When men danced as women: An ancient tradition on the decline

Kuchipudi, the only classical dance form that gains its name from a geographic location in Andhra Pradesh is on a ventilator.
When men danced as women: An ancient tradition on the decline
When men danced as women: An ancient tradition on the decline
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Several years ago when I interviewed the famous Kuchipudi legend Vedantam Sathyanarayana Sarma, ‘Sathyam Master’, as we addressed him fondly, narrated a funny anecdote from his performing career. He and his troupe were invited to Delhi to perform a series of shows, way back in the 1960’s. After the first show at Talkatora gardens, a senior bureaucrat Sardar ji landed up at their greenroom along with many fans that were there to take Sathyam Master’s autograph.

Master obliged the gentleman. He showed up the next day with a big bouquet of flowers, which master gracefully received after the show. They didn’t speak much but the Sardar ji fan looked mighty pleased. The third evening, he showed up once again with another bouquet and a greeting card. Inscribed in the card was a bold “I Love You Satyabhama!”.

Master felt a bit odd, but received the greetings, nevertheless. The fourth evening Sardar ji turned up once again with flowers. This amused Master and his whole team. This way, for the ten days of their show, the Sardar ji walked in every evening with flowers, gave them to master and walked away smiling and pleased with himself.

On the last day of the show, Sardar Ji wanted to take the whole troupe out to dinner at Hotel Ashoka. Having seen what a great fan he was over the last ten days, master and troupe obliged his request. After the show, master went to the greenroom and took off his make-up. Cars were ready outside, waiting to take all of them to the hotel for dinner. Sardar Ji kept looking for Satyabhama to sit in his car but found her missing. He thought she must have sat in one of those cars and he would meet her soon over dinner.

At dinner, he kept searching for ‘Satyabhama’ as he had booked a separate table for himself and ‘her’ with whatever ideas in his mind. An unassuming master joined his troupe and had dinner. Midway through the dinner, they were interrupted by the Sardar Ji who wanted to know where the ‘star’ of the evening was and if ‘she’ was too tired and dropped out. Everyone had a hearty laugh and told him that the ‘star’ he was looking for was sitting right there. Seeing a round-faced man with a balding head, the Sardar Ji was heartbroken. He thought he was being fooled. With tears in his eyes, he asked them not to play a cruel joke on him. It took a while before convincing the Sardar Ji that the pretty lady he had been bringing flowers to every evening was indeed a man.

Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma

Narrating this incident, Sathyam Master laughed aloud and slowly said, “Those were the good days! Now all of it is gone. Where do we have the same kind of performances or the same kind of fans!” the tone in which he trailed off the sentence one could see a sense of strong dissatisfaction with many things about Kuchipudi.

Kuchipudi, the only classical dance form that gains its name from a geographic location in Andhra Pradesh is on a ventilator. This is not an exaggeration by any means and I will tell you why.  The dance as we see it today has come a long way in the 20th century. The form started as a dance-drama tradition among a select bunch of Brahmin families in the village of Kuchipudi. In this format of Bhagawata Mela, women never performed. Men, including the female roles, performed all characters for all dramas. A few progressive Gurus decided if Kuchipudi had to survive in the coming century, it had to be modified to suit the needs. The credit for introducing women into Kuchipudi performances goes to Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Shastry (1886- 1956). Till then women who danced in temples belonged to different communities of performance practitioners called ‘Kalawantulu’ or ‘Bhogam’. They performed what we now know as ‘Vilasini Natyam’, a word coined by Telugu poet and writer Arudra. Brahmin and other upper caste women did not perform in public, even if they learnt music or dance.  Taking a lead from Lakshminarayana Shastry, Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam redesigned the Kuchipudi repertoire. He created a whole new set of choreographies for the female body and trained many women. A third form of dance that was prevalent in the temples of Telangana was a ritual folk dance which Guru Nataraja Ramakrishna through his extensive research called it ‘Andhra Natyam’.

What Vedantam Sathyanarayana Sarma did was to evolve a solo-performing repertoire that had a life of its own, outside of the Bhagawata Mela tradition. He took elements of the dance-drama format, removed a whole lot of clutter and evolved his own solo shows with limited characters.  He ruled the roost for the longest time! After him, Kala Krishna, another Kuchipudi dancer trained under Guru Nataraja Ramakrishna and began performing the Andhra Natyam ballets like the ‘Navajanardana Parijatam’ and so forth. Kala Krishna belonged to the next generation of successful female impersonators on stage.

After him, there was a long gap. There were hardly any impressive young female impersonators in Kuchipudi. Ajay Kumar from Vijaywada hails from a traditional family of performers. His brother Srinivas performs Nattuvangam, his sister-in law Sudharani sings and his mother Sathyavati helps him with his make-up. He continues this ancient tradition of female impersonators. In over two decades of performing, Ajay debuted in Delhi at the India International Center, in the Jugalbandi festival organized by arts curator Usha RK. A packed hall sat awe struck by his performance. The transformation from Ajay Kumar, who is like the proverbial boy next-door, into Sathyabhama, is magical.  Ajay effortlessly manages to transcend ideas of gender when he performs as Sathyabhama. His art elevates you and you forget you are seeing a female impersonator perform. The images here will give you a small glimpse of this wonderful transformation. Watching him perform is a delightful experience. Be it a short appearance or a full-length performance, Ajay’s amount of work doesn’t lessen. He puts on the grease paint with the dedication of a professional and does it for the love of his art. In fact, Ajay can give girls his age a run for their money, both with his beauty and dance.

Kuchipudi dancer Ajay Kumar's transformation to Sathyabhama, assisted by his mother Sathyavati

It is a pity that he or his contribution towards his art hasn’t been recognized by the government. No awards have come his way. The soft-spoken Ajay isn’t the type to market himself like many others who have achieved far less than him. If the government or individual cultural philanthropists don’t support his cause, a great ancient dance tradition is in danger of going extinct. And if that happens, it will be our collective loss.

Ajay Kumar and Sathyanarayana Raju as a part of the Jugalbandi festival in Delhi

The late Vedantam Sathyanarayana Sarma, Kala Krishna, and now Ajay Kumar, we have just three names of any national and international worth, in a whole century of modern Kuchipudi dance. Between the three of them, an ancient dance-drama tradition, technique and form has been consistently afloat. Neither has the government done much to document their art, nor do these artistes have the funds or infrastructure to do it themselves. If one wants this to be alive, it requires generous patronage. Kala Krishna is ageing and hasn’t managed to train anyone like him. For now, Kuchipudi is on a ventilator, breathing slowly, with its pulse and heartbeat kept alive by passionate artistes like Ajay.  They need your selfless support.  As long as Kuchipudi is alive, the female impersonators who inherit the traditional dance-drama format will always be around. More power to them!

(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 and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

Images courtesy : Usha R K, Inni Singh, Krishnamurthy, Veejay Sai

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