Sounds and sights at Kuchipudi

Sounds and sights at Kuchipudi


Vincent D' Souza of KutcheriBuzz was at the festival this year. This is his travelogue.

The poster teases me. I love to soak in art festivals. And in the environs. I haven't been to Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh. Close to midnight, my bags are packed.


Today, a few stalwarts of Kuchipudi dance are doing their best to host an annual dance festival in the land which hosted this classical dance. Festivals have been held here since 1948 but the recent efforts are to broadbase it. The annual Siddhendra Yogi Mahotsav 2007 was held this time from February 26 to March 4. (Siddhendra is considered the founder of Kuchipudi).

Sounds and sights at KuchipudiA six and a half hours journey by train takes you to Vijaywada (once known as Bezwada) from Chennai. This bustling town on the banks of the river Krishna is a nice base for the festival, with its convenient boarding and lodging facilities. A taxi takes about an hour to get to the village, which is off the highway to Machilipatnam and is close to the native town of Andhra Pradesh's biggest hero, the late N. T. Rama Rao, film star and political leader.

 Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, based in Chennai, and his senior team who camp at the village have been dreaming big. The guru who developed Kuchipudi as a solo dance form and is known the world over, though restrained to a wheelchair today, is tapping into hisl well wishers, students and arts organisations to raise funds and the profile of this festival. By inviting senior dancers to perform here, he hopes to spread the buzz. 

Honours for Birju Maharaj
For the 2007 festival, Pandit Birju Maharaj, the celebrated Kathak dancer, was given the 'Siddhendra Yogi Puraskar' award. Maharaj also performed at the fest. We also had Carnatic vocalist T. V. Sankaranarayan, Odissi dancer Kiran Sehgal, Shanmughapriya and Haripriya, Carnatic vocalsits, dancers V. P. Dhananjayan and his wife, Shantha, Keremane Shembhu Hedge and his troupe of Yakshagana performers from Karnataka, Vempati Chinna Satyam's own troupe and Bharatanatyam dancer Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant.

The drive to the village takes you through unending fields of sugarcane which feed the giant KCP Sugars factory in the region. The roads are good and NTR's giant statue greets you when you take the turn off the main road to head to Kuchipudi. People can tell you countless stories about NTR. My driver tells me how the young NTR cycled from his village to the town centre to carry fresh milk for sale. He says the ruling Congress will lose to Telugu Desam soon - a new rule making seat belts compulsory for car drivers is irritating people. Can't imagine seat belts upsetting political fortunes!

Led by Vempati Chinna Satyam, the Akhila Bharata Kuchipudi Natya Kala Mandali, a sort of umbrella organisation for dancers, based in this place, helped to construct a finely sculpted arch to the village. Down the road is the Siddhendra Kalakshetra, a campus for arts education, affiliated to Potti Sriramulu University. And a lane on the right leads to the Sri Ramalingeswaraswamy Temple.

Some years ago, the Kuchipudi community constructed a shrine dedicated to Siddhendra yogi where a life-size statue of the founder of this dance form takes prime space. This and the temple are well maintained. In the square, a stage is set up for the performances. People sit in the square all around the stage and spill into the lane. On some days, there were over 2,000 people watching the performances, though some events went on till 11 pm - the felicitations of chief guests were a wee bit long.

Promoting cultural tourism
Vempati Venkat tells us that they have a goal in mind - how to make this region a cultural tourism destination that will improve the local economy and encourage artistes of the 'now generation' to pursue Kuchipudi. One way to retain their interest is to draw those who wish to learn the dance to classes in the village. This though calls for better accommodation ( the Kalakshetra accommodated guests and artistes for the fest).

Another is to make this a tourist destination. Perhaps a visitor can at best soak in Kuchupudi classes and village life. A little park which features the busts of the greats of Kuchipudi and plaques that list their contribution is in the making. One bust is of Vedantam Raghaviah, famed dancer and guru who made a name as a choreographer in films like 'Devdas'.

Perhaps, documentaries and short films, sound and light shows, interactive sessions with families who pursue the arts, besides local tours, could make cultural tourism successful.

Yet, the setting is unique . . .
Dr. E. Bhagiratha Rao, who headed a defence laboratory and is now a fellow of the AP Academy of the Science, is a hardcore Carnatic music rasika. He spent five days at the Mahotsav. And he says he enjoyed every moment of it. For two reasons.

The performances set in a village square and held under the stars created a great atmosphere. Two, the variety of arts, from Yakshagana to Carnatic music to Kathak, was a treat. Rao tells me that if he gets to know about such fests in advance he would plan more trips and also get others to check them out.

At the fest, Vempati Chinna Satyam's dancers presented 'Rukmini Kalyanam ' on one evening and followed it with 'Sri Pada Parijatham', on saint Annamayya before a packed house.

Almost all the dancers and musicians here are from Chennai. And the local people seem to enjoy sitting through Kuchipudi dance-dramas. If they get the invited politicians to arrange buses that ply late night to local towns and villages, the venue would be packed.

Special invitees can lodge at the Kalakshetra. That is what I learn from writer-critic Dr. Sunil Kothari who has stopped over. But I choose to have Vijaywada as my base. The drive through the countryside is exhilarating - had the music from the Kuchipudi artistes carried to the highway!

Buzz around the temple
The temple buzzes all the time in Kuchipudi. As I discover the next evening, the last day of the fest. Bharatanatyam dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant, based in Hyderabad, and her dance troupe, present 'Sri Rama Namam - Entha Ruchi Ra', based on the popular Bhadrachalam Ramadas.

Awarded the Padma Shri by the central government, this officer on deputation to the AP government says that she keeps returning to themes on lord Rama time and again. She presented this dance drama for the South Indian Cultural Association in Hyderabad earlier this year, with inputs by scholars Dr. Rallabandi Kavita Prasad, A. S. Murthy and Ranee Kumar.

The hosts are warm. I hear there will be a great dinner spread at the Kalakshetra campus. But I enjoy the snacks at the temporary stalls that come up on the periphery of the fest venue. Chilli bajjis, Mysore bondas and tea served in the teeny plastic cups.

Sangeet Natak Akademi secretary Dr. Jayant Kastuar performs Kathak. (I really missed Birju Maharaj earlier in the week. People here are still raving about him.) But Jayant keeps talking from the stage; and seems to conduct a Kathak class. The audience murmurs and gossips and many take a tea break!

Backstage, I meet Chinta Ramamurthy who is blessing his dancers ready to present the final act of the fest - a Kuchipudi dance drama on Prahlada, which resembles a theru-koothu in Tamil Nadu. Chinta is a fourth generation dancer. Two sons have taken to music and dance but one other is working in the town. Chinta says the fortunes of active dancers and troupes of the village have gone up since they get invitations to perform not only in India but also abroad.

"If you are talented, people invite you but we must do more,"he says.
Chinta and his dancers are used to present drams that start after 8 pm, after the villagers have dined, and perform till daybreak. "But today, we abridge our shows to a maximum of three hours,"he says.

A procession begins at the temple. It is Holi. The temple musicians dab coloured powder on their colleagues as the nadaswaram begins to swing. Devotees crowd around. The final show of the Mahotsav begins. This is a unique experience. And every dancer should seek it out.

I have a train to catch to Chennai at six the next morning - the Pinakani Express. So I leave as the final, delayed show warms up. If you really want to enjoy these shows, you should stay with them into the night.

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