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Siblings by Kuchipudi
- B. Naveena
e-mail: naveena_b_2002@yahoo.co.in

May 26, 2020

Sitalakshmi Prasad and Pasumarthi Mruthyumjaya Sarma count easily among the impressive exponents of Kuchipudi in the current crop. Apart from being solo performers, they often come together as a duo, with palpable synergy of taandava and laasya. While it is common to have a sibling, parent or spouse as dancing partner, what makes this pair unique is that they are bonded solely by passion for Kuchipudi: a passion so enduring, leading them to brave geographical barriers, personal handicaps and adverse circumstances to emerge not only as fine performers and teachers, but more importantly, as devotees of Kuchipudi and its great masters.

In this era of disturbing mediocrity in Kuchipudi, yours truly was particularly impressed by a random viewing of this duo's depiction of the Tarangam in praise of Goddess Durga. With no OTT histrionics, but without dilution of the heroic sentiment, the video clip was an illustration of fine Kuchipudi, aesthetic and charming despite being performed in an amateurish setting. This prompted this writer to engage in a freewheeling chat with Sita Akka and Mutyam Thammudu, as they affectionately call each other.

Your backgrounds are diametrically different...
Sita: I really don't have an arts background. I got married during my college years and started to learn dance only when my son was an infant! As my husband was constantly transferred, we had to live in various towns and hamlets like Manthini and Illandu in Telangana. I used to travel 30 kms a day by bus to go to dance class, with my baby in my arms. Dance teachers were even not available at certain places and I had to suspend dancing for indefinite periods of time.

Sarma: I hail from a traditional family of Bhagavatulus of the Kuchipudi village. My father Pasumarthi Keshavaprasad is a dancer and vocalist. He also holds B.A. in Samskrtam. My maternal grandfather was Vedantam Parvateesham in whose care I grew up. My uncles Vedantam Rattaiah Sarma and Vedantam Radhesyam were my Gurus. But life wasn't easy in a sense, since I had to grapple with congenital hearing impairment, making it difficult for me to understand the music. Vedantam Rattaiah Sarma was a luminous presence in my life, combining strictness (as a Guru) and affection (like a grandfather). He used to play pivotal roles in Dr. Vempati Chinna Sathyam's famed dance dramas. I also recollect with gratitude the help rendered by my cousin Narasimha (Radhesyam's eldest son) in making me hear and understand the music. The death of Vedantam Rattaiah Sarma came as a big blow to me.

 

When did you discover that dance is your calling?
Sita: After starting to learn dance, I always wanted to pursue it, come what may. I managed to pursue it through Government Music Colleges wherever available. As Kuchipudi was not available at certain remote places, I learnt Andhra Natyam briefly, since I didn't want to leave dance. My first teacher in Kuchipudi was Madhu Nirmala, who used to work in the Singareni Women's College. After we moved to Kothagudem (Telangana), I managed to complete a Diploma in Kuchipudi from the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, thanks to the guidance of Vedantam Venkatachalapathi. I started participating in group productions, while performing solo occasionally. The turning point came when I was asked to dance in Vempati Ravishankar's dance production 'Nava Durga'. This is where I met Mutyam who also danced in the production. Later, I danced principal roles in Dr. Vempati Chinna Sathyam's productions like 'Hara Vilaasam.' We both trained under Vempati Ravishankar for about 7 years and learnt a lot of nuances about his father's style.

Sarma: As a teenager, I got the golden opportunity to attend a 45-day workshop conducted by Dr. Vempati Chinna Sathyam. To say this was an eye-opener is an understatement. I got to converse with the maestro (I used to call him "Thaatha gaaru," as he was my grandfather by relation), and even joined him during morning walks. He encouraged me, stating young people should certainly take up Kuchipudi. He sculpted the form and artistes to such great standards of beauty and finesse! I played the role of Narada in some of his dance dramas, as well as various other roles. I got an opportunity later in life to serve him in Chennai when his health had taken a bad turn. Eventually, I moved to Hyderabad as there were better opportunities for Kuchipudi, to perform and teach. I completed M.A. in Kuchipudi.

