Season Of Splendor -  
First International Kuchipudi Dance Conference  
in North America  
by Kalyani Giri, Houston 

September 23, 2003  

Houston, Texas: If you are an art lover and missed the First International Kuchipudi Dance Conference in North America held right here in Houston on August 30, 31 and September 1...woe to you. The historic event, held under the auspices of art forum Samskriti, Society for Indian Performing Arts, drew to the city the international and national intelligentsia of this drama-drenched yet graceful classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh. Rathna Kumar, a senior student of Dr. Chinna Satyam, brought this dance style to Texas 28 years ago, and through performing and teaching it, has gained it much recognition and popularity among the Indian immigrant community and the mainstream. For her, this conference was a dream realized. 
The inaugural ceremony was held at the elegant Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall on Saturday, August 30. The traditional lamps were lit by dancer and movie artiste / dancer Meenakshi Seshadri Mysore. An invocatory dance "Swaagatham", composed by Dr. Uma Eyyunni specially for the occasion, and choreographed by Rathna Kumar, was performed by students of the Anjali Center for Performing Arts. Conference Convenor Charan Reddy welcomed delegates and guests, and commended the event's Artistic Director Rathna Kumar for her vision in planning and executing the three-day Kuchipudi extravaganza.  
Mayor of the City of Sugarland, David Wallace, and Deputy Consul General of India in Houston R L Koli, congratulated Samskriti, and each told of their pride that Houston was host to the epoch-making event during their term in public office. Mr. Koli received the first copy of the souvenir released to commemorate the occasion. Keynote speaker Dr. Devesh Soneji, Professor of South Indian Religions at McGill University in Canada, whose work on Tamil and Telugu texts of dance and music compositions of the Tanjore Quartet are well documented, talked of the evolution of Kuchipudi in the modern day context.  
An enchanting presentation of Thyagaraja's drama composition "Nauka Charitram" was performed by the Anjali Dance Company with choreography by Anjali's director, Rathna Kumar. While all the dancers were endearing, special mention must be made of the immensely gifted 8 year old Yarlini Vipulanandan in the role of the child Sri Krishna, whose prodigious performance far exceeded her years. Further enhancing the performance was the live orchestra, with local singers Anuradha Subramanian, Vasantha Putcha, Kumari Susarla and Uma Bhaskar, and visiting musicians from Chennai, India - vocalist J Ramesh, percussionist N K Kesavan, and flautist, B Muthukumar.
The panel discussions were mediated by Devesh Soneji, who conveyed an authoritative overview of the critical history of dance forms in Andhra Pradesh. The other panelists were Dr. PV Rao, Physics Professor, Emory University, Atlanta, and an active educator in subjects of Hindu art, philosophy and religion, Dr. Saradapurna Sonty, Director and Program Coordinator for Potti Sree Ramulu International Telugu Study Center in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Uma Eyyunni, a medical doctor from Jacksonville, Florida, whose passions are literature, music and dance, and Swapna Sundari, who was specially sent by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to perform and participate in the Conference. Other topics discussed were: “Kuchipudi in the context of the allied narrative dance and drama traditions of Andhra”, “The dance drama in modern Kuchipudi”, "Shifting patronage: Globalization and non-Telugu audiences for Kuchipudi", and "Social protest and the arts in India". There were also lecture/demonstrations of Salaam Daru and Bhama Kalapam. 

The evening performances included  "Parampara - Young Artists Showcase" featuring students of US-based dance gurus Anuradha Nehru (Washington DC), Balatripura Sundari (Tampa, FL), Kamala Reddy (Pittsburgh, PA), Divya Yeluri (New Jersey), Sasikala Penumarthi (Atlanta, GA), Revathi Komanduri (Atlanta, GA), Rathna Kumar (Houston, TX), Srilatha Suri (Dallas, TX) and Sandhya Sree Athmakuri (Detroit, MI). All the afore-mentioned teachers are now tutoring a new generation of dancers in an immigrant community. 

The feature presentation of the evening was an outstanding performance by visiting artistes from New Delhi, Swapna Sundari and her students. That the entire purpose of her life is her craft was evident in her dance. The unusual and gutsy subject matter she chose to perform was a perfect vehicle for her elevated and mature level of creativity. She described through dance, the story of a woman outwardly deformed, but gaining confidence in herself as one of great beauty when her path crosses that of Lord Krishna, who praises her. This performance also showed the evolution of dance, and the limitless possibilities for adaptation it holds if the artist has the courage and imagination to follow through. Guests of honor included Kusum Tayal, wife of the Consul General of India. 

