Remembering Vempati Chinna Satyam, progressive comrade who re-energised Kuchipudi

Remembering Vempati Chinna Satyam, progressive comrade who re-energised Kuchipudi
Remembering Vempati Chinna Satyam, progressive comrade who re-energised Kuchipudi
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Vempati Chinna Satyam posing as Nataraja

At the peak of pre-independent India’s nationalist movement, several famous artistes and statesmen took it upon themselves to revive, renew and popularize performing and visual arts, handicrafts and numerous native traditions with a missionary zeal. Several academic institutions were established to serve the cause to ready the country for a culturally vibrant future.

A similar vision motivated a teenage Vempati Chinna Satyam to walk four hundred kilometers from his native village in Andhra Pradesh to Chennai. With a mere two rupees in his pocket and a strong grounding in his art, he was all set to take Kuchipudi dance from the confines of his remote village onto the global map and mark its significance. Born in the village of Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh to an economically backward family of traditional dance practitioners in 1929, Satyam took his initial training in dance from gurus Tadepalli Perayya Sastri, Pasumarti Kondala Rayudu and his older cousin Vempati Pedda Satyanarayana before he continued to hone his skills under the mentoring of Vidwan Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri who tapped his potential to the maximum.

Those were the formative years of many cultural institutions across India. Rukmini Devi Arundale had established Kalakshetra in Chennai, Vallathol Narayana Menon’s Kalamandalam was active in Kerala, the Madras Music Academy in Chennai was up and thriving with regular concerts of the most celebrated maestros of that generation. For the longest time the Kuchipudi dance tradition was the privilege of male performers who donned every role on stage. Satyam’s deep study of NatyashastraAbhinaya Darpanam and other seminal texts on dance in addition to the exposure he got to Chennai’s rich cultural life aided him in bringing about a format that never existed, changing the fate of the very dance form for ever. Over time, Kuchipudi had attained a point of stagnation. Men over-dramatisizing female characters became a bane. It took a great amount of skill and maturity to pull off a female character like the legendary Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma would. Otherwise Satyam strongly believed that it was better if women were allowed to perform female roles. Kuchipudi was not yet recognized as a classical dance form because of the strong roots it had in the dance-drama tradition.

Natyacharya Vempati Chinna Satyam

His decision to re-structure the way Kuchipudi was performed brought about a new finesse and aesthetic with the introduction of women to perform, a thing his mentor Lakshminaraya Sastri pioneered. Bringing in techniques of modern choreography and adapting what was a temple and court dance form to the proscenium, Kuchipudi’s growth kept steady and progressive under Satyam’s discerning eye. He got rid of all the unnecessary frills that Kuchipudi was being stereotyped with. In a way, he gave it an acid wash to cleanse it of the overpowering tackiness, which had become the face of the dance form. He bettered his venture by starting the Kuchipudi Art Academy in 1963. Devising new techniques in teaching methodology by taking into account seminal texts on dance, music and theatre, he gave Kuchipudi a new form and shape. Very soon he was mentoring and guiding some of the biggest stalwarts on screen and stage in the dance form in his role as acompetent Natyacharya. He was the new ‘Master Garu’ Kuchipudi seemed to be waiting for. His contribution towards elevating Kuchipudi to a classical dance form is undeniable.

Satyam’s creative genius brought about a sea change in the way Kuchipudi was polished to perfection. He introduced the idea of clean lines, a sparkling quality in the choreography, and faultlessness in resolution of movements and gave birth to a new erudition in order to make the dance form universally appealing. Over the decades the repository of new choreographies, dance-dramas and solo items he created was remarkable. From mythological and historical ballets to social dramas with progressive themes, the ‘Vempati style’ of Kuchipudi dance was embraced unequivocally across the world making him a legend in his own lifetime. Amongst the various operas, dance-dramas and choreographies he popularized, a few noteworthy ones are ‘Ksheerasagara Madhanam’, ‘Sri Krishna Paarijatam’, ‘Vipranarayana Charitam’, ‘Kalyana Rukmini ’, ‘Hara Vilasam’, ‘Menaka Viswamitra’, ‘Ardha Nareeshwaram’, ‘Padmavati Srinivasa Kalyanam’, ‘Shiva Dhanurbhangam’ and   Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’. Seeing his work, the film industry, so vibrant in Tamil Nadu and Andhra invited him as a choreographer. He worked as a choreographer for some of the most significant films.

