Kuchipudi Kalanidhi's Bhagmati 
- Prithi Kanakamedala 
e-mail: prkanaka@gmail.com 
Photos: Vera Subkus 

November 18, 2009 

Maryland based Kuchipudi Kalanidhi are garnering a reputation as a "must see" company on the American dance landscape. Their latest production, the historical ballet 'Bhagmati' presented at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington DC on November 8, was an engaging example of the company's blend of tradition and innovation in their work. 
Presented to a sold out house, the ballet was conceived by the company's artistic director Anuradha Nehru and jointly choreographed by Nehru and Jai Kishore Mosalikanti, both senior students of Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. Mosalikanti has also received significant praise from audiences and critics alike for his innovative choreography and challenging rhythmic sequences. 

The ballet centres around the love between Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth Sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty of Golkonda, and his Hindu wife (and the ballet's namesake) Bhagmati. It is said that the city of Hyderabad, or Bhagyanagar, is named after her and that Bhagmati lived in the village of Chichlam, where the Charminar now stands. If the story arc was well trod territory (the Shah's youth, his first encounter of Bhagmati, their falling in love, the inevitable obstacle that separates them, and their eventual reconciliation), the production's presentation was anything but ordinary.  

The casting showcased two Kuchipudi Kalanidhi Company members with Silpa Nanan playing Bhagmati, and Chitra Kalyandurg as Ayesha. Yagna Mutnuri (another Vempati Chinna Satyam student) played the Shah himself, and Kishore Mosalikanti took the role of Iqtidar, the court advisor. Kalanidhi's other company members and a number of talented Indian classical dancers from the DC / MD area successfully supported the main characters as court dancers, labourers, vendors, and in other roles.  

Chitra Kalyandurg
Mosalikanti and Mutnuri
Given the historical context of Islamic and Dravidian cultures, the production team were ambitious and successful in their exploitation of both language (Telugu and Urdu in pre-recorded speech) and music (Carnatic, the artery of Kuchipudi performance, and Hindustani). The Hindustani ragas were perfectly in sync with the choreography. The solo performance by the courtesan Ayesha (Kalyandurg) needs to be singled out for this reason. The character was obviously a Kathak dancer, but her routine had been exquisitely choreographed using the Kuchipudi idiom. The rhythmic pattern of steps mimicked the tala of Kathak perfectly, while never compromising the Kuchipudi style. These choreographical experiments were complemented by more well-known elements of the Kuchipudi form, such as the inclusion of a daravu, the traditional introduction of a character to the audience, in this case by Bhagmati (Nanan). Both Nanan and Kalyandurg were flawless in their footwork, abhinaya, and no beat was out of place.  

Particular note also needs to be made of the production's technical aspects, which utilized the best aspects of Western performance and its space in order to vividly and effortlessly invoke the sights, colours, and sounds of Hyderabadi life. The European tableaux vivants was delightfully used at the beginning of the ballet to introduce the audience to the bustling street life of Hyderabad, and the variety of its citizens (culturally, religious, demographically and gender). Instead of excessive scenic staging, locations were suggested using silhouettes against various coloured lit backdrops. Bhagmati's village, for example, was illustrated using the visual metonyms of a temple and a tree. Later, when the Shah is carried across the flood waters of the Musi River to be reunited with his love, the production used a long blue cloth that measured the length of the stage to indicate the stormy waters reminiscent of a Greek epic.  

On a dramaturgical note, quick paced scenes rapidly moved the narrative along, demonstrating the company's awareness that their mixed audience might be more familiar with the narrative pace of a television show or film than an Indian ballet. However, one scene that fell victim to this pacing was the death of Iqtidar (Mosalikanti). Mosalikanti played his villainous part with Shakespearean zeal, always crafty, conniving, and plotting how to overthrow the Sultan (poison him), and transform the Shah and Bhagmati's relationship into unrequited love (force the Shah to marry his daughter, Ayesha). Yet his Machiavellian might was abruptly deflated in the scene between the Shah and Iqtidar. The character died as quickly as he had drawn his sword. It would have been far more enjoyable to see the scene expanded as the audience delighted in Mosalikanti's asides and gestures.  

Bhagmati marked the final event of 'Samasta,' Kuchipudi Kalanidhi's second festival of Indian classical dance. The festival's programming included "Yaatra" (performed by Kalanidhi), and a lecture demonstration by the talented streevesham exponent, Vedantam Venkatanaga Chalapathi from India. Nehru adds in the programme notes that Bhagmati was a concept that had been brewing in her head for about a decade, and the careful precision in its production and execution were clearly visible. It is an exciting development in Kuchipudi that this tradition can be remolded and rewritten for international audiences without any of the form's essence being compromised. In this regard Kuchipudi Kalanidhi has a great deal to be proud of. 

Prithi Kanakamedala is an independent researcher and educator in theatre and performance studies. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.