Andhra Pradesh has always been known for its rich culture. This wonderful state has presented a wide range of performing arts, including dance, drama and music, to the world. Dance is the most interesting form of performing arts that has been encouraged from centuries in India. Kuchipudi, the renowned classical dance has emerged from Andhra Pradesh.
Kuchipudi is the name of a village in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. It is about 35 km. from Vijayawada. Andhra has a very long tradition of dance-drama which was known under the generic name of Yakshagaana. In 17th century Kuchipudi style of Yakshagaana was conceived by Siddhendra Yogi a talented Vaishnava poet and visionary who had the capacity to give concrete shape to some of his visions. He was steeped in the literary Yakshagaana tradition being guided by his guru Teerthanaaraayana Yogi who composed the Krishna-Leelatarangini a kaavya in Sanskrit.
Similar to all leading Indian classical dance forms, Kuchipudi too evolved as a religious art rooting back to the age-old Hindu Sanskrit text ‘Natya Shastra’ and connects traditionally with temples, spiritual faiths and travelling bards.Usually performance repertoire of Kuchipudi that is broadly oriented on Lord Krishna and the tradition of Vaishnavism include an invocation, dharavu – short dance, nritta – pure dance and nritya – expressive dance respectively.
The theoretical foundation of Kuchipudi is rooted back to the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts called ‘Natya Shastra’ which is accredited to Indian theatrologist and musicologist Bharata Muni. It is assumed that the full version of the text was first completed between 200 BCE to 200 CE, but such period also varies between 500 BCE and 500 CE. It incorporates verses in thousands that are structured in different chapters and divides dance in two distinct types that are ‘nrita’ that is pure technical dance and ‘nritya’ that is solo expressive dance. ‘Natya Shastra’, states Russian scholar Natalia Lidova, explicates various Indian classical dance theories including that of standing postures, bhava, rasa, basic steps, methods of acting, gestures and Tandava dance, which is associated with Lord Shiva. Bharata Muni not only mentions the Andhra region in this ancient text but also attributes an elegant movement called ‘Kaishiki vritti’ and a raga called ‘Andhri’ to this region. The raga that is associated with ‘Arsabhi’ and ‘Gandhari’ also finds place in several other Sanskrit texts dating back to the 1st millennium.
The 10th century copper inscriptions validate the existence of Shaivism associated dance drama performance acts called ‘Brahmana Melas’ or ‘Brahma Melas’ in regions of South India with Telugu speaking populace. Brahmins performed this art during the medieval era. Vaishnavism that traditionally include Bhakti music and dance dedicated to Lord Krishna and evolved during the 2nd millennium presumably embraced this art form. It developed in South India’s Tamil region as ‘Bhagavata Mela Nataka’ and in Andhra region as Kuchipudi. Saskia Kersenboom mentions that both ‘Bhagavata Mela Nataka’ and Kuchipudi are closely related to the traditional theatre form of Karnataka called ‘Yakshagana’ and also incorporate Carnatic music like the latter, however the three retain their uniqueness palpable from their varied costume, format, innovative ideas and perceptions. Again author Manohar Laxman Varadpande states that this form came up in the late 13th century during the reign of the Eastern Ganga dynasty of Kalinga, who patronized art forms based on works of famed Sanskrit poet Jayadeva, most notably the ‘Gita Govinda’. Such auspices of the monarch saw several dance-drama troupes and bards incorporating concepts based on Radha and Krishna in traditional Kuchipudi, which were locally called ‘Vaishnava Bhagavatulus’.
Tirtha Narayanayati, a composer of Carnatic music and a sanyasin of Advaita Vedanta (the oldest extant sub-school of Vedanta) and his orphan disciple Sidhyendra Yogi, a Telugu Brahmin, are accredited for initiating, methodizing and arranging the present day version of Kuchipudi in the 17th century. Narayanayati penned down a tarangini or a Sanskrit opera called ‘Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini’. The composition deals with the life of Lord Krishna from His childhood till His marriage to Rukmini and encompasses 12 Tarangams and includes 302 slokams, 153 songs and 31 choornikaas. Written as a libretto, this work apt for a dance drama has been performed by umpteen Indian classical dancers over the last two centuries.
