtually total replacement of the element of bhakti with showmanship.

There are presently no professional troupes of male performers. The bulk of the dancers are women, who in rare cases are paired with men. Essential elements of the art such as vachika abhinaya, acting and the sootradara, have conveniently been given the cold shoulder. Of the kernel of the art, sringara bhakti, what survives is plain sringara with only the faintest veneer of bhakti. Indeed some of the more erotic pieces are so overplayed by some dancers that they border on the risque. A male dancer portraying the passion of a woman in love is obliged to exaggerate, but if a woman is not on her guard, her projection can easily slip into embarrassing impropriety and prurience. Apart from three or four, none of the established male Kuchipudi dancers dare attempt any female role, leave aside Satyabhama's which all along constituted the touchstone of the art.

Extraneous elements like bare bodied dancing by the male, statuesque poses based on karana and other sculptures or simply invented, have been freely inducted into the presentation, evidently to give it a richer sparkle. Nor has Kuchipudi lagged behind in mounting what passes under the name of ballet, a denatured substitute for natya. Strident orchestration, unconventional if not entirely new-fangled costumes and adornment, and much of the flamboyance of the glamour world today constitute the hallmark of the trade.

Yes, Kuchipudi has plummeted from an edifying theatre experience to a manifestly suggestive stage affair.