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Display of Myriad Emotions – Kuchipudi

Satyabhama, proud, beautiful bedecked in jewels and adorned with flowers sits waiting for her Lord Krishna. When he comes, softly, stealthily, she asks him for the celestial flower Parijata, knowing fully well that he has presented it to Rukmini. Angered, Krishna leaves and Satyabhama’s anguish knows no bounds. She sighs, she can no longer bear the cool rays of the moon, nor hear the sweet notes of the cuckoo she loses interest in everything. The gentle breeze blows down form the mountain, the rich fragrance of sandalwood comes wafting by. Sayabhama is oblivious to all this. She sits in a dejected state, eyes downcast, with a look of utter helplessness.

To lilting music, the artist dances, portraying myriad emotions. Emotions both universal and timeless. Emotions ranging from pride to anguish. Expressions change in quick succession, interspersed with fast rhythmic footwork, and songs sung by the dancer herself.

A typical rendering of Bhama Kalapam – the most beautiful item of the Kuchipudi repertoire has been performed a countless number of times down the years. Yet, each performance is undoubtedly different, unique in its own way. For such is the range and the freedom of this lucid dance style form Andhra Pradesh.

The origins of this dance form, which gets its name from the kuchipudi village in the Krishna district of Andhra date as far back as the 2nd century B.C. Perhaps even earlier. However, excavations in this region reveal the existence of dance and music rituals in temples since the days of the Satavahana empire (2nd century B.C.). Sculptures here tell us of two types of dancers, the devadasis who performed in the temple precincts, and kelikas who performed in the royal courts. Furthr, tradition has it that Srikakulam believed to be original capital of the Satavahanas had almost 300 devdasi families living it.

These are but a few of the disjointed leads we have. Not a very reliable base for reconstructing the history for this style, yet a pointer to the fact, that there was a continued tradition of dance in this region. Undoubtedly this tradition ahs not been an unchanging one. Down the ages new influences poured in, religious and secular. They were absorbed. Consequently, variations were brought about and the style slowly evolved into the form as we see it now.

The end of the Kakatiya era ushered in the first major change in this dance form. The austere order of the devdasis had fallen into disuse, and so the Brahmin gurus, got together to preserve the art. The gurus who hitherto never directly participated in the performances, now began to do so. They staged dance-dramas with religious themes, thus giving rise to the Bhagvata Mela tradition.

A leading role in strengthening this tradition was played by Siddhendra Yogi. He commanded the Brahmin boys to join in large numbers, forbade the entry of women into his group and laid the foundation of the Kuchipudi village. A strict code of discipline was prescribed for the boys. They had to learn the Vedas, the shastras (holy scriptures) the natya shastra (dance scripture) and music and had to perform the sandhya vandana (evening hymn) thrice a day. He thus initiated a systematic training pattern for the dancers. So strong is the tradition started by Siddhendra Yogi that every child born in this village even today, has a bell tied around his waist as a mark of initiation.

Patronized by the Vijaynagar rulers the Bhagvata Mela tradition flourished. The Brahmins deeply versed in the shastras, now became the custodians of the art. They started to move around nearby villages entertaining people. The themes were drawn from the Shiva Puran, the Mahabharata, and Bhagvata Puran. Devoting themselves, entirely to the worship of god through dance, they came to be known as bhagvatulus.

Not only did they spread the message of God, but were also involved in social welfare. Once, while performing at a place called Siddhavatam, the artists observed that the local chieftain, used torture on the people to exhort large sums of money. Later while performing for the Vijaynagar ruler, the artists inserted a short dance sequence and through it narrated the entire situation at Siddhavatan. The Emperor had the chieftain beheaded. Such was the involvement of artists in the political and social life of the day.

With the fall of Vijaynagar the era of royal patronage came to an end. The bhagvatulus now moved to Tanjore and formed a colony naming it Achutapuram, after the reigning ruler Achutappa, (today known as Merattur).

Among those who left for Tanjore was Kshetranga, the celebrated composer of Muvva Gopala Padams, love lyrics dedicated to Lord Krishna. Another was Narayana Tirtha who composed the famous Krishna Leela Tarangini. He dramas and padavarnas inspired the bhagavatulus, and the Merattur Bhagvata Mela Natakam took shape.

