Tradition and Innovation: Kuchipudi – Pasumarthi Ratthayya Sharmma

In recent years, Kuchipudi, a traditional Indian dance form, has seen several changes. How have these changes affected the essence of the art form? Whether they have led to a loss of its uniqueness in the evolving context of the performing arts, or if they have contributed to its aesthetic growth?

Kuchipudi has undergone numerous changes within the traditional presentation style. The old traditions have been lost. Changes have occurred in various elements such as the way the dance is initiated, footwork patterns, hand gestures, and acting styles and so on. The transition from group-oriented storytelling to solo narratives is one of the notable transformations. Today, the emphasis is more on solo performances in Kuchipudi. The differences lie not only in the literal meaning of the script but also in the nuances of the performance. It requires a careful observation of the variations within the practice.
Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma was the first to introduce Kuchipudi to the world of solo dance performance. He started teaching the art form outside the Kuchipudi village, which was a departure from the traditional approach. Later, Vempati Peddanna and Vempati Chinna Satyam started teaching solo items separately, leading to a significant shift in the way Kuchipudi was performed.

Vempati Chinna Satyam’s innovations in solo Kuchipudi marked a departure from the traditional style. He emphasized more on dance and less on storytelling. He had more female dancers in his troupe. While other artists were still performing traditional pieces, Vempati Chinna Satyam moved towards a different style that focused solely on dance. He dispensed with dialogue, conversation, and emphasised on dance elements. These changes brought more recognition and acceptance to the art form, but the old elements were lost in the process.

Today, Kuchipudi in the mainstream mostly follows the solo format. The old elements like Yakshagana and group storytelling are no longer prevalent. Only a few families in the Kuchipudi village continue to teach the traditional art form. They are preserving the classical elements, but there is a shortage of artists who pursue Kuchipudi in its traditional form.
However, the innovations introduced by Vempati Chinna Satyam have reshaped Kuchipudi, and it remains a popular dance form, particularly in solo performances. While the traditional aspects have diminished, Kuchipudi continues to evolve, incorporating new elements and ideas to suit contemporary tastes and preferences. It has retained its relevance in the world of Indian classical dance while adapting to changing times.

What were the changes and innovations that occurred as part of your contribution? Similarly, how did you perceive the ongoing changes and developments, which continue without any transformation in this art form?

The circumstances for artists like me, who were instrumental in bringing about changes, were somewhat limited. Firstly, we lived in a circumstance were Yakshagana was the only mode of entertainment for the natives. We had to perform for a massive audience, which often extended over a distance of approximately two kilometers. The situation back then was such that we didn’t have the time or the resources to think about the broader world or to engage in other activities. Money or other opportunities were not available either. So, the idea of a significant transformation didn’t even cross our minds. Along with our performances, we aimed to educate the audience about various topics, not only related to dance but also covering temporary interests, morals etc. Preserving the traditional art form was our primary goal. We believed in preserving the heritage and presenting it in a fresh way. It was not just limited to dance but extended to provide substantial education in various aspects to our disciples. This was what we believed in, and this was our objective.
Subsequently, some of the most significant changes and innovations were made for the benefit of our new students. We began teaching solo segments like Shabdam and Thillanas separately. Dharavu and jathikkettus were also taught as distinct elements to our students. These were individual pieces used to perform as part of full-length plays in specific situations. For instance, Ramasabdam was performed after the scene in which Bharata accepts Paduka from Rama. In Prahlada chaitham, the dance that is performed with pleasure after Garuda saves Prahlada took the form of a Thillana. Nritta portions performed at royal courts were presented as ‘Shabdams.’ The time we took to change the stage properties was filled with performance pieces such as Jathiswaram, Jathikkettu, Mandooka Shabdam, etc. These pieces later established themselves as individual elements. Change is inevitable and indeed necessary. It gives life to this art form. But we must be careful not to forget our roots. Only when the foundation is strong can we embrace the new changes. So, hold on to the basics, keep them intact, and then incorporate the new changes as needed. That’s how every artist can contribute to the art form’s evolution while preserving its tradition.

Have you encountered audiences that seek change, or do they prefer the traditional style consistently? To what extent have you considered and adapted to the rasika’s preferences?

Rasikas can have various preferences. Changes are often welcomed by rasikas, and they do request innovations. Changes that come about to cater to their preferences are generally well-received. It’s not a problem to introduce small modifications according to their tastes. However, one thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how many changes or innovations come along, the foundation should always remain intact. The tradition that we have in our hands should be preserved and should stand strong no matter how long it continues. It should not experience any dilution. Regional uniqueness, regardless of which art form it is, should always stand out and remain intact. Personalities that evolve from that uniqueness will continue to endure. No experience can replace the importance of the identity of an art form, which remains constant over time. It is not something that can be experienced overnight. It will not experience any dilution or distortion as long as the regional uniqueness continues to stand the test of time.

Was there a situation of questioning the tradition of Kuchipudi, which gained more popularity after deviating from the Yakshagana style?

Yes, it was always existed, not just now, but in the past as well, there has always been a situation where people questioned the purity of this art form, which is rooted in the tradition of Kuchipudi. There was an argument that the dance tradition which was known with the name ‘Andhra Natyam’ only had the classical base, Kuchupdi is just a Janapada (Folk Tradition) deeply rooted in regional customs. Nataraja Ramakrishna was one of the proponents who raised such a debate. It was a period when all the classical art forms were making efforts to rise to a higher status. In that context, the practice of presenting Kuchipudi’s unique classical style alongside its folk heritage became essential. It was during this period that Kuchipudi artists, especially those in the village of Kuchipudi, made significant efforts to popularize and establish its classical and traditional aspects. However, it’s important to note that this happened during a specific period in time and didn’t dilute or harm the essence of the tradition. The regional uniqueness remained intact, regardless of the art form, and it continues to hold its individuality. While changes and innovations associated with changing times are accepted, they cannot stay too far from the tradition that has been preserved for so long. Traditional values and the essence of a performance art form remain significant, and they don’t deteriorate as long as the regional uniqueness persists.

A system that designed by Vempatti chinnasathyam have flourished in parallel with the traditional Yakshagana Style of Kuchupudi, and it has been accepted widely. In this context have you felt that the styles are merging in the contemporary time?

Vempati Chinna Satyam brought about significant changes in the Kuchipudi dance style, and the system he developed still exists without any alterations. I believe that his disciples also adhere to the same pattern. Therefore, I don’t think there is a chance of mixing it up with other styles. The traditional Yakshagana style also remains robust today, although it has a more localized following rather than global popularity. However, regardless of the style, it is rooted in the Yakshagana tradition, ensuring its preservation. Chinna Sathya garu’s contributions were an invaluable addition to the Kuchipudi tradition, leading to global acceptance. Thus, I believe all these styles will persist in their respective forms, with individual performers exploring their creativity within the established frameworks.

How do you perceive the tradition that you and your ancestors have followed? Do you believe the current generation is capable of advancing it with creative additions while maintaining its core identity?

Regarding the future of this Parampara Yakshagana tradition, it depends on how it adapts to the changing times. To preserve this heritage without losing its essence, it may be necessary for some young artists to take a keen interest in learning and continuing this tradition. Whether they can learn and sustain this tradition remains uncertain, but there are children and young individuals who show an interest in exploring this heritage from outside the Parampara, which may contribute to its continued existence.

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