Renowned dancer Kala Krishna turns the pages of his life as Neeraja Murthy takes a peek

This encounter with dance was forgotten as he got on to the next chapter in his life. He joined as a teacher in St. Theresa’s School in Erragadda. “I was a primary school teacher and was also helping students with their cultural shows.” At the age of 22, he decided to learn Kuchipudi from Jagannath Sarma. “My only interest was that if I learn dance, I could in turn teach the students during the cultural shows,” he says and continues, “It was bad luck as he left Hyderabad but introduced me to dance revivalist Nataraja Ramakrishna.”

It was the beginning of a new phase of life for Kala Krishna. His initial interest in dance was just to teach children during their cultural shows but soon dance became an expression of joy. Guru Nataraja’s interest lay in researching and reviving the old and forgotten dance traditions. The Devadasis in temples shared their knowledge and guru Nataraja worked hard to revive the solo dance genre Andhra Natyam. “My guru always wanted to take this dance form to the common people. He would say, ‘We have to present its richness to people without making it look vulgar.’ He saw ways to modify it and would attend lecture demonstrations and wrote books,” remembers Kala Krishna.

Like an obedient student, young Kala Krishna followed his guru’s instructions. “I used to watch videos of dancers like Padma Subrahmanyam, Chitra Vishweshwaran, Bala Saraswathi and Mysore Venkat Lakshmamma to observe their performances. I learnt subtle details by observing temple dancer Saride Manickyam,” he says. And, when the time came to choose between Kuchipudi and Andhra Natyam, he abided by his guru’s words: ‘If you continue with Kuchipudi, you will be counted from the last. But in Andhra Natyam, you will be the first.” He specialised in Kuchipudi, Andhra Natyam, Nava Janardhana Parijatam and other temple dance traditions. Once when he performed in his home town, one old woman complimented him saying, “Mee amma lagaane unnavu. My mother died when I was standard VI,” he says.

Kala Krishna’s portrayal of Satyabhama became a highlight. “I would observe and improve on the characterisation of Satyabhama. She was not only a beautiful wife of Lord Krishna but also a rich and valorous woman, a warrior; that regal aura had to be depicted while portraying her,” he elaborates. One performance led to the other and Kala Krishna, who also performs in male attire, became popular for his female impersonation.

The accolades have been many and the closest to his heart is his performance in the Kunthi Madhava temple in Pithapuram in East Godavari. “The utsava vigraham of Kunti Madhava was brought near the stage where I was performing,” he remembers.

Kala Krishna also began to understand the differences between Kuchipudi and Andhra Natyam. “While Kuchipudi is a folk form, performed in groups, Andhra Natyam is a classical form, performed solo and by women,” he says. Explaining the difficulties in donning a woman’s costume, Kala Krishna says, “Iniitially getting into a woman’s costume was not easy. The make-up would take two hours and wearing the sari, wig and ornaments was uncomfortable. My guru took good care of me and would not let me walk. To make my skin appear delicate and feminine, I wore socks and would apply betel leaves with turmeric paste on both the hands and practice my expressions,” he recalls.

Along with recognition came criticism. “I was told, “Aada wvaala dance chestunnavu, neeku eppudu pelli kaadu! There were some comments that Andhra Natyam is basically a woman’s dance and I was dancing by impersonating as a woman. My guru’s sole intention in choosing me was to popularise Andhra Natyam and take it to the people. As a guru I have not encouraged my disciples to impersonate and dance as women,” he says. Any torchbearers of this tradition for the future? “Many students, after being trained in dance, become chorographers for movies and television. After all, they have to survive and think of their livelihood too. If only there is some kind of support,” he rues.

He is married to Harikatha exponent Uma Maheshwari. “Ours was a late marriage,” he smiles. The couple have adopted his close relative’s daughter who is now doing her B Tech final. With around 1000 performances in India and abroad and recipient of many awards, Kala Krishna has been a dedicated student of art. He conducts workshops, teaches dance at Telugu University and University of Hyderabad and runs his own dance school Harihara Nritya Niketan.

Before signing off, he says, “Earlier we learnt only from our guru and through observation. Today, there is so much awareness and exposure with the internet. But students do not have any time for art. From school, children get packed off to tuitions and then go home, do home work, watch television and sleep. The number of students learning any form of art is dwindling day by day. Who has time for arts?”