August 17, 1984, will remain etched in the history of Kerala Kalamandalam. It was on this day that institutionalised teaching of Kuchipudi was started in Kerala for the first time. As for Kalamandalam Rajalakshmi, the day will remain evergreen in her memory as that was the day of realisation of her long cherished dream: to become a teacher in Kalamandalam. Incidentally, she has been teaching Kuchipudi, a subsidiary to Mohiniyattom, single-handedly for the past 28 years. Although brought up as a Mohiniyattom dancer who was adjudged ‘A’ grade by Doordarshan, Interestingly, she is also the only alumnus among the Kalamandalam staff members who was destined to teach a discipline that was not part of the curriculum during her student days in the alma mater. A strict disciplinarian apart, her performances have been marked by inventive brilliance and profound originality. Also, she has proved her worth as a versatile choreographer of Kuchipudi.
In a recent interview before a performance at Cheruthuruthy, Rajalakshmi related at length her transformation into a Kuchipudi artiste and also the responsibility onus of running a course that is yet to attain an independent department status. Excerpts:
I was born in Aluva. I studied at Government School, Eloor, St Francis School and FACT High School. While I was in class nine, my father, who was a businessman, shifted to Cheruthuruthy. During my school days I could not undergo a systematic training in dance. But I remember my friend Lizzy, a cousin of film actor Unni Mary, teaching me. Those lessons fetched me prizes in competitions. The abiding interest I had evinced in dancing encouraged my father to admit me in Kalamandalam at the age of 12.
With great gurus
I was interviewed by Guru Gopinath. The doyenne of Mohinyattom, Sathyabhama teacher, was also a part of the interview board. They were impressed by my presentation of a semi-classical dance on Krishna. It was a real privilege to be taught by revered teachers like Sathyabhama, Padmini and Leelamma. Leelamma teacher was more than a guru. She moulded me into a Mohiniyattom dancer. I also did a post-diploma course in Kalamandalam under the guidance of Sathyabhama teacher.
Marriage at the age of 17, immediately after completion of the course at Kalamandalam, was a turning point. My husband, Thulasidas, was working in the Travancore Titanium Products Ltd, Aluva. Fortunately for me, Kalamandalam Chandrika was on the staff of the FACT school nearby. I was fascinated by her artistry in Kuchipudi, which she had learnt under Vedantham Prahlada Sharma in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh. On her advice, I too went to Eluru where the guru took me under his wings. Gurukula training under him transformed me into a Kuchipudi dancer. His brother Sathyanarayana Sharma taught me too.
Back to the alma mater
Again it was destiny that brought me back to Kalamandalam. The administration had taken a decision in 1984 to introduce Kuchipudi as part of the dance curriculum, which already included Mohiniyattom and Bharatanatyam. My joy knew no bounds when I was selected as the first teacher for this new dance form. Being the first and only teacher for the new course, my job was challenging, as I had to draw up the syllabus myself. Later when the degree course was introduced, I had to update it to suit the requirements.
Into the world of performances
My debut as a solo Kuchipudi dancer in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu, won rave reviews. To this date, I can’t remember the number of performances I have given independently and also with the Kalamandalam troupe, both within and outside the country.
I have been successful in re-choreographing most of the traditional numbers such as Dasavatharam, Tarangam and so on. I remember how Bharatanatyam exponents C.V. Chandrasekharan and Vasundhara Doraswamy congratulated me after watching my choreography on Ashtapadi. Here I have to point out that a separate department status for Kuchipudi would have enabled me to contribute more. As of now, I am proud to say that it’s mainly my students who get admission to the post-graduate course at the Hyderabad University. As for me, I continue to hone my skills by training under Bala, a disciple of Vempatti Chinna Sathyam, in Visakhapatnam.
The main impediment to the dissemination of Kuchipudi in Kerala is the absence of a book on this classical dance form. I am happy to say that my work towards this is on the anvil and should be completed soon.