Kuchipudi: Dancing to the Divine

Gajalu
Photographer: T Krishna Prabakar

With the sound of gajalu replacing that of temple bells, the humble town of Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh is where rhythm resides

WORDS: AURELIA FERNANDES
PHOTOGRAPHS: T. KRISHNA PRABAKAR

The ride to Kuchipudi from Vijayawada is a long one. Vijayawada’s stocky cement structures are gradually replaced by lush fields, as the trees create a canopy over the tarmac. A pale yellow gateway welcomes you to Kuchipudi Natyakshetram, but there’s almost no trace of the famed art form that puts this village on the map. And so, the question hangs in the air:

Is Kuchipudi fading away?

Deeper into the village, the houses become sparser, their facades a combination of South Indian aesthetics and structural designs that seems to belong to the 1990s. Only the temple stands out, set in the heart of the village itself. The road diverges, takes us further, past a stepwell construction site, to a four-storeyed home, painted in pastel shades. The sign outside reads Vedantam vari Gurukulam. Dr Vedantam Radheshyam waits to greet us at the entrance.

A tall lanky man with ivory hair and a pearly smile, he introduces his son Siddhendra Vedantam, a seasoned Kuchipudi dancer and guru himself. With an obvious language barrier, we’re glad that Siddhendra is here, as he leads us to the second floor of his childhood home. “It isn’t time for class yet, so the students are on their way,” he explains as he leads us into the main area. With the entire floor converted into a dance studio of sorts, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed at first glance. Thin mats line the floors; the walls are adorned with awards too many to acknowledge. Previous gurus, immortalised in a long line of portraits, seem to follow Vedantam Radheshyam’s steps, as he offers prayers at a small shrine at the end of the room. The first students scurry past, preparing for class. They move around the house with a sense of familiarity, navigating in and out of rooms as if it were their own home. We soon learn that it is – the family has accommodation on the same floor for dancers. “My father believes wholeheartedly in the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student bond),” explains Siddhendra. “It is a very important part of this art. The relationship between a teacher and student is sacred – it is the cornerstone of Kuchipudi. This dance form follows the principles of bhakti (devotion), rakti (unification), tanmayatva (liberation), bhava (expression), raaga (melody) and taala (rhythm). We open our home to students so that they, too, devote their life to promoting Kuchipudi.”

Suddenly, the quiet dance studio is filled with students, ranging from little girls with jhumkas seemingly too big when compared to the childishness of their baby faces to young women strapping the gajalu (dance anklets) on their feet. Siddhendra sees us looking at them. The bells tinkle softly as clasps are fastened. “Each ballet is a story. Kuchipudi is not just dancing; it’s a combined art. It involves music, acting, literature and dance. To be a Kuchipudi guru, it is essential that one excels in all these fields. You don’t just become a dancer, you become a performing artiste. This art form carries generations of knowledge. Even now, when we compose ballets, we go back to the Natyashastra and revisit the sholkas and apply the theory to our pieces. My father’s list of gurus is a long one, because, from every guru, you learn something new. One of his first gurus was his own older brother, Vedantam Seeta Rama Sastry. He was a true powerhouse. He taught my father the fundamentals of Kuchipudi. My grandfather, Vedantam Suryanarayan Sharma, however, wasn’t a dancer, but a dance poet, a sub section of Kuchipudi that’s not seen often now. It’s only the nataks (musicals) that truly attract people today.”

To learn more about the dance form from the gurus of Kuchipudi, check out LPMI’s November 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.