Tradition and Innovation: Kuchipudi – Vyjayanthi Kashi

In the field of Kuchipudi dance, over the past few decades, there have been significant changes. What were these changes that came through innovations in performances during this period? Did these changes lead to the loss of the distinct identity of Kuchipudi in the subsequent circumstances or contribute to its growth in terms of aesthetics?

In the late 1950s, Kuchipudi gained recognition as a classical dance form, not just a traditional folk art. It was during this time that Kuchipudi transformed into a solo dance form and made its presence felt on the performance stage. Before that, Kuchipudi was primarily known as a Yakshagana performance, in which only male artists participated, performing Vaishnava stories like Shashirekha Parinayam, Prahlada Charitam, and Bhamakalapam.

Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam played a significant role in bringing more attention to Kuchipudi through his efforts to refine and popularize the solo dance form. He introduced several innovations in Kuchipudi Yakshagana dance, placing greater emphasis on the dance aspect, and this paved the way for Kuchipudi to become recognized as a classical dance form in India.

Initially dominated by male artists, Kuchipudi later saw the inclusion of more female performers in this dance form. Even today, if you observe Kuchipudi dancers, you’ll notice that there are more female participants. Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s efforts to standardize the dance form and incorporate it into the mainstream cultural scene contributed to this shift.

In Chennai, a city known for its appreciation of fine arts, Kuchipudi gained popularity among the audience, thanks in large part to Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s efforts. His innovations in choreography, stage design, costumes, and the use of props like swords, garlands, and makeup made Kuchipudi more attractive to the public. His goal was to make the art form accessible and enjoyable to a wider audience.

Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s focus on precision in dance movements, unique choreographic sequences, and the use of expressive elements such as facial expressions and hand gestures made Kuchipudi stand out. These aspects, along with his attention to detail in stage decoration, ornaments, and makeup, garnered more attention from the audience.

It was his dedication and vision that transformed Kuchipudi from a traditional art form into a dynamic and captivating classical dance. He believed that by presenting dance in various forms and styles, he could reach a wider audience and generate more interest in the art. This approach succeeded in making Kuchipudi more popular among people in Chennai and beyond.

In this process, Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s innovations and meticulous training methods not only preserved the essence of Kuchipudi but also enhanced its appeal to a broader audience. The incorporation of diverse elements, changes in presentation styles, and a focus on attracting and engaging the audience were all part of his vision. These efforts not only revitalized Kuchipudi but also paved the way for it to find a prominent place in the world of classical dance.

In the early days, Kuchipudi Yakshagana was only performed in the Telugu-speaking regions. Therefore, the vocabulary in Telugu was the appropriate choice. However, Chennai, like the ‘Classical Capital,’ has had a significant and enduring influence on Kuchipudi. This connection has allowed for a broader perspective and has helped Kuchipudi evolve and incorporate elements from different cultures, making it a global art form. It can adapt and thrive in any country and any cultural context.

Initially, Kuchipudi used a limited number of ragas from Carnatic music in its Yakshagana performances. Many of these were regional variations in vocal style and delivery, closely associated with the regional culture. However, Rabindranath Tagore’s efforts to bring a more global perspective to Kuchipudi and to make it more appealing to a wider audience led to changes in the use of ragas and rhythmic patterns. Tagore’s influence resulted in a more cosmopolitan approach to Kuchipudi, making it accessible to people from various cultures and backgrounds.

As time passed, Kuchipudi started to incorporate more elements from Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, and other dance forms. These changes were welcomed by audiences and led to the diversification of the art form. However, Kuchipudi also faced challenges as it sought to balance tradition and innovation.

In the later years, individuals like Raja-Radha Reddy played a crucial role in expanding the scope of Kuchipudi. They incorporated various choreographic techniques, including elements from Hindustani music and other dance forms, to make Kuchipudi more dynamic and versatile. These innovations helped Kuchipudi gain wider acceptance and appreciation.

