A senior disciple of Kuchipudi maestro Vempati Chinna Satyam recalls the priceless years of grooming under her guru
It was the year 1959, and actor-director V. Nagaiah had just booked me to act as the daughter of the Muslim ruler, the Tani Shah, in his movie, “Bhakta Ramadas”. There was a dance sequence which was being choreographed by a young Kuchipudi teacher called Vempati Chinna Satyam, whose older brother, Vempati Pedda Satyam, had already become famous as a choreographer in the Telugu film world. My mother was very impressed with Sri Chinna Satyam’s creativity and decided to put me under his care. In 1960 I started classes with Master Garu, as I called him, and since it was before the creation of the Kuchipudi Art Academy, Master Garu actually came home and taught me. In 1961, Durgabai Deshmukh asked my mother, Avasarala Anasuya Devi, to organise a special dance drama for the Andhra Mahila Sabha’s golden jubilee celebrations. My mother requested Master Garu to present Bhujangaraya Sarma’s “Sri Krishna Parijatham”, in which I played the role of Satyabhama, and that was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with Kuchipudi.
When my great uncle, the renowned Telugu poet Devulapalli Krishna Sastry, was commissioned by Kuchipudi aficionado Banda Kanakalingeswara Rao and maestro Chinta Krishnamurthy to write two Yakshaganas, he created two beautiful dance dramas, “Ksheera Sagara Madhanam” and “Vipranarayana”, both of which were choreographed, in his inimitable style, by Master Garu. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to play the role of Mohini in the former, with Master Garu himself in the role of Shiva. It was an awe-inspiring experience to share the stage with my guru! Master Garu’s dance as Shiva was so perfect that it was as if Nataraja himself had come down to earth to perform for us! I have seldom seen such perfect balance of energy and grace in any dancer.
Another unforgettable memory was our presentation of “Vipranarayana” in Hyderabad. It was specially choreographed for me, once again at my mother’s request. I was Devadevi, with actor Chandramohan in the lead role of Vipranarayana, and an orchestra led by the singer extraordinaire, M. Balamuralikrishna! Master Garu’s choreography was brilliant, and coupled with the superb musical score of Balantrapu Rajanikanta Rao, “Vipranarayana” was a dream project that became the high point of my career. Two of the songs, “Vedalera Vayyarulu” and “Koluvaithiva Rangasayi” have become an integral part of the Kuchipudi repertoire.
My sister Seetha Ratnakar was one of the first students of the Kuchipudi Art Academy, which was founded in 1962. Along with Chandrakala and Nidamarti Padma, she performed at the Academy’s first anniversary celebration. In 1967 she and I had our Kuchipudi rangapravesam (debut) together and for the next decade performed all over India and abroad. In 1968 I became the first student of the Academy to receive the Government of India’s Sangeet Natak Akademi scholarship for Kuchipudi. Rukmini Devi Arundale was one of the judges.
In 2010 I became the first NRI to receive the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for Kuchipudi. It was definitely Master Garu’s impeccable training that earned me these awards.
I moved to the U.S. in 1975 and established the Anjali Center for Performing Arts, thus earning the honour of becoming Master Garu’s first student to teach and propagate Kuchipudi dance outside India. My sister Seetha went on to become an Assistant Director at Doordarshan, producing dance programmes by most of India’s eminent dancers.
Days at the Academy
I often think of my days as a student at the Academy, when the classes took place in a big hall near Panagal Park (Chennai). The senior students had classes in the mornings, and no one ever looked at a watch. Evening classes were optional but we went anyway, because we loved them. Master Garu spent a lot of time with us and often, at the end of a long session of classes or rehearsals, he would sit with us and talk about the village of Kuchipudi, his life there, his training, of how he walked almost all the way from his village to Chennai. He used to tell us about the tala structures used in Kuchipudi, the many nuances of the style, and of his dreams of one day building an institute like the Kalakshetra. He spoke with great reverence about Smt. Rukmini Devi, whom he admired immensely. Certainly this close interaction with our guru helped us understand more than the art itself.
Those were the days, of excitement, of rehearsals until 1 and 2 a.m., of performing for heads of state and to full houses, and, above all, of the sheer joy of dancing! Master Garu made every class so interesting, exciting, educational, and informative. What an amazing man he was! He was so knowledgeable, so caring, and always raring to choreograph something new, something special, and something different. He was a strong believer in tradition and staying true to the Kuchipudi idiom, but never balked at trying new themes and songs, and whatever he choreographed he did with style and élan. His sense of aesthetics was amazing, and he always selected our costumes and designed each dance drama’s props with the greatest care about even the smallest detail. When choreographing a dance drama he always saw the ‘big picture’ before weaving dances into the fabric of the play, making it a cohesively beautiful presentation.
He was a master craftsman, and he believed in perfection. I remember practicing the same dance again and again, almost fainting with exhaustion, before Master Garu would approve and let me move on to the next dance. He would get very upset and annoyed if we did incomplete movements, and angrily admonish us — “finishing ledhu” (meaning “you have not completed the movement”). To him this was imperfect dancing and he did not want his students to be ‘unfinished’ dancers. Often, when correcting my students, I find myself using the same words and phrases as he used to, and realise what a precious gift he has given me — that the pursuit of perfection, in whatever we do, will lead to success.
Somehow it seems strange to speak of my guru in the past tense. It is very difficult to accept that he is no more. He was larger than life, and will always be so, even though he is physically not with us. He had a dream and he did not just stop at dreaming it. He made huge sacrifices, struggled, worked hard, and never gave up until his dream was realised. Every time I think of the Kuchipudi Art Academy on Greenways Road my heart swells with pride, and I tell myself, this was my guru’s fulfilled dream, and I am also a part of that reality.
(The author lives in Texas where she runs the Anjali Center for Performing Arts.)