Kuchipudi seminar on 'Tradition - Transition - Transformation'  
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 
e-mail: lalvenkat@yahoo.com  
Photos courtesy: Saila Sudha 

November 5, 2008 
As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, Saila Sudha presented an interesting two day national Kuchipudi seminar, with the seminar session in the morning and performances in the evening. Titled 'Tradition - Transition – Transformation,' the event took place on September 27 & 28, at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. 

Day 1 saw a short film on Yamini Krishnamurti followed by an invocation dance by students of Saila Sudha. "Expression of our creativity into tangible creations becomes an art. In every traditional style, metamorphosis is taking place. I dedicate this seminar to my foster mother Vimala Natesan whose care has made me what I am today," said Sailaja, director of Saila Sudha, in her welcome address.  

Vishwanathan, N Murali, The Governor, Yamini Krishnamurti, Sailaja
Surjith Singh Barnala, The Governor of Tamilnadu, released the souvenir and N Murali, President of The Music Academy, received the first copy. N Murali spoke about how Kuchipudi has been modeled by a yogi and named after the village in which it originated and lauded the efforts of Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri for modernizing Kuchipudi, introducing female solo items in a male dominated field, as well as Vempatti Chinna Sathyam for his contribution in making it an evolved dance form. He expressed appreciation that the beauty of our classical arts is that we retain the classical while embracing the new. 

Trained in the 3 dance forms of Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, Yamini Krishnamurti, hailed as a dance icon, started her Nritya Kaustuba school in Delhi 4 decades ago. She delivered the keynote address. "Tradition, transition and transformation are an integral part of human activities, especially art. One needs a lot of courage to bring out transformation without disturbing tradition. Kuchipudi traces its origin way back to 16th century. Saint Narayana Teertha taught Krishna items to Siddendra Yogi. Muvva Kshetrayya contributed to abhinaya. Male dominated art faded into near oblivion till women were allowed to perform. When Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri taught Dasavataram, I got hooked to Kuchupidi. Even in the early 60's, people thought Kuchipudi was a koothu or filmy type of dance. So my work was uphill. I performed extensively in India and abroad and popularized the dance form. In fact, I could say my contribution is extensive. Young people nowadays are doing well. It is unbelievable that in USA alone, there are nearly 1500 Kuchipudi dance schools. The children in USA have imbibed western culture with our Asian traditions."  

In his inaugural address, the Governor said that all great countries have an art tradition and India is multi-lingual with a diverse art tradition. Music is in sound, painting in color and dance in movement. We find reference to dance even in the Rig Veda. Arjuna was employed as a teacher of music and dance. "When I was Governor of Andhra Pradesh, I attended a mela at Vishakapatnam. When I was told that Kachipudi originated in Kachipudi village, I visited it. Like all Indian art forms, Kachipudi has also gone into transformation." Through out his speech, the Governor referred to the dance form as 'Kachipudi'!  

Vedantam Radheshyam, Bhagavatula Sethuram, Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, P Sangeetha Rao
Kuchipudi used to be performed only by Brahmin men, and the dance dramas, pre-dominantly in mythological themes, were all written in Telugu. The speakers of the morning, artistes from traditional Kuchipudi families - P Sangeetha Rao, Bhagavatula Sethuram, Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry and Vedantam Radheshyam, all spoke in Telugu, so it was difficult for non-Telugu speaking audience to understand.  

Music composer P Sangeetha Rao was born in Kuchipudi village on Nov 7, 1920 and hails from a family of musicians. He learnt veena and violin and gave his first solo concert at the age of 18. He has been associated with Kuchipudi Art Academy from 1973 and is much sought after for his literary and music knowledge. He said that his main inspiration came from melodies of Kshetrayya and Thyagaraja. 