Village which is also known as Kuchilapuri, that the dance form derived its name as Kuchipudi. American born dancer Ragini Devi mentioned that the name of the village was deduced from the Sanskrit word ‘Kusilava-puram’ meaning of which is “the village of actors”.
Late medieval period
The dance form flourished in the 16th century under the auspices of the rulers of medieval era, which has been manifested by several copper inscriptions. The Vijayanagara Empire court records also indicate its performance at their royal court. However Islamic invasions, establishment of the Deccan Sultanates in the 16th century and a major military defeat of the Vijayanagara Empire at the hands of the Deccan sultanates in 1565 saw its decline. The political disturbances and wars also witnessed Muslim army demolishing temples and creating havoc in Deccan cities that lead many artists and musicians leave the place of whom around 500 families of Kuchipudi artists were given shelter by the Hindu king Achyutappa Nayak of the Tanjore kingdom. The king gave them lands to settle which developed to become the present day Melattur. As the art form withered in the 17th century the last Shia Muslim Nawab of Golkonda, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah impressed by its performance in 1678 aided the dancers in reviving the form by granting them land near the village of Kuchipudi (Kuchelapuram) on condition that they take forward this ancient dance form. However after Sunni Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb overpowered the Shia Sultanate in 1687, he ceased all non-Muslim practices ordering seizure and destruction of musical instruments and ban of music and dance performances in public.
Colonial rule period
The art form somewhat revived following the demise of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the subsequent decline of the Mughal Empire. However emergence of rule of colonial officials of East India Company during the 18th century and establishment of the British colonial rule in the 19th century saw decline of various classical dance forms which were subjected to contemptuous fun and discouragement including Kuchipudi. Eventually the social stigma associated with nautch girls of north India and Devadasis of South India added with highly critical and despicable attitude from the Christian missionaries and British officials, who held them as harlots, disgraced such systems. Furthermore the Christian missionaries launched anti-dance movement in 1892 to stop such practice. The Madras Presidency under the British colonial government banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910. With this Kuchipudi that was performed conventionally during night time on a stage associated with a Hindu temple also saw its decline.
After the ban, many Indians protested against the caricature and cultural discrimination, launching their efforts to preserve and reinvigorate their culture.Due to these efforts from 1920s onwards, the classical Indian dances witnessed a period of renaissance. Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri (1886–1956) was the influential figure who led the effort to save, reconstruct and revive Kuchipudi performance art. Sastri worked closely with other revivalists, between 1920 and 1950, particularly Balasaraswati and others determined to save and revive Bharatanatyam.
The three influential figures in Kuchipudi, during the first half of twentieth century, were Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri, Vempati Venkatanarayana Sastri and Chinta Venkataramayya. Sastri focused on reviving and relaunching Kuchipudi after classical Hindu dances came under sustained ridicule and political degradation in the British Raj, while Venkataramayya was influential in productions for public performances and developing specialized forms of Yakshagana – another classical Indian dance, and Kuchipudi. Sastri is also remembered for encouraging and teaching Indian women to dance Kuchipudi as solo performers and in teams, as well as working with artists of other classical dances such as the Bharatanatyam that enabled the sharing and cross flow of ideas. Vempati Venkatanarayana Sastri was the guru of Sastri, taught him Kuchipudi, and was a key figure in helping preserve Kuchipudi. The historic All India Dance Seminar, organized by the national arts organization Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1958, thrust Kuchipudi to the national stage.
Some Western dancers joined the Indians in preserving dance. The American dancer Esther Sherman, for example, moved to India in 1930, learnt Indian classical dances, changed her name to Ragini Devi, and joined the movement to save and revive classical Indian dances. Her daughter Indrani Bajpai (Indrani Rahman) learnt and became a celebrated Kuchipudi dancer. The public performances of Kuchipudi by Indrani Rahman and Yamini Krishnamurti outside of Andhra region, created wider enthusiasm and more interest through new students and the expansion of Kuchipudi as a creative performance art both within India and internationally. The latter half of the twentieth century was dominated by the Kuchipudi school of Vempati Chinna Satyam, whose efforts to further codify the modern repertoire earned him multiple accolades, including the Padma Bhushan.
Some of the Indian movie actresses such as Hema Malini started their career as a Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer. Kuchipudi performances have now spread world-wide.
