Kala Krishna finds artistic satisfaction in donning a woman's costume and performing this almost forgotten dance
Belonging to an uneducated family of farmers struggling to make ends meet, the boy grew up in a remote village in Karimnagar district, Andhra Pradesh, not even knowing his date of birth. The nearest railway station was miles away, buses were infrequent. The local school was the only connection to the outside world. The arts were confined to occasional shows of folk theatre, and rare visits to the nearest town's cinema hall, 20 miles from the village. School plays saw the small made, soft spoken boy donning women's roles.
Exposure to dance
A sole exposure to classical dance came when young Kala Krishna was taken to see Kuchipudi veteran Vedantam Satyanarayana (1967) while on a school trip to attend a sports tournament. Following elder brother's lead, he decided to support his family as a school teacher, but in Hyderabad, where he also shaped the school's cultural shows. At the suggestion of a colleague, 22-year old Kala Krishna began to learn Kuchipudi from Vedantam Jagannatha Sharma, who soon left the city, but not before introducing the youngster to scholar and dance revivalist Nataraja Sharma. The brother was furious when Kala Krishna resigned his job and moved to Sharma's home for gurukula training. He spent 30 years there, and now cares for his aged guru as a neighbour.
Nataraja Sharma's research into dance traditions led to a national seminar (1956) to establish Kuchipudi as a classical (not folk) genre. He revived the lasya tradition practised by women artists by amalgamating the three streams of dancing -- on the streets, courts and temples. He persuaded forgotten devadasis to share what they knew. A conference (1972) with hereditary dancers was hugely helpful in identifying the women's solo dance genre now known as Andhranatyam. Sharma recreated the majestic ‘Perini Siva Tandavam', the 11th century invocatory ritual temple dance under the Kakatiya kings.
With such an inspiring guru, all Kala Krishna had to do was to be alert and absorbent. Sharma arranged for his classes in Sanskrit and mythology, and lessons by devadasis from the Godavari temples and Vizianagaram court. Overcoming initial reluctance, the devadasis became generous instructors of subtle details. What they were diffident about teaching a man was learnt by observation. “Without this direct interaction, I could have never grasped those shifts in the psyche, especially as I perform those pieces as a woman, in a woman's costume.”
Today, Kala Krishna does perform in male attire as well but is best known for his female impersonation. Did he feel odd about donning a woman's costume for Andhranatyam? Did he have problems dancing as a woman? “I simply followed my guru's orders. Yes, I did feel uncomfortable in a sari. It took me sometime to respond, for my blood to support me in feeling like a woman. My guru took me to zamindari homes to see how the women moved and talked. He insisted on maintaining dignity. I took the help of angika abhinaya to overcome the drawback of my small eyes which could not communicate enough to reach the audience.”
Kala Krishna left all controversies about whether Andhranatyam was a distinct genre or amalgam of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi to be handled by his guru. There was no formal arangetram, his first major performance happened when Sharma was gifted a golden crown in Kakinada. Since then, Kala Krishna has performed regularly in India, North America, Africa, Europe and Asia, evolving a full-fledged repertoire of Andhranatyam in the process. He rejected offers to work in other cities. “How can I leave my guru? I owe everything to him. But for him there would be no Andhranatyam today.”
Kala Krishna made his debut with ‘Navajanardhanam' (the story of Satyabhama with lyric by several poets). Recently, he performed it in nine temples on the banks of the Godavari on nine successive days, following the old ritual of the devadasis. He explains, “They used to have nine Satyabhamas on a single stage, each with a different orchestra. It was a yagna, a yogic rite.”
With research grants from the Ministry of Culture and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Kala Krishna undertook a comparative analysis of Andhranatyam and Bharatanatyam, and studied abhinaya techniques in female impersonation in Bhama Kalapam and Golla Kalapam. The recipient of many awards, Kala Krishna conducts workshops and lec-dems, teaches at his own school Harihara Nritya Niketan, the Telugu University and the University of Hyderabad.
Any devoted disciples to carry forward this legacy? The quiet man sighs before he replies, “One or two. Nobody wants to learn single-mindedly, not even girls. No sense of responsibility about the future of this wonderful art form…”