Demo for Bhagavatula Sethuram
Demo for Vedantam Radheshyam
Bhagavatula Sethuram started performing from age 5. He has been trained by his father Bhagavatulu Ramakotiah in traditional Yakshaganas and Kalapas. His students Rohini Prasad and Lata Prasad gave a neat demonstration of various Kuchipudi adavus. Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry has authored Kuchipudi Nataka Prakasam. He spoke about  how the famous 'Bhama Kalapam' created by Siddhendra Yogi has resulted in how we perceive Satyabhama now. Vedantam Radheshyam sang a Golla Kalapam and like a human dynamo, flitted between acting, singing, dancing and narrating in cheerful abandon.  
Honoring of artistes: L to R: Kausalya Reddy, Vedantam Radheshyam, Bala Kondala Rao, Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, 
Seetha (sister of KJ Sarasa), Sailaja, Yamini Krishnamurti, Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, Sonal Mansingh, Kanaka Durga, 
Rajeshwari, Sushama Ranganathan (for Nandini Ramani) 
Yamini Reddy
Compere Roja Kannan 
Vedantam Radheshyam and troupe present Bhakta Prahalada in Yakshaganam style
In the evening, a host of dignitaries were honored - Yamini Krishnamurti, Sonal Mansingh, P Sangeetha Rao, Vedantam Radheshyam, Bhagavatula Sethuram, Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, Kanaka Durga, Bala Kondala Rao and Kalamandalam Kshemavathy. Guru K J Sarasa, Nandini Ramani and Raja / Radha Reddy could not make it to the function. The evening's proceedings started an hour late and the honoring, though brief and to the point with the able compering of dancer Roja Kannan, went on for a long time because of so many artistes involved, so after Yamini Reddy finished her hour long, polished recital and the stage was set for Baktha Prahalada in Yakshaganam style by Vedantam Radheshyam and troupe from Kuchipudi Village, it was nearly 8.15pm. Vedantam Radheshyam acts, talks, sings, dances one after other with such ease and aplomb that one can't help but be mesmerized by this energetic guru, full of vivacity and grace. It was indeed a pity that the play ended with a meager audience in attendance.  

Day 2 started with Chairperson Sonal Mansingh's observations. The tangible aspect of dance in India is the clothes, jewellery and visual aspect. The intangible is conceived of as a symbol of learning, teaching what creation is about, what life is about and so on. It is full of metaphors, epiphanies, like the ever flowing Ganga and constant transition is part of it. How do you pinpoint a transformation? Does a dancer's imagination transform into something? If the transition of tradition is not constant, meaningful and imbued with constant energy, it will remain stagnant. Dance sometimes makes a third and fourth dimension (spiritual) visible. It is transformation, like Balasaraswati's portrayal of "Krishna Nee Begane…" Every guru, every scholar has spoken about it. "Vedantam Radheshyam hails from a traditional background. One may miss him in a crowd, but last night on stage, he acted, spoke, danced and sang and the whole place vibrated. I was mesmerized. He was all encompassing. He held the stage on his own. He presented a traditional play, but there was constant transition in his tradition and that's transformation. He is not only a performer but becomes the dance itself," said Mansingh to thunderous applause.  

Next to speak was Sailaja. For a long time Kuchipudi stuck to tradition, but in the last 70 years, there's been a tremendous transition and transformation. The group works transformed to solo items, there were changes in the structure of dance dramas, usage of ragas. With the advent of solo items, new items introduced were padams, javalis and thillanas which were hitherto unknown. Changes in choreography techniques, admission of women into a male dominion, male oriented female dance and vice versa came into being. Transition is an ongoing process. The 1930s is an important time for all dance forms in the country. All the educated in India and overseas took to dance. There was a silent revolution by 2 gurus of Kuchipudi - Tadepalli Periah Sastri and Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri. The dance drama artistes of the Kuchipudi school felt the need to perform solo and not only in group in the dance drama tradition. The patra pravesha of Krishna, an important solo in the Kuchipudi style, is an amalgamation of TTT. By tradition, it is a solo dance item in the initial period. In the transition phase, female dancers portrayed the male character.  

Though these items were adopted as solo items, they were initially fractured pieces taken from the dance drama repertoire and reflected the thirst of dancers who wanted to perform solo. They started to look for mythological themes and madhura bhakti – from works of Narayana Theertha, Jayadeva, different types of Shabdams etc. Dr. Arudra thinks Shabdams came from Melattur to Kuchipudi, but Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao thinks diametrically.  In the 1930s, Tadepalli Periah Sastri and Lakshminarayana Sastri brought in great changes. The latter brought in female dancers and widened the repertoire of solo items, which have become part of the Kuchipudi repertoire today. Chinta Krishnamurthy enhanced the quality of music by recording major Kuchipudi compositions with stalwarts of the time. The 30s to 50s should be considered transition from tradition. Tarangam is not gender specific and is a great leap in the Kuchipudi style. Like the Varnam in the Bharatanatyam style, Tarangam is the main item in Kuchipudi. It is from the Krishna Leela Tarangini. There is a misconception that the plate dance is Tarangam.  

