Bhamakalapam: The quintessence of Kuchipudi
- Dr. Tadepalli
January 22, 2020
(Translated from the original Telugu into English by Sreelakshmi)
The one work of literature that effectively brings home the quintessence of Kuchipudi is the iconic Bhamakalapam. In the vast and powerful repository of Telugu literature, this is the very first drsya prabhandha kavya (visual poetic treatise) composed, a gem of undying brilliance in its diadem.
On the 9th of January 2020, one witnessed the presentation of Bhamakalapam under the aegis of Sri Sai Nataraja Academy of Kuchipudi dance. Organized in the Ravindra Bharati auditorium, Hyderabad, the role of Satyabhama was played by Dr. Rama Devi (Director, Sri Sai Nataraja Academy of Kuchipudi dance). The rest of the cast included Rajeshwari (student of Dr. Rama Devi and currently pursuing MA in Telugu University) as Krishna and the role of the sutradhara (narrator) was donned by Dr. Pasumarthi Seshubabu. The program was well supported by a capable orchestra.
I played the role of Madhavi in this presentation and this reminded me of the greatness of this iconic work. I've grown up seeing Bhamakalapam being presented by legends such as the inimitable Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, Vedantam Venkatachalapathi, Vedantam Manikyam and many more such artistes, who in fact consider the character of Satyabhama as kith and kin. Extensive research has been done on the various texts of Bhamakalapam and creates a reference point for students of future generations as to the volume of thought, research and training that went into Bhamakalapam.
A brief history of Bhamakalapam's portrayals
Sri Siddhendra Yogi, the 13th century ascetic who authored Bhamakalapam, truly changed the lives of the traditional Kuchipudi Bhagavatars. As said earlier, Satyabhama was a character who was assimilated into the lives of the traditional families like one of their own. Those who donned the role of Satyabhama truly were blessed, and some of the earliest Bhagavatars who brought this role to life were Vedantam Pasupathibhotla, Vedantam Chalamaiah, Vempati Venkatanarayana, Vedantam Raghavaiah, Vedantam Prahlada Sarma etc. And one who brought laurels in an unprecedented fashion by his feeling portrayals, the one bequeathed with the title "Abhinava Satyabhama" was the legendary Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma.
To this day, the families in the Kuchipudi village that keep alive the tradition of Bhama undergo special training for the various aangika, vaachika, aaharya aspects associated with Satyabhama. Young boys who were singled out to play this role had their nose and ears pierced, they were taken to the temple of Goddess Bala Tripurasundari by their gurus and were tied the gajjelu or ghunghroos in the presence of the Mother Goddess. Systematic training was then imparted on the various aspects of Bhamakalapam, for these characters were certainly meant to be portrayed with elegance, and responsibility. Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri introduced women to the art form and with that, the art form spread its wings like never before. The efforts of Kuchipudi legendary Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam in addition to the Kuchipudi Bhagavatars and others made the seminal 13th century work Bhamakalapam, a truly global phenomenon.
Another point to note is that those young boys, who were trained to play female roles and not just that of Bhama, were encouraged to portray male characters after changes in the body rendered them unsuitable to play feminine roles. Hence there was no attachment per se to any particular role. As long as the physical form allowed the graceful representation of a female character, the portrayal continued. Other characters such as that of a hero, or the anti-hero, or that of a jester; these were encouraged as well. This, I believe, is missing from today's prominent dancers.
If the portrayal of a certain character has brought one fame, it does not automatically give one a license to depict that character for a lifetime. Today one hears platitudes such as "This character is my breath," "This is my life," et al. And all this uttered by senior artistes of much renown, who have a problem letting go. When the physical form cannot do justice to the energy that needs to be imbued in a character, the baton HAS to be passed on to the next worthy student. The joy of watching one's student or students then come into their own through traditional presentations is one that belongs foremost to the guru. This is to be remembered, and respected.
The character of Satyabhama has brought much recognition and love to Kuchipudi artistes. Here is a strong, brave woman whose nose pin in fact has become the focal point of an entire poetic work! And the sad part is that today we have respected and renowned artistes depict Satyabhama's character through attires that are bereft of the upper raiment that covers the bosom!