In conclusion, Kuchipudi has evolved over the years, embracing changes and influences from various cultures and dance forms. While preserving its traditional essence, it has become a more inclusive and globally recognized art form.

What were the changes and developments that have occurred as your contributions in this field? Similarly, what are the ongoing changes and improvements, without any changes, in any aspects within this art form?

I am not a native Telugu speaker. My main audience and students were from various regions, mostly from Karnataka. So I had to figure out how to teach them without the knowledge of Telugu, and I began my journey in choreography, accepting and incorporating various elements including language into this art form without any hesitation. I embraced elements from the traditional Yakshagana style of dance and blended them with the nuances of the classical style, integrating the aspects of both styles into my choreographies.

One incident I remember, during a dance drama when the shortage of male performers became a challenge, I had to  find a solution and made myself ready to do male characters, which was not a common practice then.  This led me to experiment with male-centric characters in my dance dramas. In this process, I received invaluable support from my audience and students.

I also began writing scripts in Telugu and experimented with different styles of writing to better connect with my audience. I also ventured into performing solo acts and gave equal importance to my role as an actress in addition to my dance performances. This transformation led me to explore and create female-centric characters, which were well-received by my audience.

I also started writing scripts for dance dramas in Kannada and Sanskrit and introduced scripts that incorporated elements from Telugu culture and literature. These scripts, such as “Parvathi Parinayam,” “Bhama Kalapam,” and “Nauka Charitam,” were well-received in Telugu-speaking regions. I believe that using the Telugu language in dance performances not only adds authenticity but also establishes a strong connection between the dance and the culture.

Additionally, I explored various music styles and adapted songs like “Chittu Kuruvi” and “Ravindra Sangeetham” to suit the requirements of my performances. These changes and adaptations allowed me to diversify my art and engage with my audience on a deeper level.

I found immense joy and satisfaction in the role of a solo performer, as it provided me with a unique platform to express my artistry. Not only did I dance, but I also conveyed powerful emotions and stories through my performances. Solo acts, like “Jhansi Ki Rani,” “Gandhari,” “Urvasi,” “Uloopi,” “Ahalya,” and “Shakti,” were some of my groundbreaking solo performances that resonated with the audience. These performances allowed me to connect with the audience in a way that was not possible in traditional group dances.

Furthermore, I actively engaged with the rich cultural heritage of Karnataka by incorporating elements like “Devarnama” songs and devotional compositions from saints like Purandaradasa into my performances. I also experimented with different rhythms and explored the use of temple-related terminologies like “Devar-nama” in my choreographies.

My journey in the world of dance has been a continuous process of change and adaptation. I have strived to embrace new elements while preserving the essence of the art form. As time goes on, more changes will come, and I am committed to evolving with the evolving times, always keeping the possibilities and limitations of this art form in mind.

“Do connoisseurs approach what is new or what they are accustomed to? Connoisseurs have always been open to embracing change or welcoming the old. How many times have connoisseurs adapted their preferences based on changing times?

I have often contemplated how the song ‘Thaandavam Nrithya Kare…’ made its way into the cultural sphere!! Historically, the Andhra dynasty ruled the region during that era when change was not acceptable. Therefore, nurturing their protectors and encouraging them to dance was the goal of the artists. From ancient times until now, it has been a pursuit to cultivate art in such a way that it pleases the connoisseurs. Similarly, here, my objective is to convey my beliefs and experiences to the government that protects me and to the connoisseurs of this place, which is why I need justice and responsibility. I am always attentive to incorporate such narratives in my dance, in a language that suits the connoisseurs’ preferences, and that is why I eagerly explore more choreographies. It is my responsibility to present the essence of dance most beautifully, and to attract the viewers to its beauty. If we act with such a goal in mind, it is indeed possible, in my opinion, to captivate the audience with the elegance of dance. If we strive towards such a goal, it is certainly possible to achieve it.”