Deviating from tradition, Vempatti Chinna Sathyam has contributed immensely to the transition of the style. Prose dialogues were removed, new ragas, new themes, costumes and background design were adopted. Only 25 ragas were used earlier but now new ragas like Hamsanandi are used. Slokas have been incorporated as prelude to songs or as separate items. Instead of classical Telugu, common spoken Telugu was brought in. Vempatti Chinna Sathyam enriched the solo items repertoire that is here to stay. We also have the solo debut or rangapravesham in Kuchipudi. These are all efficient innovations without damaging the traditional.  

Sailaja interspersed her lucid talk with demos of Rukmini pravesham choreographed by guru Vempatti Chinna Sathyam, Manduka Shabdam, Balagopala tarangam and a Swati Thirunal kriti "Shankara Srigiri…" that incorporated the plate dance.  She was accompanied by Mosalikanti Kishore on nattuvangam, Randhini on vocal, Ramshankar Babu on mridangam, Sikkil Balasubramaniam on violin and Ramana on flute.  

Anupama Kylash
Anupama Kylash spoke of transformation from wooden to modern temple jewellery, casually worn sari to tailored costume and oil lights to modern lighting.  

There are wonderful solo performers like Swapnasundari and Vyjayanthi Kashi, brilliant duos like Radha-Raja Reddy, Jayarama Rao-Vanashri Rao, Shoba Naidu and Kamdev at their point in time. In the past, we had primarily mythological and Vaishnavite themes and a few tarangams. We now have varied pieces and thematic productions. Chinta Krishnamurthy first presented Ashtapadi. Radha-Raja Reddy presented duet of "Kuru yadu nandana…" and literary pieces in different languages got included like Brij, Mythili and Awadhi. Sometimes a production is multi-lingual, like Swapnasundari's 'Ramachandrika' and Vyjayanthi Kashi's 'Amba' in 3 languages. Anupama herself has presented 'Bhakti Sandhya' on 22 poets of the Bhakti movement. Raja Reddy presented English verses of Abdul Kalam and Uma Rama Rao has presented a dance drama on Thanjavur King Shahaji's prabandhams. Non Hindu themes like Buddhist theme of 'Chandalika' was pioneered by Vempatti Chinna Sathyam, differently by Swapnasundari and her mother in 'Amrapali' and 'Manimekala.' Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry presented a show on life of Buddha, on life of Christ; historical themes like Lakkuma Devi was presented by Alekhya. Social themes include women oriented subjects, woman empowerment, national integration themes, patriotic themes, on personalities like Vivekananda and Shirdi Saibaba, abstract themes like one on vegetable dyes by Deepika Reddy. There are elements of Kuchipudi in the productions of Mallika Sarabhai. Kuchipudi is performed as a jugalbandhi with another style, or even in a 4 style presentation like in 'Sri Krishna Parijatam' a few years back. Rasa Leela has been performed in various styles.  

Importance of modern day techniques is seen in Vempatti Chinna Sathyam's 'Haravilasam,' one of the earliest representation of theatrical element; elaborate sets and lighting of Swapnasundari's 'Om Shakti'; extensive use of stage lights and sets in Hema Malini's 'Durga'; use of western music in Yamini Reddy's 'Harmony' to name a few. Though lot of stress is given to stage settings and light design, Kuchipudi is still more traditional than modern. There's also fusion of modern theatre and dance like Vyjayanthi Kashi's 'Sarmishta,' 'Stabdha' and 'Srishti.' There was an audio visual representation of Golla Kalapam in Hyderabad with comparison to gynecology, by Bhagavatula Sethuram.  
Swapnasundari's 'Shadrutu' has 6 styles of literature with audio visuals of traditional and modern paintings, slides of different dancers. The audio visual element has caught the imagination of artistes.  

Kuchipudi was taught in the guru-shishya parampara like Chinta, Vedantam and Vempatti families. Each family specialized in certain items / aspects of Kuchipudi. Now we have a systematic codified methodology in University for preparing the body, voice modulation and there's even a paper on world dance.  

Anupama demonstrated to recorded music, how she used Hindustani and Carnatic music in a Ramayana production and changes in the use of a dupatta transformed her into different characters.  

For Vyjayanthi Kashi, transformation is a journey, internal journey, a search, a quest, love and much more. It's an eternal process. This transformation is happening all around us - Birju Maharaj in Kathak, Kelucharan Mohapatra in Odissi and Rukmini Devi in Bharatanatyam transformed life around us. "By association with my gurus, from my lessons and work, I thank my gurus for igniting the fire of truth and excellence in me. Without a good background in technique, it is not possible to transform. Transformation is not just using different languages, it's the agni within." 

