Kuchipudi shining on stage 
- Dr. Natarajamurthy  
e-mail: dr_sistla@rediffmail.com 

October 23, 2008 
ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) has recently presented to four countries embracing the Mediterranean Sea, a bonanza of as many as 19 programs of the vibrant Kuchipudi dance form performed by well known dancer Vyjayanthi Kashi and her troupe. Audiences of these countries (Israel, Malta, Tunisia and Egypt) some of whom were highly mature (we could find them so by their questions after the performances) and some consisting of public in general, reacted with a thunderous applause to all these shows. There were demonstration sessions after some of these performances.  

These shows were conducted for the prestigious occasions such as:  
Karmiel summer festival 2008, Israel; 3 evening shows for St James Cultural Center, Malta; Sbeitla summer festival, Tunisia; Gafsa international festival, Tunisia; Sidi Bouzid summer festival, Tunisia; Programs at Kairon, El Fahs, Dogge city, Tunisia; Hammam Lif Boukerin summer festival, Tunisia; Alexandria Center of Arts, Alexandria, Egypt; Marsa Matrough Cultural Palace, Matrough, Egypt; Open air theatre program at ‘Shallalot’ Garden, Alexandria, Egypt; Algenina,Cairo, Egypt; Kafr Shukr Cultural Palace, Egypt; Qawmi Theatre, Cairo, Egypt; Arish Cultural Center, Arish, Egypt; Port Said Cultural Palace, Egypt.         
How ingenious was the planning of ICCR?    
ICCR has planned the programs strategically to fall into the slots of these widely publicized festivals around the Mediterranean and have even scheduled some of these in a few open air theatres and makeshift stages for the benefit of audiences in now remote, but very splendorous locations in distant past. For example, take Matrough. It was a place where the ever beautiful Egyptian queen Cleopatra (around 30 BC) rested for a while and took her bath. Shakespeare praises her in his well acclaimed drama, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (Act ii, scene ii) as “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.” And Sbeitla in Tunisia, where Romans constructed a temple for Jupiter and their typical circular open air theatre in front of it. And Port Said, in Egypt, where the man made Suez canal originates in the Mediterranean Sea and extends up to the Arabian Gulf to reduce the marine distance between them by a few thousand kilometers. And Arishi, a town north of Mt. Sinai around which the epic “Paradise Lost” of Milton revolves with Satan saying, “The mind is at its own place. It can make a heaven of hell or hell of heaven.” In some places, the stages had relatively poorer lighting than required for our classical dances which necessitate highlighting of facial expressions than negotiating a few bodily movements. But that did not deter enthusiastic Vyjayanthi from bringing out the best of a Kuchipudi performance from her though she longed and aspired for a better stage.  

What is so remarkable in her performances in these countries?  
Unlike in some free locations in the world where we can exhibit whatever we want to express, there are a few limitations in most of the regions where the performances were conducted.  Firstly, they have altogether a different cultural background though in no way less rich than ours. Secondly, their strict adherence to ideologies would not allow viewing things in a different perspective than what is stipulated and ordained hitherto. In order to overcome these limitations Vyjayanthi chose to harp the strings that are common to the heart in all humans. For example the emotions we, the humans, undergo. The divergence in the nature and qualities of man and woman.  The boyhood pranks of a mischievous boy who could grow to be the ultimate teacher and preached a proper balance of mind to overcome challenging situations. The fundamental elements of which the universe and man are made up. And finally, a humble salutation to the universal elements.  

Only once the Ramayana Sabdam was touched, coincidentally, after visiting the Mummy room in Egypt where the mummy of the great warrior-king, Ramses II, (13th century BC) was preserved. The tradition of Kuchipudi was not however given less importance. It was strictly followed with a Purva ranga vidhi with Deepa, Dhupa and flowers whatever is permitted on the stage for safety reasons, the Kshreerasagara manthanam  and the performance ended with Mangalam.   

How was the response of the audiences?   
For the benefit of the audiences who could not follow English, the corresponding key words in Arabic were picked up. They were pronounced with a good clarity. Hence audiences could appreciate what the dancer wished to communicate and the ingenious ways followed to express the same. Viewers in Malta appreciated all the three shows and wished to know more about the hand gestures. At an open air theatre in Tunisia originally constructed by Romans in 3rd century AD, a boy was found to imitate the dancer in hand gestures and bodily movements through out the program much to the wonder of the viewers and the supporting team. In Tunisia, in one of the towns, a publicity drive was carried out in the morning to give a taste of the performance scheduled for the evening. Vyjayanthi opined it as a cheap tactic but I was personally reminded of the early Kuchipudi presenters who made a sample show around the town in the morning for attracting crowds in the evening. During the last performance of the trip where the hall was not at all meant for performances but was designed only for handling conferences, Vyjayanthi, with the aid of an interpreter could mesmerize the audience to the extent that children loved the dance and even learnt some rhythmic expressions and some hand gestures.   
Who constituted the support team?  
The team constituted of the artists who firmly believed in the very definition of ‘sangeetha’ and followed it with reverence.  Ramya Suraj, a dancer cum musician, gave nattuvangam support and female voice. Young Suchetan was on male vocal. Sarma from Hyderabad supported on mridangam. The humble writer of this article, Dr. Natarajamurthy followed them on violin.  
What were the highlights of the performances?  
Every show was a grand success. It stirred the emotions of the audience, made every one involved especially children. It made the foreign audiences feel closer and even learn Indian dances. One eventful moment was the independence festivity celebration marked by a spirited dance by Vyjayanthi for the equally spirited national song Vande Matharam.  
To whom is the team grateful?  
ICCR and the Indian embassy of the respective countries have coordinated for a flawless schedule and arranged for stay, transport within the countries and sight seeing trips to places of historical, religious and cultural importance some of which were requested by Vyjayanthi like the Nile cruise, entry into the Mummy room etc., in addition to visits to highly revered Jerusalem, Pyramids, Sphinx, Suez Canal, mosques, cathedrals, citadels and the temples built by ancient Romans. The impact of the trip is still effective. Recently when I traveled to Chennai in AC 2-tier compartment and showed the Egyptian half pound coin with Cleopatra’s face on it to my musician friends, a crowd thronged to have a look at the coin.  

It gives great pleasure to note that even heavenly blessings were there for the trip. What a strange coincidence it is: On a Jupiter’s day (Thursday falling on 31st July 2008 ), a scintillating performance took place in front of the Jupiter temple constructed by Romans in 3rd century AD, and was blessed by a shining Jupiter just up above in the sky.