From learning dance on the sly to spreading the ‘Satyam style' with commitment, Vempati Chinna Satyam's daughters continue the legacy.

Dance runs in their genes; it's been their ancestral profession. Yet, antiquated custom did not permit daughters of the families to learn, perform or teach dance. That is the quintessential Kuchipudi for you. It was not a blind belief nor a superstition nor chauvinism. It was just a matter of risk and exposure to the vagaries of nature as these dancing troupes of Kuchipudi in the past, often travelled by foot to various regions, performing on streets for days together. And obviously their women folk could not be exposed to such a wandering life and profession. What started as shielding women later turned into a denial of the art form which became the unwritten law of the land. Kuchipudi doyen Vempati Chinna Satyam's daughters faced the same fate despite having an educated upbringing in Chennai! Yet, witnessing just two or three performances by their pupils is enough to find that the Satyam brand is intact them.

Watching the guru

Says Kameswari, the eldest of the two, “I would watch my father teach his students with single-minded concentration, imbibe the adavus and later practice them without being seen by him. My grandmother was a great source of encouragement to me. Actually, all the women in our families know the intricacies of dance like the jatis, mudras, hasthabhinaya, spelling out the mnemonic syllables, singing and so on. And that is because, the father, brother, son, nephew, every male in the family is necessarily a dancer and our ears are tuned to jatis being composed and spelt right from childhood while the eyes are gazing at nothing but dance tutoring sessions. I learnt it that way and would perform in my school on annual day. Father then was traditional and would never teach me. He changed his attitude later though.”

She fondly recounts an incident when all the pupils were supposed to form a circle for the Pushpanjali ‘item' and dance-walk in a serial order in front of the guru. His eagle eye though focused on the footwork would take in the entire contours and nothing could go wrong. Kameswari would smuggle between this group and do her bit till her turn would reach her father wherein she would surreptitiously drop out of the line lest he notice her and yell.

With Bala Tripurasundari, the younger daughter, it was not so. “Such an illustrious father, and all my school and college friends would look up at me as some sort of expert figure. But no, he wouldn't directly teach us, that would be flouting family norms. I would pick up all the footwork and then seek his assistants' aid to fine-tune my dance. The more he kept us out of dance, the more we got glued to it. We owe it to our husbands who encouraged us to take it up as a teaching and performing art in the real sense. But disciplined as we were, I sought father's permission to begin my first class in teaching dance and he did give it but with a vehement no to taking fees. It was a task convincing him that a fee structure, big or small, lent reputation to the teacher these days,” says Chavali Bala Tripurasundari who has come out into the limelight recently with her performances which have brought her laurels. She was in Muscat for seven years teaching and performing Kuchipudi. Qualified in art of veena, Bala, as she is fondly called, also imparts learning in veena at home. Both the sisters have their respective dance schools in the areas close to their homes. While Kameswari runs ‘Abhinayavani nritya niketan', Bala chose to name her school as ‘Satyam Academy' (Srinagar Colony) after her father.

Beyond simplicity

Simplicity is what strikes one as we encounter the sisters. “Even today, we consult our brother Ravi Vempati in Chennai on every aspect of teaching and performing. Not because we are not confident, but because we would like the Satyam baani (style) to be uniform everywhere. And to the best of our abilities, father's style is what we follow to a T. We are here to give the authentic form and hope our pupils take it forward in the same spirit and form,” the duo says in unison before signing off.