Vempati Chinna Satyam- Tradition And Change In Kuchipudi

What kind of dance was there before Tirtha Narayana and his disciple developed the Bhagavata Mela which foreshadowed present-day Kuchipudi?

There was a dance performed in temples as a ritual and there was a dance performed outside to entertain and educate the people. The latter was generally known as 32 Natya Mela. This was usually choreographed — to use a modern term — and performed by learned brahmin pundits, usually to depict stories of Siva. Also, something called Yakshagana was very popular with the masses. It was not the Yakshagana performed in Karnataka today but more like a musical play or an opera. The songs were sung in Sanskrit and sometimes they were explained in the local language, as is done in Harikatha. The performers would go from temple to temple during festivals, sing songs in praise of the gods and dance to them. Initially, one performer handled all the parts; subsequently, each role was danced by a different person. Thus slowly Yakshagana became a dance-drama and was eventually absorbed into the Natya Mela tradition. Then Tirtha Narayana and his disciple developed what became known as Bhagavata Mela.

By and large, all of this was folk art. How much of this background is still retained in Kuchipudi?

There are still some folk art elements in it. I am trying to eliminate them, though I am being criticised for it. I must emphasise that all the steps and movements in Kuchipudi are based on the Natya Sastra. I've demonstrated this several times. This rootedness of Kuchipudi in the sastra gives me confidence in what I am doing which is to bring about some adjustments, some changes within the four corners of our sastra-s and our tradition.

And I'm trying to do this without sacrificing dignity, avoiding vulgarity. And I'm doing it in a context where the performance of dance has become a means of livelihood and not many can or are able to devote time and effort to its development. Isn't it true that every dance form is claimed to have its basis in Natya Sastra} This prompts Chinna Satyam to get up and demonstrate as he speaks: Bharata says that there are six pada bheda-s. All of them can be found in Kuchipudi. Striking his right foot: This is samam. Raising the heel of the left foot close to the right: This is kunchitam. Bringing the heel down with force: This is utgatitam. We can have many varieties of footwork using this pada bheda-s. Placing the right foot behind the left, heels raised and drawing a circle on the floor with the big toe: We do a step like this. It is called suchi pada. I can give many examples like this. He recites a sloka, sings Madana Madana from Bhama Kalapam and offers more demonstrations. You spoke about introducing changes.

What is your attitude towards tradition and innovation?

Tradition should not be a shackle. It shouldn't prevent improvements or innovations. For example, in olden times, the dancer would enter the stage walking behind a screen held aloft by two other persons. Then the screen would be removed. Today, the performer can enter the stage in darkness and a flick of the power switch can reveal her suddenly on centre stage. We have all kinds of new facilities and possibilities.

What is the point in invoking tradition and sticking to practices like that used for stage entry before?

We must use tradition as a basis to develop art; otherwise, art will decline and disappear.

Talking of change, again, can you talk about the emergence of Kuchipudi as a solo dance from its dance-drama antecedents? It was Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri who developed the solo form. How about its musical aspect?

There are some who hold the view that the music for Kuchipudi is not properly developed or practised. It's true that many of us didn't learn music properly. For example, when we sing a song in Mohanam, there will be shades of Kham»boji in it. Arabhi will become Devagandhari sometimes. Mistakes occur because of our inadequate knowledge of lakshana. But we are seeking to set things right with the help of qualified music teachers. For example, Voleti Venkateswaralu has helped us.

Today we use proper Carnatic classical music only. All the Kuchipudi compositions are in Telugu, aren't they?

Yes, they are. The sahitya-s for the items in our repertoire were all composed by S.V. Bhujanga Ranga Sarma.

Who composed the music for dance-dramas like Sri Krishna Parijatam?

Dwaram Bhavanarayana Rao, son of the late Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, was a renowned violinist. You are presenting new lyrical texts, new music and new dance numbers. Can they be described as traditional?

Yes, because they are within the bounds of tradition, largely. Carnatic music sung today is different from what it was before but we still call it traditional, don't we?

The sabdam seems to be the main item in Kuchipudi. What is performed often are items like Manduka Sabdam, Dasavatara Sabdam and so on, many of them in Mohana raga. Swami ra ra is what comes to mind when Kuchipudi is mentioned. Comment?

Mohana raga is popular because it is easy. But if the sabdam has been predominant, it's because that's what many performers knew. But the repertoire has been expanded since to include pada-s, javali-s and so on. What do you think of tarangam where the performers dance on a plate?

We can't say this is a traditional item. This too was introduced by guru Lakshminarayana Sastri, as a means of attracting people. He gave it an impressive laya aspect. He used it to project many tala variations. This element may have disappeared now. Dancing on a plate or plank, or with a water pot on the head, or with a candle in hand have all become cheap gimmicks nowadays. To describe them as part of the tradition is meaningless. 