The Indian community disapproved such ban worrying that the rich and ancient custom of Hindu temple dancing was being persecuted on the pretext of social reform. As the Indian freedom movement progressed steadily during the early 20th century, an effort to revive Indian culture and tradition seethed with excitement among Indians. Many classical art revivalists questioned against such discrimination and joined hands between 1920 and 1950 in reviving the ancient classical dance forms. Among them Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri played an instrumental role in reviving and reconstructing Kuchipudi and also inspired women to tread this dance form. His guru Vempati Venkatanarayana Sastri also remained a central figure in preserving Kuchipudi. Chinta Venkataramayya, another stalwart popularised the dance form through public performances. Many Western artists who came to learn Indian classical dance forms became a part of the revival movement. One of them was American dancer Esther Sherman who came to India in 1930 and later adopted the name Ragini Devi.
Kuchipudi is a team performance, with roots in Hindu religious festivals. The drama-dance involves extensive stage movements and exacting footwork, wherein the underlying drama is mimed by expressive gestures of hand (mudras), eye and face movements. The expressive style is through a sign language that follows the classical pan-Indian Sanskrit texts such as Natya Shastra, Abhinaya Darpana and Nrityararnavali. The dance is accompanied with Carnatic music, while the recital is in Telugu language. Just like the Carnatic music style, Kuchipudi shares many postures and expressive gestures with Bharatanatyam, such as the Ardhamandali (half seating position or a partial squat, legs bent or knees flexed out).However, there are important differences, such as Bharatanatyam as a Hindu temple tradition trending towards geometric perfection and the spiritual, while Kuchipudi as a Hindu festival tradition trending towards more sensual supple and the folksy.
Traditionally the traveling dance troupe consisted entirely of men (often Brahmins), who moved from village to village, and performed on a stage set next to a Hindu temple.The male artists would dress up and act out the female role in a drama performed by these traveling troupes.In modern times, Kuchipudi has diversified, women have joined Kuchipudi dance, outnumber male artists, and are among its most celebrated artists. In some cases now, it is the Kuchipudi girl artists who dress up and act out the role of boys.
The repertoire of Kuchipudi, like all major classical Indian dance forms, follows the three categories of performance in the ancient Hindu text Natya Shastra. These are Nritta, Nritya and Natya.
The Nritta performance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance. The viewer is presented with pure movement in Nritta, wherein the emphasis is the beauty in motion, form, speed, range and pattern. This part of the repertoire has no interpretative aspect, no telling of story. It is a technical performance, and aims to engage the senses (prakriti) of the audience.
The Nritya is slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes in Hindu dance traditions.In a nritya, the dance-acting expands to include silent expression of words through gestures and body motion set to musical notes. The Kuchipudi actor articulates a story (particularly of Krishna) or a spiritual message. This part of a repertoire is more than sensory enjoyment, it aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.
The Natyam is a play, typically a team performance, but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story. A Natya incorporates the elements of a Nritya. Kuchipudi, in its history relied on a team a dance-actors, while in modern times Kuchipudi productions include solo or duo performances.
While a male character wears dhoti, a female character wears a colourful sari that is stitched with a pleated cloth which opens like a hand fan when the dancer stretches or bends her legs while portraying spectacular footwork. Make-up is generally light complimented with traditional jewellery of the region which adorns her hair, nose, ear, arms and neck. A light metallic waist belt made of gold or brass adorns her waist while a leather anklet with small metallic bells called ghunghroo is wrapped on her ankles that produce rhythmic sounds while she performs brilliant footwork. Her hair is neatly braided and often beautified with flowers or done in tribhuvana style that depicts the three worlds. Her eye expressions are highlighted by outlining them with black collyrium. Sometimes special costumes and props are used for particular characters and plays, for example a peacock feathered crown adorns the dancer playing Lord Krishna.
Instruments & Music
The ensemble of a Kuchipudi performance includes a Sutradhara or Nattuvanar who is the conductor of the entire performance. He recites the musical syllables and uses cymbals to produce rhythmic beat. The story or spiritual message is sung either by the conductor or another vocalist or sometimes by the actor-dancers. The musical instruments usually include cymbals, mridangam, tambura, veena and flute.