Sringara– the many references from varied texts
Satyabhama in the Bhamakalapam is based on Sri Gaditam, one of the uparupakas as mentioned in the shastras. Her character portrays sringara in separation, ie: vipralamba sringara. In chapters 6 and 7 of the Natya Sastra (NS), particularly what should and shouldn't be done as part of this rasa's extrapolation, has been stated. Bharata and many scholars who've followed him with their own impacting works on theatre and drama have all agreed categorically on one aspect – that sringara truly is the king of all the rasas.
It is born of the sthayi bhava (durable psychological state) of Rati (love), is governed by Vishnu and is represented by the colour light green or syama varna. This is further categorized into two kinds – sringara in separation, ie: vipralambha, and sringara in union, ie: sambhoga. Vipralambha sringara in particular is experienced by women who are in the fullness of their youth, such is the level of detailed precision with which this state has been described in the Natya Sastra and its allied texts. The etymology of the word sringara can be traced to the root srnga; a state of high quality brought about by tangible, intangible and psychological elements in the environment. This has been mentioned in the text Bhava Prakasam of Saradatanaya (2nd chapter, 220th sloka). Alambana vibhava, Uddeepama vibhava, anubhava, sattivika bhava, sanchari bhava – these are some of the inputs that go into creating the sentiment of sringara, according to the text Bharata Rasa Prakaranam.
When depicting, this should be represented through appropriate gestures as prescribed in the texts in a way that is understandable by the audience. In the same way, indolence, cruelty, disgust and death – these states are NOT applicable to the sringara rasa. (NS, ch 7, Sl. 109). In the Bhava Prakasam, 5th chapter, slokas 115, 128 extrapolate the nature and mode of depiction of this sentiment. The NS further speaks of the three kinds of women (22 ch, 158 – 168 slokas) Uttama, Madhyama, Adhama who would approach and present sringara in their characteristic manner. Further, the NS also breaks down the depiction as anurakta and virakta lakshanas, ie: the characteristics that help in creating the sentiment vs. those that hinder the creation of it.
Bharata's Natya Sastra, Saradatanaya's Bhava Prakasam, Singabhoopala's Rasarnava Sudhakaram, Pratapa Rudra's Rasaprakaranam, Nidamangalam Tiruvenkatacharya's Bharata Rasa Prakaranam, Akbar Shah's Sringara Rasamanjari, are only a few examples of the many texts on theatre and drama that describe in detailed precision the various aspects that bring about the highly appreciated state of sringara rasa, and justifiably crowning it as the king of the rasas. The point of these references is to underscore the fact that the atmosphere that sringara brings about, and its due representation on stage through character portrayal has to be done with that much responsibility. For the Kuchipudi Bhagavatars, the portrayal of Satyabhama as in a state of vipralambha sringara encapsulates the study and application of guidelines as stated in all the above texts.
Bhamakalapam and its depiction in today's time and clime
It is a cause for worry that a poetic masterpiece such as Bhamakalapam that straddles word, verse and dance with equal aplomb while adhering to guidelines laid down by various texts on dramaturgy is losing that fervor and flavor due to inappropriate depiction of character. A teacher who is passing on the tradition of Kuchipudi to the next generation, should ensure that traditional pieces be kept intact.
Never should it be forgotten that Satyabhama is a royal queen and an uttama nayika. Her behavior and demeanour throughout the presentation must remain true to her nayika lakshana. She is saundaryagarvita and swadhinapatika, with which comes a tinge of arrogance, but one that should not be expressed as overt boldness in depicting sringara.
Keeping a check on the pulse of the audience, the character of Madhavi is one that brings about an element of comic relief while acting as a conduit between Satyabhama and her Lord Krishna. Bhamakalapam when performed, while breathing the character of Bhama, which is to imbibe the various nuances ascribed to her and as depicted so mesmerizingly by legends of yore, is an experience that is unforgettable. This would be the true tradition of Kuchipudi.
Dr. Tadepalli hails from the traditional Kuchipudi families of the Kuchipudi village, is a Kuchipudi Yakshagana artist and research scholar.
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