'New Choreographies' gave U S based teachers a platform to display their own choreography. Anuradha Nehru, Balatripura Sundari, Sangita Rangala, Sailaja and Siri Sonty demonstrated their pieces. Aneesha Srikar and Rumya Putcha performed items choreographed by their guru Rathna Kumar.  'New Directions in Kuchipudi Dance' was a forum allowing students to explore the possibilities of Kuchipudi lending itself to other forms of movement. Interesting fusions with Yoga, Tap and Modern Dance were revealed. The general consensus was that Kuchipudi is a growing art form that could fit many a mould. 

An interesting segment of the conference was the perspectives shared by young artistes raised and trained in the U S. Rathna Kumar's student Rumya Putcha (22), told of some immigrant parents despairing of how to inculcate 'Indian values' in their children, misguidedly forcing them to learn dance. "The child may not be interested at all, but the parents believe girls would appear more cultured and attract a better caliber of husband if they learn dance. It's all for the wrong reasons." Mangala Maddali (15), a student of Revathy Koumanduri, travels 8 hours from Mississippi to Atlanta every Friday evening to spend the weekend learning Kuchipudi with her guru. "I feel blessed to have a guru teaching me a dance I love. If you have a passion for something, you make the sacrifices." Physician Dr. Sangita Rangala, also a student of Rathna Kumar, commended her guru's style of teaching. "She nurtures us to feel good about ourselves. We grew up in this country, where if you did something other kids did not understand, you were the odd one out. My guru gives each student faith to believe in their abilities." On whether language was a barrier in teaching non-Telugu students? Pallavi Ahobilla, Rathna Kumar's student told attendees that her guru has more Bengali students than any other.  "Some of the best dancers in our group are girls of other language backgrounds. Rathna Aunty explains every bit of the dances to us until we understand it enough to be empathetic to it, and to be able to emote appropriately. Language cannot be a barrier if you have a patient teacher." 

The feature presentation of the evening was "Keechaka Vadha", an exhilarating dance drama performed by Pasumarthy Venkateswara Sarma and troupe from India. It was a wondrous glimpse into the authentic Kuchipudi style when it was a street craft employed to educate the villagers on the scriptures and mythology. The extravagant body swings, wide foot movements, elaborate story-telling, and exaggerated facial expression was part theater, part dance - a superb testosterone-laden presentation, which involved many a comical macho moment of mustache-twirling and posturing. It was so reminiscent of the Tamil craft of Therukoothu, which is based on the similar premise. Needless to say, the audience had a lot of fun. 

The valedictory session was a trip down memory lane for many of Vempati Chinna Satyam's students. Maestro Chinna Satyam is the doyen of Kuchipudi dance who, more than fifty years ago, literally dragged the theatrical dance form off the streets of the village of Kuchipudi, or Kuchelapuram, where it originated - sloughed off the rough edges, and shaped it into the sinuously elegant art it is today. Rathna Kumar, one of his first students, talked of her guru's unusual and exquisite choreography.  "Master would make us repeat the subtlest eye movement over and over until he was satisfied," she said. "He is a perfectionist." She invited her guru's other students to demonstrate their favorite pieces choreographed by the Maestro. Balatripura Sundari, Sandhya Athmakuri, Sangita Rangala, Sailaja, Deepa Sashidaran, and students of Rathna Kumar showcased Chinna Satyam's world-renowned works and spoke of their deep respect and affection for their guru. Seetha Ratnakar, Assistant Station Director at the Chennai Doordarshan Kendra, and one of his earliest students, gave a lecture/video presentation of her own favorite excerpts of her guru's choreographies. With her area of specialization being dance, she has had over the years, the distinction of filming five of Chinna Satyam's dance dramas for television.  
A coalition of Kuchipudi artists in North America, Rathna’s brainchild, was formed, with all in enthusiastic agreement. Rathna requested the Secretary of Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, Jayant Kastuar to create a similar forum linking U S-based exponents of the art with those artists residing in India. He assured her that the purpose of his visit to this country was to assess the situation and make a recommendation. He further indicated that he felt very positive about forming such a coalition.  Swapna Sundari, based in New Delhi, assured dancers living here that she would give them her complete cooperation if they planned on having events such as performances in India. 
A book, 'Kuchipudi Adavu' written (and illustrated with charming stick figures demonstrating dance poses) by Rathna Kumar was released by Jayant Kastuar on this momentous occasion. Her earlier book was on adavus in Bharata Natyam. 
The grand finale was a dance drama, 'Sri Krishna Parijatham', one of Chinna Satyam’s earliest choreographies, performed by Kamala Reddy, Sasikala Penumarthi, Revathi Komanduri and Vasu Tummala.  It was a fitting finale to a conference that was an intellectual melting pot, and a veritable feast of dance and music. 

So many logistics go into planning an event of such magnitude, albeit at three locations - trips back and forth to the airport picking up delegates arriving at different times, accommodation, food, transport to the events and back. Kudos to Samskriti, volunteers, and Rathna Kumar for the meticulous coordination and attention to the minutest of details.  

Kalyani Giri is a freelance journalist residing in Houston.