“Do various styles still exist in Kuchipudi today? Do they appear to coexist in any situation, either collectively or individually, or do they continue to evolve into different paths? How do you perceive the current situation?

Various styles exist in the realm of art, including in Bharatanatyam. In the past, in the village of Kuchipudi, there were 13 Yakshagana presentation families. Similarly, Chinta Venkata Ramayya, Chinta Krishna Murthy Garu, and many other gurus had their unique styles. However, it becomes evident when considering the circumstances of those times. Although all of them were excellent practitioners, some of them were known for their particular attire. Kuchipudi Chittai is not entirely familiar to everyone, but it was adapted uniformly in all styles and segments. Everyone’s disciples also display differences in their styles naturally. Style itself is an evolving structure that has continued through generations. It is this feature that distinguishes it among different gurus. My primary guru, Veedantam Satyanarayana Garu, also didn’t gain much fame for his style. The reason for that is this. However, some aspects of his disciples’ styles and performances, independent of specific attire or roles, made them stand out and attract connoisseurs. Therefore, they became more accepted. In a similar manner, in the future too, the path followed by each guru through their disciples will determine the continuation of their tradition. Every disciple, guided by their guru, will follow their guru’s path and build upon it. In such an environment, connoisseurs accept what appears to be good from various elements. The key is to have a strong foundation in one’s style, and then it’s acceptable to adopt what seems good from elsewhere. This is the only principle to be followed; there is no mistake in it.”

“In your endeavors, how much influence has there been from other arts?

I initially studied Bharatanatyam in my early years. Later, I began practicing Kuchipudi, and Bharatanatyam continued alongside. However, in my mind and body, Kuchipudi has always held sway. I have always strived to provide a clear direction for the younger generation. You can experiment with many arts. Still, it is essential to establish a strong foundation in your chosen art. Then, you can confidently explore other arts. Not only in dance but also in music, instruments, other theater forms, and even in cinema, I have ventured after understanding my capabilities and expanding the beauty in them. Through rigorous exploration, sometimes almost accidentally, I have often been able to adopt various elements from different mediums. The pursuit of beauty is not confined to dance alone. In this art, I have often acquired elements from various media. Dance is not an isolated art form. In it, there is music, there are musical instruments, there is other theater art. In pursuit of beauty, I have been able to sometimes almost serendipitously adopt elements from various other media. Dance is not just one isolated art. In it, there is music, there are musical instruments, there are other theater arts. In the quest for beauty, I have often been able to adopt elements from various other media. It is not a one-time effort. It is a continuous exploration, and when a dancer takes command of beauty in all its forms, it is then that she has excelled the most. That is my belief.”

“Presentation skills and, along with that, the ability to adapt to significant changes are essential for young talents who aspire to excel in dance. Where should one focus their attention when starting a new choreography?

The beginning of a new choreography starts in the mind. You need to contemplate the concept subtly and focus on it with concentration as if it were meditation. It’s not just about storytelling. It’s about understanding the medium of presentation, the nuances of dance and drama within it, and not just the costume but also the use of lights, props, and objects on stage. Develop a thorough understanding of these elements, and like uncovering the possibilities in your chosen art, explore and enhance the beauty in the facets of presentation. Knowledge of theory is essential. But beyond that, you need to innovate.

However, it’s essential to maintain a balance. Not to overwhelm it with theoretical knowledge but to give it a new perspective. Just like a child entering a new phase of life after a wedding, a young dancer starts as a learner and gradually transitions into a performer, choreographer, and sometimes even a guru. It is the same as various stages of human life – childhood, adolescence, youth, old age, and so on. In each of these stages, as in each chapter, one should give the utmost attention to what is required, whether it’s learning, research, family life, social activities, and more. It’s in paying attention to these facets that a dancer’s success is defined. By providing more support to good art practices, it is possible to prepare her for better artistic endeavors.

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