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Updated: October 24, 2009 16:38 IST

Busting a myth

ARUNA CHANDARAJU
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PASSIONATE: Sunanda Devi: 'Dance became my entire world' Photo: Murali Kumar k.
The Hindu
PASSIONATE: Sunanda Devi: 'Dance became my entire world' Photo: Murali Kumar k.

When it was rare for women to practise Kuchipudi, Sunanda Devi stormed the male bastion

I hadn't even heard the name Kuchipudi. But I immediately knew I wanted to learn this art and that too from the best gurus.

If the great traditions of our classical arts remain with us even today, it is thanks to the efforts of so many artists, who first pursued the art with quiet dedication and then imparted it wholeheartedly to the legions of students.

One of them is B.S. Sunanda Devi. Trained in Bharatanatya and Kuchipudi by stalwarts, Sunanda has given hundreds of performances, choreographed ballets, and spent four decades training students.

Initial training

Her initial training was in Bharatanatya under Raman Pillai and Narayan Pillai. She simultaneously learnt veena. Once, as a young girl, she saw a Kuchipudi performance and was enchanted by its grace and elegance. "I hadn't even heard the name Kuchipudi at that time. But I immediately knew I wanted to learn this art and that too from the best gurus."

Sunanda found illustrious teachers. Her first guru was Padmabhushan Nataraja Ramakrishna at whose Hyderabad school she studied gurukul-style for eight years. For this, she had to leave home and parents in Bangalore but her determination overcame her homesickness. She learnt abhinaya from Jeevarathnamma, Bobbili's Asthana Narthaki. Another teacher was Vedantam Prahlada Sarma. Sunanda learnt Bhama Kalapam — one of Kuchipudi's best-known and challenging items — from the legendary Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma famed for his Sathyabhama role.

Kuchipudi had been a male bastion for centuries with male impersonation of female roles. It was only about half-century ago, that women too were admitted. In that sense, Sunanda was among the earliest female Kuchipudi dancers. She also learnt Andhra Natyam. "I was also taught principles of choreography and ballet-production. It was a holistic training," she explains.

She returned to Bangalore in 1964 for her Kuchipudi Rangapravesham{ndash}{ndash}the first such in Karnataka. She continued to perform Bharatanatyam too and choreographed items in both forms. Sunanda founded and is currently Director of Chaya Nrithya Niketan, a dance school.

Memorable performance

"Dance became my entire world. I travelled across the world performing and giving lec-dems. I conducted TV programmes. Every performance was valued but two were most memorable. One was at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan before Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The other was conducted before Dalai Lama in China {ndash} a dance-drama 'Kisagauthami' which I had composed," she exclaims.

Sunanda's other choreography efforts include ballets like Mohini Bhasmasura, Rathi Manmadha, Shivaranjani, Subhadra Parinayam and Venkateshwara Kalyanam and an item for Kannada film Shivaleela. Her proficiency as performer, choreographer and teacher can be attributed to her all-round training — in dance, nattuvangam, classical music , choreography, and stage-production. Also, her polyglot skills — she knows Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Tulu, English, Malyalam and Hindi.

Sunanda was part of the first team in Karnataka to produce a book on Kuchipudi, approved by the government for Junior, Senior and Vidwat levels. Awards and citations followed — Karnataka Kalashree, Aryabhatta award with Natyashantala title, Rajyotsava award, etc. “I am grateful for all this recognition, like any artist. However, my greatest satisfaction comes from grooming good dancers,” she says.

Right now, she is busy planning a gurukul for Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and folk-dance. What is her advice to students? “They may not have as much time as our generation, for practice. So, that little time they have should be spent in highly focused learning.”

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