By Sahana Ghosh
It was only in the early 1900s that women were allowed to perform Kuchipudi, the medieval classical dance form that originated in the eponymous village in Andhra Pradesh. Now, women outnumber men both in teaching and learning, and have taken up the task of infusing a new lease of life into the art -- including through digital means.
About an hour-and-a-half's drive from this new Andhra Pradesh capital, through lush paddy fields and mounds of gleaming red chillies spread out under the hard sun, Kuchipudi village in Krishna district at first seems nondescript.
There is no buzz about the 6,117 performers creating a new Guinness World Record for the largest Kuchipudi dance. Neither is there the larger-than-life aura that one would associate with a classical entity that has touched the shores of the US, the UK, Africa and many others.
But step inside the Sri Siddhendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kala Peetham, and you will have stepped back in time, what with photographs of the maestros who helped shape the dance-drama format of Kuchipudi and faint sounds of talam (beats) accompanying young disciples.
"Initially, it was only men who performed. Vedanta Lakshmi Narayana Sastri in the early 1900s introduced it among women. He also started the trend of solo choreography. Up until then it was an ensemble performance. Besides, it was strictly restricted to the Brahmin community and Sastri opened it up to other communities. Now it is mostly women who are into it," Anupama, a final year Master of Performing Arts student at the institute, told IANS.
The Kala Peetham is an institute affiliated to the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University and is named after the dance form's founding father, Siddhendra Yogi.
"This year, we plan to float an exclusive platform on social media to popularise Kuchipudi. The effort will be to showcase the village and the institute as the point of origin of the dance, which many do not know is named after a village," said Anupama.
The new building of the century-old institute stands on a 600-acre plot gifted by the then Nawab of Golconda, Abdul Hassan Tahnisha, to the villagers in the 17th century, after he was moved by a performance. His only condition was that the tradition should be carried on.
And survived it has, despite vicissitudes of migration, loss of patronage and shrinking family size.
There are around 13 families in the village and all of them are dedicated to Kuchipudi.
"Earlier, there used to be more families. Siddhendra Yogi brought all families engaged in the dance drama to the village and the village's name, which means small ('kuchi') village in Telugu, gradually got aligned to the dance," Anupama explained after a nourishing traditional meal of rice, curd and vegetables that is served to the 100-odd students of the institute who come from across the state and the country.
Elaborating on its genesis at a time when Vaishnavism and the Bhakti movement were sweeping the region, Anupama said the dance form has an intimate connection with Lord Krishna.
Siddhendra Yogi's play "Bhama Kalapam" -- the story of Satyabhama, the charming but jealous wife of Krishna -- is a crown jewel of the dance.
"Men used to dress up as women and enact the role of Satyabhama. The steps and mudras as well as the style of dressing and make-up are rooted in Natya Shastra, the oldest surviving text on stagecraft in the world. One's calibre is mapped from the way one portrays Satyabhama," noted Anupama.
This is where Kuchipudi differs from the other comparatively better-off classical sister forms like Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak.
It is all about the act, or "abhinaya".
"Kuchipudi has four aspects: vachika (speaking or narration), aahaarya (costumes or vastra), aangika (postures) and abhinay or expressions. The dancer or danseuse narrates the dialogues or shlokas and, therefore, the focus is more on the expressions and acting. Mridangam, harmonium and violin are the key accompaniments, and a pair of vocalists keeps the narration rolling. A 'sutradhar' is also involved in the storytelling," said Anupama and her classmates.
There is an a new earnestness about revitalising Kuchipudi, with the state government sanctioning Rs 100 crore for the promotion of both the dance form and the village.
"There was a slack period where employment was hard to find. Now the Chandrababu Naidu government has planned to include Kuchipudi in the school curriculum and recruit teachers. The village also is being developed as a prominent tourism destination," said an enthusiastic Anupama, hoping the associated woodcraft and weaving industry will also be revived.
However, Anupama and her batchmates are resolute on one thing: the dance has to stay pure.