Jayarama Rao and Vanashree Rao talk to Anjana Rajan about teaching Kuchipudi, learning from the new generation, and their upcoming festival, Vriddhi

The arts are all about growth: expanding the mind, augmenting the health, spreading ideas, extending understanding...one could go on listing ways in which pursuing an art seriously helps the practitioner grow from the individual to the universal. At the same time, it has to be said that performance opportunities are a must if an artiste is to grow professionally. So “Vriddhi” (Growth) seems an apt name for the upcoming festival of performing arts to be presented by the Kuchipudi duo of Guru Jayarama Rao and Vanashree Rao in New Delhi.

Glancing at the crowded event calendar, one might sigh — yet another festival organised by established dancers? In a frenetic metropolis where everything from mall events to college fests, car rallies to classical dance performances vie for the same mindspace, advertised on similar hoardings on busy motorways, it would take all the missiles in an organiser’s commercial quiver — positioning and marketing, creating a buzz and being distinct from the crowd — to be remembered, not to mention garner sponsors.

But the Raos, whose Kuchipudi Dance Academy in Delhi will be 40 years old in 2013, have their own special reason for instituting a festival, and it has something to do with their own vriddhi. With son Vedavrata Rao now a DU student brimming with ideas, the gurus find themselves increasingly moving with the times, trying to make a link with the new generation in terms of what they want to see and do, even as they look at their own responsibility towards the new generation of artistes they are training.

The idea of instituting an event branded “Vriddhi — Rise Extraordinaire”, which will be flagged off on October 25 at Kamani auditorium, 7 p.m., is Vedavrata’s, says the couple. “He saw that many young people practise the classical arts, but mostly old people go to see them,” says Vanashree. His idea is to give a platform to popular artistes, such as the Advaita band, as also to classical performers, and have the different practitioners watch each other, she explains. The second part of “Vriddhi” where Advaita will be featured, will be at Zorba — The Buddha in December (though originally slated within two days of the Kamani event).

The couple is keen to listen to the voice of youth, even if the first event serves only as a testing ground. The designing of the logo and card, etc., is by Vedavrata along with Vanashree’s niece, Trina Dasgupta, a student of the National Institute of Design.

Guruji, a Padma Shri recipient, elaborates on the theme. “We have worked hard all these years, and by God’s grace we have come up, but I feel that youngsters must be given a boost. If they are learning the arts despite all difficulties, we must recognise it is because of their passion. I feel that definitely once a year we must give a platform to young artistes because after us they will lead the parampara. That is the concept behind vriddhi.”

He adds that rather than concentrate on their own chosen form, they decided to bring in others as well.

The evening will feature Bharatanatyam by Sharanya Chandran, Kuchipudi by T. Reddi Lakshmi and Kathak by Vidha Lal, followed by a performance by the classical dancers of Ability Unlimited under the direction of Sallaudin Pasha.

“In my opinion, corporate sponsors don’t care much for classical arts because they feel what will it bring them. However, the government at least has a policy, whatever may be the money it gives out. My feeling is that corporate sponsors too should look towards the classical arts,” says Guruji.

Vanashree and Jayarama Rao, who received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for their contribution to Kuchipudi, are proud of their track record of supporting their students on the tricky issues that come with performing rather than just learning to dance. Preparing for empanelment auditions in bodies like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, putting together solo tours, photo sessions and makeup techniques, even designing costumes (among Vanashree’s specialities) are some of the ways they recount they have helped youngsters, who include their own students as well as those from other schools, take their early steps in a professional career.

Guruji explains the matter-of-fact logic behind these actions, which represent, after all, the noble face of the guru-shishya parampara that is not often highlighted.

“I give personal attention to such details, because, supposing at a performance a dancer’s costume is not considered up to the mark...people will say being professional dancers, her gurus do not even teach their students how to present themselves.”

With some 45 students currently learning from them, either at home in Asiad Village or at their centre in Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Vanashree mostly conducts classes though Guruji too goes occasionally, the gurus are proud to have honed the skills of a number of dancers now professionally active. These include Meenu Thakur and Arunima Kumar who have taken the plunge as full-time dancers, though a number of others maintain dual vocations.

While some dancers come to them for advanced training after having learnt from other gurus, others are taught from the basics.

“The young ones who began some five years ago are now in 12th standard,” remarks Guruji, mentioning the trend all gurus face of dance students abandoning the art even if temporarily, due to academic or other exigencies, “and some of the PhD students at JNU after five years got married and went away to other places.”

But to counter this attrition is the comfort of knowing that two of their young students are beneficiaries of the government’s scheme of scholarships awarded by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) for children aged between 10 and 14 to seriously pursue their arts training.

Vanashree also taught at the Andhra Education Society School. “I have taught for the past three years and now have handed it over to my assistant teacher, one of our senior students,” says Vanashree.