Being a Kannadiga, it was difficult for her as the Kuchipudi repertoire was in Telugu, there was no one to write scripts for her, so she had to learn on her own as her teachers were not always present with her. Agni has always fascinated her so she took the 5 facets of agni as the theme for her production. Vyjayanthi gave a brief demo to Vedic chants – one of the rich heritage imbibed from her gurus - from her production 'Agni.'  

Vyjayanthi Kashi
Sonal Mansingh
The 3 Ts cannot be delineated. Tradition transforms itself. Transition submerges into tradition. Sonal Mansingh spoke about the vastness of the subject and how "we have all attempted it all these years. There is constant movement in tradition: it could be oblique, sideways, forward. Rukmini Devi established Kalakshetra and brought in gurus of different banis in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. We excel at amalgamy, learning from our gurus, imbibing, asking questions, leading to search, research and self nourishment."  

Initially she used to present Bharatanatyam and Odissi juxtaposed (dwivarna). Alarippu of Bharatanatyam, sthayi of Odissi…the whole repertory was built on this concept. "The confluence at Prayag, where Saraswati is invisible, Ganga and Yamuna are two different colors but flow as one…that for me is confluence," said Sonal. Confluence of idea and interpretation is important, the standing or posture of a style is unimportant. If you do an item on Krishna, the idea of Krishna should come through. She spoke about her mentor Jiwan Pani and the wonderful art form of Pala - Orissa's 400 year old folk theatre form. Sonal presented Sukuntala (she who has beautiful hair), the choreography based on Lord Brahma decorating the hair of the first lady of the Universe and how the peacock thought he was more beautiful than the blue black hair of woman! The audience loved it!  

Yamini Krishnamurti obliged the audience by doing a small abhinaya piece. Bala Kondala Rao came on stage and sang "Yaduvamsa sudhaambudhi…" and the Chennai audience got the rare opportunity to enjoy Yamini Krishnamurti's brilliant abhinaya. "Bala once said, 'They call it karanas. So many poses of Shiva but I never saw Shiva anywhere.' All forms are themselves an amalgamation of various forms.  The forms are all there, all set. The rasa is the response of the dancer. Only then does she achieve. Do whatever you do with passion and the love of it," said Yamini.  

Bala Kondala Rao and Yamini Krishnamurti
Kalamandalam Kshemavathy
Kalamandalam Kshemavathy said before Swati Thirunal, records speak of the devadasi tradition. Sethulakshmi Bai of Padmanabhapuram Palace put a stop to devadasi practise. Kutcheri sampradayam evolved in Kalamandalam. There are no jathis in Mohiniattam. It went on next to be a full fledged performance of 4 lengthy items supported by an excellent orchestra comprising of Sashidaran on vocal, V R Krishna Das on nattuvangam, Sajeev Kumar on mridangam, Murali Narayan on flute and Kalamandalam Suresh on edakka.  

Since Nandini Ramani could not be present, her paper was read out and a video clip of Nandini's performance of "Mohamaana…" was screened. Since the time was already well past 2.30pm, most of the hungry audience had left.  

Prasanthi Ganeshram
Amuktamalyaga and Aditya Bullibrahmam 
The evening performances were good, starting with a neat recital by Prasanthi Ganeshram, disciple of Sailaja. Aditya Bullibrahmam (son of Bala Kondala Rao) and Amuktamalyaga (wife of Aditya's elder brother mridangist Anand Srihari) from Vishakapatnam, presented a vivacious Kuchipudi duet and upheld the reputation of Kondala Rao's students as being very well trained. Uma Muralikrishna aptly presented items on the 3 devis, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga as it was Navaratri time. She was accompanied by Roshini on vocal and Kishore Mosilikanti on nattuvangam. He is also the choreographer.  
Uma Muralikrishna
Vyjayanthi Kashi 
Vyjayanthi Kashi from Bangalore concluded the festival with her polished recital ending with a dance theater presentation of Srishti, dance of the five elements or panchabhoota. She was accompanied by Ramya Suraj on vocal, Suchetan on nattuvangam, Aswat Narayan on flute, Natarajamurthy on violin and Sharma on mridangam. 

While the seminar sessions were undoubtedly interesting, they were too lengthy because of too many speakers. Q & A are a vital part of seminars, but was totally missing here, maybe due to time constraints.  Since Sailaja plans to make this an annual feature, perhaps these drawbacks could be avoided next year. That apart, the festival was well organised, had a good, friendly atmosphere, and the announcements made by Roja Kannan were neat and to the point. The Chennai dancers were conspicuous by their absence.  

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of www.narthaki.com