Why is it that Kuchipudi has become well-known only in recent years?

It is mainly because women didn't perform it until recently. As you know, the men played both the male and female roles. Moreover, the brahmins — whose preserve Bhagavata Mela was — were particular that the dancers should have proficiency in Sanskrit and this probably contributed to keeping out those women who might have taken up this dance.

How can you say this when dancers like Vedantam Satyanarayana gained fame for playing female roles?

Oh, those days are gone. Today, however well a male plays a female role if doesn't work any longer. We can't watch him do it even for ten minutes! It's nice only when women play female roles.

I'll explain why. In the olden days, there were no electric lights. Oil lamps and torches were used for lighting. For special lighting effects — for providing spotlights as it were — [magnesium] powder was used on the torches and the resulting flares of short duration would enable people to see the facial movements and expressions. Even then the audience had to strain to see clearly. But with powerful electric lights, today even the slightest movement of the eyelids can be seen clearly — and the audience does watch every movement keenly, scrutinise every detail of make-up, costumes, jewellery and so on. In the circumstances, a male dancer made up like a woman and playing the female role won't do. In any case, Kuchipudi will gain wider acceptance only if women perform it.

What changes have occurred as a result of female roles being performed by women themselves?

There's a difference now. Men playing female roles employed exaggerated movements and expressions to create the needed effect. That was all right, maybe. If women do the same thing, it won't look good. Naturalness is what they must project and they try to do it.

Can you name some of your students who have made well in the field?

There are about ten to fifteen of them. I should say. An early one was Chandrakala who performed for about three years but then entered the film world. There was Padma who also left the field. Sobha Naidu is still dancing and she's the best of them at present.

How long does it take to prepare a Kuchipudi dancer properly?

A minimum of four years. We prepare our students for the Government technical examinations, as you know.

Do you teach theory also?

Yes, Natva Sastra. That requires knowledge of Sanskrit, doesn't it? It is useful if the student knows Sanskrit but it is not necessary.

What is the future of Kuchipudi?

Very bright. There is worldwide interest in Kuchipudi. Klichipild I as a link between one episode and another. The principal characters invariably appear behind a thera or a curtain and introduce themselves through what is called the patra-pravesha daru — which is a short dance and song sequence specially composed for each character of the play. There are altogether six varieties of daru and they are part of the actual text of the drama. The comic relief is provided by the Pagativeshadara, who not only makes the audience laugh between scenes but provides a running commentary on life around him. T h e costumes are simple and realistic. Men wear dhoties and turbans or crowns and sport moustaches and beards, while women wear saris and cholis and adorn themselves with elaborate jewellery and add a plait to their hair-do. Over the years, several changes have been effected to suit contemporary requirements, including the use of tailored, pleated costumes and semiprecious jewellery, and the use of 34 stage make-up based on Western concepts of theatrical make-up.

The literary content or sahitya of the dance-drama is very poetic and quite often, during the play, the dancers stop dancing and sing, recite and sometimes speak snort lines of poetry to each other, thus making full use of vachikabhinaya. The music used in Kuchipudi is of the Carnatic mode. The choice of raga-s is made bearing in mind the bhava-s to be depicted. The compositions for the solo abhinaya items are of a high order, like the kriti-s of Tyagaraja, the ashtapadi-s of Jayadeva and the pada-s of Kshetrayya. The principal singer is the sutradhara who also wields the cymbals and chants the jati-s. He is accompanied by the mridangam player, the violinist and the flutist as in Bharatanatyam. Based as it is on Bharata's Natya Sastra, Kuchipudi aims at enlightening mankind through entertainment.

Luckily it has had great gurus and performing artistes. Vedanta Lakshminarayana Sastri, was one of the greatest among them who, as a performer, earned fame for his role as Bhama in Bhama Kalapam. Presently there are Vedantam Satyanarayana, Vempati Chinna Satyam, Natraj Ramakrishna and a few others who have helped a great deal in preserving and developing this great art form. Devotees of Kuchipudi are rightly incensed by the erroneous statement often made that Kuchipudi is folksy Bharatanatyam or Bharatanatyam in lokadharmi.

It is more appropriate to say that while Bharatanatyam is austerely classical, Kuchipudi is vivacious and sometimes earthy. Drawing similar distinctions, one might say that Mohini Attam is coquettish and seductive, Manipuri ethereal and dreamlike, Kathak courtly and robust, Odissi sculpturesque and flexible, Kathakali grand, exotic and total theatre. Each dance form has its own individuality and distinct identity, although all of them have a common base. Accordingly, Kuchipudi should be savoured for its unique features.