Some artistes including Siddhendra Yogi however, stayed back in Andhra. They performed before the leading dignitaries of the day, including the Goloconda Nawab, Abdul Hassen Tanisha. So pleased was he with their performance that he gave the village of Kuchipudi as inam (award) to the artistes. Siddhendra Yogi now became the moving spirit behind the development of Kuchipudi. He composed the Parijata Haranam, a klavya (poem) in the shringara (erotic) mood. Influenced deeply by the Vaishnavite movement, Siddhendra Yogi firmly believed that the ultimate aim of human existence was union with God – some thing which was reflected in his work. For, in his Parijata Haranam, the flower theme is secondary. What is emphasized is the love for Krishna and Satyabhaa’s anguish at his departure.

Alongside this tradition the dance of the devadasis and rajnartakis (court dancers) continued. And quite naturally each influenced the other, enriching the style. An example of this fusion is Bhama Kalapam. In this portrayal of the Parijata Haranam theme, we find the character of the heroine more elaborate with greater stress on abhinaya (acting). Then again new items were introduced such as Pravesh Darus which were pure dance sequences. Another was the sabda – dramatic lyrics based on a theme.

Thus the repertoire was slowly expanding, the style now giving full scope for nritta, (pure dance) natya (drama) and nriya (dance with a theme full of rasa), sequences. In the traditional Kuchipudi dance dramas very little nritta (pure dance) was used and more emphasis was laid on abhinaya. Today however, as it ahs developed into a solo dance the nritta aspect has been expanded, and we can see theermanams and intricate footwork based on the traditional adavu system.

One feature unique to Kuchipudi is, the practice of male dancers performing female roles, something which continues even today. One of the best exponents in this tradition of female impression, today is Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma. One of his exemplary portrayals is the role of Usha who sees Aniruddha, the grandson of Lord Krishna in her dream. As Usha the shy, naïve girl Vedantam is a transformed person. The abhinaya where Usha ahs to wake the sleeping Aniruddha is rendered with such skill, and with gestures so feminine and charming that very often the audience have to be told that Usha is actually a man.

Then again vachinkabhinaya or portrayal of emotions through the voice, is predominant in this style. As a dance-drama system every artiste used to sing with his own voice, with the main singer giving him only marginal support. This practice is followed even today, although only occasionally in performances such as those of Bhama Kalapam. The sattvikabhinaya (facial expression) and aharyaabhinaya (dress) was already well developed in this style. The introduction of nritta pieces expanded the scope of angikabhinaya (movement of limbs). Thus Kuchipudi today is the only classical dance form which provides ample scope for the execution of the four main types of abhinaya.

Kuchipudi, as we see it today ahs greater fluidity and freedom than the other classical forms. The lasya (delicate) form and the tandava (vigorous) form can both be executed with equal ease. Having evolved from the drama tradition realistic acting (lok dharmi) and conventional acting (natya dharmi), balance adroitly. Similarly Sukshmabhninaya (detailed gestures) and sthulabhinaya (undetailed gestures) have a place in this style.

Strictly adhering to the rules laid down in Bharata’s Natya Shastra and Nandikeshwra’s Abhinaya Darpana, Kuchipudi ahs all the salient features of a classical dance. All its compositions are set to the Carnatic music. Replete with graceful body movements and intricate footwork this style is a vehicle for bhava (expression). All the nine rasas find their way in to this idiom. A noteworthy item is Gollabhama Kalapam composed by Ramiah Shastri. It is the conversation between a milkmaid explains that, purity and goodness come from good deeds in life and not by birth as a Brahmin. Although there is a didactic message it is humour which plays an important role.

The major change in traditional Kuchipudi dance is the evolving of the solo system, with female dancers performing on stage. This development was started by Vedantam Lakshminarayana shastry about 40 years ago. The repertoire too has undergone a change. Besides the traditional items like sabdams and tarangams, present day choreographers have added a few more compositions. Purandardasa kirtanas, Hindi bhajans, and tillanas of modern composers like Dr. Balamurli Krishna have found their way into Kuchipudi performances.

Kuchipudi, performed as a dance drama has survived till today. But here again change is discernible. The choreo-creations of modern day gurus are slowly displacing the old Kuchipudi dance-dramas. Although their themes are mythological, the presentation – lyrics, music, costumes, and ornaments has taken a new shape. There are however a few gurus and troupes who still believe in the old tradition. They still survive, although without much recognition.

Thus with its renaissance Kuchipudi, has evolved into an almost new form. Enveloping within its fold new techniques, it has greatly enriched itself. Yet al the while it has taken care to retain the essential features of its traditional form. Philosophical in character and deeply emotional in its dramatic presentation, Kuchipudi possesses an abundance of variety. Today this graceful, fluid style has great appeal, not merely because of the beauty of its vibrant enduring qualities but because it ahs developed into a complete dramatic dance form.