Vempati teaching Vyjayanthimala Bali

Long legions of students continued his legacy. Chandrakala, Vyjayanthimala, Rekha, Hema Malini, Manju Bharghavi, Bhanupriya, Meenakshi Sheshadri have all achieved great success on the silver screen. His son Vempati Venkat and Ravi Shankar and daughter Lakshmi Kameswari, his other students Bala Kondala Rao, Shobha Naidu, Shanta Rao, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Mohiniattam Neena Prasad, Sonal Mansingh, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Swapna Sundari, Veena Murthy Vijay, MVN Murthy, Karothi Venkat, Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, Kalamandalam Mohana Thulasi, Rathna Papa Kumar, Avanti Meduri, Shanta Rati Mishra, Pratibha Prahlad, Anuradha Jonnalagadda, Yamini Sripalli, Jaikishore Mosalikanti and several others have excelled on the stage spreading the knowledge he passed on to them throughout the world. The Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai became a second home to all these students. Vempati’s wife Swarajyalakshmi would take care of all of them with great patience and with a motherly concern. She was the woman behind his success. He always acknowledged her contribution to his life and art.

Vempati with his wife Vempati Swarajyalakshmi

A long list of prestigious awards and accolades came his way for his lifetime contribution to Kuchipudi dance. Among the notable ones were the Padma Bhushan, the Madhya Pradesh government’s ‘Kalidas Sanman’, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Presidential Fellowship award, Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Nataka Akademi’s ‘Bharata Kala Prapoorna’, TTK Memorial award by the Madras Music Academy, Raja-Lakshmi foundation award, honorary doctorates from Andhra and Sri Venkateswara Universities and Tamil Nadu government’s ‘Kalaimamani’. He was also appointed the ‘Asthana Natyacharya’ of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam along with several other prestigious institutions. The Mayor of Miami presented the Golden Key award to Vempati in 1984. The Mayor of Dayton, Ohio, declared April 27, 1984 as classical Indian Kuchipudi dance drama Day.

In honour of the dancing guru, the African State of Ghana declared September 25 as Vempati Chinna Satyam day in 1994. The Mayor of Atlanta declared November 3, 1994 as Kuchipudi Dance Drama Day. The Mayor of Cleveland conferred honorary citizenship on Dr. Vempati. The Mayor of Memphis declared September 24, 1994 as ‘Ramayana Day’ and the Key to the city was awarded to him. This way Vempati with his large family of students spread the message of Kuchipudi across the world. Many of them have opened institutions across the world for training scores of students.The mission he began is being continued now. A strict disciplinarian and an ace Natyacharya, Vempati Chinna Satyam was the trailblazer who gave Kuchipudi dance the universal acknowledgement it deserved.

Three years ago in 2012, we were at a national seminar on dance criticism organized by arts consultant Usha RK, a former Vempati student, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore. We received the news of his demise from Chennai on July 29. Culture critic Sadanand Menon who was present at the seminar rightly pointed out the mainstream media apathy towards covering his death as national news.  Had he been elsewhere, he would have made national headlines even in his death, like he did for most of his life. Indian mainstream media, which is currently drunk of cheap sensationalism, has always taken classical arts and artistes for granted. They make for ‘fillers’ on a dry news day. One hopes this will change soon. For as long as the name of Kuchipudi dance is remembered anywhere in the world, Vempati’s name will tag along as the modern revivalist and its progressive comrade.

Images : Veejay Sai

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi)


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