So how has dance rewarded you? How did you both manage to collaborate, despite staying in different places?
Sita: Dance has been a fulfilling, learning curve. Some of my memorable moments are touring Australia twice with my students at the invitation of the Telugu Association there, then touring Europe, and receiving awards like the 'Nritya Shiromani' award from the Cuttack Mahotsav, the 'Stree Shakti' award from MegaCiti Kala Vedika. Once, we had to dance in a mall in Cardiff, UK where the temperature was 1 degree Celsius! All around, people were wrapped in winter wear. We braved the numbness in our fingers and toes and danced in just our Kuchipudi costume. The appreciation was phenomenal! Some of my students have received the prestigious CCRT Research Scholarship.

Sarma: Winning the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi 'Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar' is yet another unforgettable milestone, when I danced in front of the Governor of Assam. I have danced as a guest artiste in various groups, which have all taught me a lot of valuable things. My tutelage under Vempati Ravishankar was a great phase. My creative association with Sita Akka is also a constant learning experience. We used to practise over Skype, and I used to visit her for ten days at times. She could not visit me often due to her family commitments, but now we are able to video record a piece and share it on WhatsApp for the other to learn.

What have you enjoyed performing and choreographing?
Sita: I enjoyed performing a Thillana in Hamsanandi as my first performance on stage as a soloist. I have also had the privilege of performing the role of Goddess Chandraghantaa (one form of Durga) in 'Nava Durga'. My first solo choreography was a Thillana in Garudadhvani. My first group choreography was for the song 'Maamavatu Shree Sarasvati'. I have also choreographed several fusion pieces, combining Kuchipudi and Folk, when requested for private functions. Mutyam and I did an interesting role-reversal for the Adhyatma Ramayana song, 'Inti chengaluva', wherein he played Seetha, while I played Ravana!

Sarma: I enjoyed performing 'Poorvarangam' as a six-year old and this was my maiden performance, so to say. I have also had the privilege of performing two roles (that of a Deva, and a Rakshasa) in 'Nava Durga'. I have choreographed some keertanas of Annamacharya for the Saint's Jayanthi conducted at Tirupati. Apart from male roles in Kuchipudi Yakshaganas like 'Usha Parinayam', I have enjoyed performing female roles (stree vesha) like that of the heroine's confidante, etc. as per the traditional practice of Kuchipudi.

Do you also teach? How do you cope with present-gen students?
Sita: I live in Kothagudem, which is interior Telangana, where there is hardly any awareness of classical dance, nor interest in the same. There have been instances where I have had to introduce them to classical compositions, based on the fact that they were featured in films! For eg., when I taught the song 'Swagatam Krishna', I had to refer to the recent Telugu film, 'Agnyaatavaasi' wherein the heroine dances to this song. Yet, with god's grace, I have around 130 students, some of whom are regular. Some students learn with commitment till their 10th Std., only to leave abruptly, quoting aspirations like Medicine, IITs, etc. Some leave citing the uncertainty of income generation through dance. I counsel the students and parents before they join. I try to teach them the saahitya bhaava when I choreograph pieces. I insist that a child is at least 7 years of age when he/she joins, and expose them to the stage by way of competitions, performing at local temples, etc.

Sarma: I do not have a large number of students, partly as I expect a high degree of excellence and commitment, and also because boys still do not readily come forward to learn dance.

What are your hobbies?
Sita: I sing, though not professionally. I also taught myself to sketch, learning from YouTube videos.

Sarma: I read a lot, especially on Puranas, browse the net and like walking.


Sita's sketch of legendary actress Savithri

B. Naveena holds an M.B.A. in Human Resource and an M.A. in Samskrtam. She loves to write and speak on language and fine arts. She also sings for the Kuchipudi recitals of her mother Lakshmi Mani, noted exponent.


Comments
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Both Sitalakshmi and Mruthyunjaya Sarma adhere to the traditional form of Kuchipudi and bring out the innate grace and vigour of this unique dance form. It's a pleasure to watch them on the stage complementing each other in every move while seamlessly blending elegance and energy in their performance.
- Vijaya Pratap (June 1, 2020)


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I am a disciple of Sita Prasad madam. From 2005, I have seen her dedication towards dance.I learned a lot from my guru. She is a humble person and she won't take fee from poor students. In my childhood, we used to stay at Sita madamís home from morning to evening and she would continuously teach us and take care of me like her daughter. Really blessed to have such a guru with great passion for dance.
- Bhargavi Gone (May 27, 2020)



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