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Chinnadevi - The Elusive Dancer
- G Ulaganathan
Photos: Suchi Govindarajan

February 16, 2019

It was a perfect blend of history and art. A group of young dancers, under the name International Dance Collective came together and conceived a wonderful production, 'Chinnadevi - The Elusive Dancer' in traditional Bharatanatyam style and brought to life the story of Chinnadevi, the devadasi of the Srivilliputtur temple in Tamil Nadu, who later married Krishnadevaraya, the emperor of Vijayanagara. The brilliant show was staged recently for a small gathering at the Atta Galatta mini auditorium in Bengaluru.

We all know Krishnadevaraya was a great patron of arts but very little is known about his personal life. The five dancers of the Collective have done research for nearly two years and used various art forms - story telling, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and poetry. "Dance is a way of learning our history, exploring our arts, a vehicle to tell stories, and to push the boundaries of creativity within the realm of structure and a philosophical frame. We are constantly exploring ways to appeal to audiences with modern sensibilities. We combine our rigour with technology and seamlessly move between cultures, time zones and time periods! We are Dutch, British, American and Indian artistes at different stages of our journeys in dance and story-telling and are united in our love of legends and dance," says Dr. Chamundeeswari Kuppuswamy, producer and lead performer who is based in London and teaches Bharatanatyam there.

'Chinnadevi- The Elusive Dancer' is an adaptation of the Tamil book 'I, Krishnadevaraya' by Ra. Ki. Rangarajan, she says. In this dance production it is Chinnadevi who is telling her own story. Her life story somewhat resembles the story of the Hyderabad Nizam and his love affair with Baghmati. Krishnadevaraya and Chinnadevi become the nayaka and nayika here whose love is explained through various verses including those of Purandaradasa. Some events in this story are facts, and others are made up to fill gaps in the story. Along with Chamundeeswari, the other dancers in the production were the well-known Kuchipudi dancer Mathangi Keshavan, Vijay Palaparthy, Lianne Oosterbaan and Vedika Hegde.

Chinnadevi, who lived in the 15th century, was a talented dancer and one of the queens of Krishnadevaraya. Using select adavus and presented in a specially devised Varnam, her life history is unveiled. Purandaradasa padam, Andal pasuram and Telugu poetry, Manu Charitham are all used to depict the love affair. Chinnadevi was born in the Vijayanagar empire during the reign of King Veera Narasimha. She was brought up by her brother Ethirajan as her parents passed away when she was 5. She goes from village to village with her brother staging Bhagavathamela natakams. She loves dancing and finally when they settle down in a village near Srisailam, a stage was erected in the centre of the village and there were nightly performances.

One evening the troupe was to stage Bhama Kalapam. And she played the role of Satyabhama as her brother was ill. One of those in the audience was Krishna, the prince who was in ordinary robes and later it is revealed that he had been away from the kingdom for many months. Realising that Krishna was indeed the prince, her brother vehemently opposes their love affair and takes her away to Tamil Nadu. They go to Srivilliputtur, but Chinnadevi yearns for Krishna who has now become the emperor of Vijayanagar. Chamundeeswari explains in a long varnam how this girl is besotted with Krishna and how she becomes a temple dancer, a devadasi in search of Lord Krishna in Srivilliputtur temple. However, at the corner of her heart, she is hoping that one day she would meet her Krishna, the king. She learns all the adavus, and becomes adept at nritta and abhinaya. She becomes an accomplished dancer too and travels to many places, choreographs many new items based on the works of Vyasathirtha, Purandaradasa, Annamacharya, and Madhwacharya. Then she meets her Krishna! All her feelings of love come flooding back to her. Soon, she gets an invitation to dance in the court. A long story told in her own words, Chinnadevi comes across as a dedicated dancer, loyal lover and is in total control of herself.

Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi were used intermittently to tell this interesting story. Mathangi Keshavan was an admirable support to Chamundeeswari and both portrayed various roles with aplomb. The nearly 3 hour dance drama was interesting, innovative, and presented a hitherto unknown facet of the great emperor Krishnadevaraya.

Ulaganathan Ganesan is a senior dance critic based in Bengaluru.