Vempati Chinna Satyam broke new ground to put Kuchipudi on the global stage

He became a legend in his lifetime. Kuchipudi exponent Vempati Chinna Satyam (VCS), who passed away on July 29 at age 82, was a child prodigy. He belonged to the ninth generation of the traditional Kuchipudi parampara. His is a tale of passion and grit.

Born on October 15, 1929, in Kuchipudi Village to Varalakshmamma and Chalamayya Vempati, his initial training was under Tadepally Perayya and Pasumarti Kondalarayudu. But it was noted dancer Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry who tapped his potential, honed his talent and made him a renowned natyacharya.

Vempati’s ordeal began when he decided to leave his village for Madras. He literally trekked the long distance to reach the city. Things looked up on the financial front when he began choreographing for commercial cinema. But his inner urge, to make Kuchipudi flourish, was also growing intense. Glamour and riches did not matter; what did was the art form.

Vempati was in demand as several well known film personalities were keen to be trained by him and he did teach many of them, but he was restless. It was in 1963 that Vempati’s long cherished dream became a reality. With the active co-operation of several people, he set up The Kuchipudi Art Academy in Madras, which made him happy as he could train “Young aspirants in the art of Kuchipudi.”

His contribution

His greatest contribution was the innovations that he brought to the dance form to suit the changing times. Next, he created traditional themes that had new dimensions such as ‘Sri Krishna Parijatam,’ ‘Sakunthalam,’ ‘Padmavathi Srinivasam,’ ‘Haravilasam,’ ‘Ksheera Sagara Madanam,’ ‘Rukmini Kalyanam,’ ‘Sri Pada Parijatham of Annamayya,’ ‘Kiraatarjuneeyam,’ ‘Ardhanareeswaram,’ and ‘Gopika Krishna.’

Jayapriya Vikraman (wife of film director Vikraman), who has been an ardent disciple for the past 35 years, says that VCS’s ‘Chandalika’ (written by Rabindranath Tagore) and ‘Sri Krishna Parijatham’ were choreographed so meticulously and the dancers trained so rigorously that it made for a gripping show, which kept audiences glued to their seats. She points out that every production of his was a masterpiece, infused with fresh ideas and techniques.

Jayapriya also talks about Vempati’s affectionate and caring nature. She recalls that during their tours, he would make sure that they had their milk, banana and enough water for the night before retiring to bed. Jayapriya had celebrated her guru’s 80th, 81st, 82nd birthdays by honouring Vyjayanthimala Bali, Birju Maharaj and Raman Kutty Nair respectively.

She says, “If he put his hand over our heads it meant we have done 50 per cent well, if he patted the shoulders, it was 75 per cent and if he said ‘umm…,’ it meant ‘very good.’ We would only be waiting impatiently for his spontaneous response after each programme.”

Vempati Venkat says, “VCS’s shrewdness in picking up the interpretations of the different abhinayas from his guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry, coupled with his observation and grasp of the intricacies of great dancers and teachers of various dance forms of his time, made him tread a new path in Kuchipudi, which for over four decades proved to be more than successful and rewarding for the art form.”

Kuchipudi performer Vempati Ravi says that in VCS’s training, besides the traditional chaturasra jaati jatis, there are jatis set to tisra gati, misra and khanda chapu talas and sankirna jaati. Each of the chaturasra jatis are affixed and suffixed with proper entries and exits. These illustrate the use of steps in the nritta. Alongside, the steps of the corresponding jaati are practised before the jatis. This makes it easy for the performer to follow the intricate patterns of nritta in the items.

In abhinaya, a judicious blend of natyadharmi with lokadharmi was Vempati’s speciality. The lokadharmi that was predominant in Kuchipudi, as it was a dance-drama tradition, was very well used in his dance dramas. Besides choreographing new solo numbers, Vempati had also re-choreographed some of the traditional works by resetting them to accommodate the variations that he brought into nritta and abhinaya in the form of sancharis and sattvika bhavas. Some examples are the Pravesa daruvu of Usha and Manduka Sabdam.

He had widened the repertoire of Kuchipudi by choreographing more than 250 solo items and taking up the compositions of Dikshitar, Oothukkadu Venkata Subbaier, Annamacharya, Tulsidas and other contemporary composers. His dance dramas, from social to mythological, set a trend.

His first dance drama, ‘Ksheerasagara Madhanam,’ commissioned by the Andhra Pradesh Sangeetha Nataka Academy included the then stalwarts of Kuchipudi such as Yamini Krishnamurthi and Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma among others.