On his first death anniversary today, we recall Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, the uncrowned king of ‘stree-vesham’ performance.

Kuchipudi dance icon Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma (1934-2012) enjoys a pre-eminent place in the ‘stree-vesham’ hall of fame.

In a career which spanned nearly 10,000 performances, the legendary Kuchipudi performer, teacher and choreographer brilliantly portrayed a whole range of women’s roles. These included Usha in Usha Parinayam; Gollabhama in Gollakalapam; Mohini in Mohini Rukmangada and Ksheerasagara Madhanam; Sasirekha in Sasirekha Parinayam; Devadevi in Vipranarayana; and –– his most-celebrated role –– the vain, egoistic Satyabhama of Bhama Kalapam.

Sarma’s artistry received rich praise from Presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers, critics, and doyens of other classical-dance forms. Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sarvepalli Radhakrishna, N.T. Rama Rao, Abdul Kalam, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kelucharan Mahapatra and Padma Subramaniam were among his admirers.

Sarma was a genius who raised the bar for the art of ‘Stree vesha dharana’ or female-impersonation. He would sweep audiences off their feet with his convincing feminine gestures –– blushing like a shy girl; fluttering his eyes flirtatiously at a lover; sulking as only a woman can; expressing motherly love; and displaying countless other feminine traits and womanly wiles.

As a youngster, Sarma even received marriage proposals from parents of eligible boys impressed by his ‘beauty’ and ‘feminine grace’! Sarma told us that, once, the wife of an audience-member walked off in a huff after his performance. The reason –– she was furious that her husband had gone onstage and garlanded a ‘woman’. Many people asked for demos of how he wore a sari! He, however, never obliged.

Born and raised in Kuchipudi village, Sarma turned to his elder brother Vedantam Prahlada Sarma for tutelage in dance since he lost his own father-teacher at age one. Later, Chinta Krishnamurthy trained him.

Given the Kuchipudi tradition of using male artistes to play female roles, Sarma, as a child, was given a bit role as a princess’ companion. This was so well-received by the audience that he got cast in more and more female roles. It soon became his forte. Pursuing excellence in this field, he became a prolific performer of great repute. He also set up Venkatarama Natya Mandali in Kuchipudi village where he taught till his last days.

His enduring regret was the lack of adequate and sustained support from the state government and resource-rich people in the state, for the Kuchipudi art, especially for the younger generation. He would express the need for more scholarships and research facilities; good, easily available platforms for performances; and timely awards or recognition.

Reminiscing about him, well-known Kuchipudi teacher and performer, Pasumarthy Kesava Prasad, says: “He held up a mirror to Alankara sastram. He was that great artist who could teach shringara to women!”

Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, Principal, Siddhendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kalapeetham, Kuchipudi village, remarks: “He enriched the tradition of female impersonation and Kuchipudi itself. Thanks to him, these traditions won widespread recognition and admiration. He was also renowned for high standards of Satvikaabhinaya, a big artistic challenge.”

The legend has left behind a rich legacy for posterity and lives on in the hearts of admirers.

Lec-dem on Kuchipudi

Under the auspices of Jateeya Lalitha Kala Parisodhaka Mandali, Kuchipudi teacher and performer, Pasumarthy Kesava Prasad is organising a tribute to the late Vedanta Satyanarayana Sarma, Kuchipudi icon, at Hyderabad Study Circle, Domalguda, near Indira Park, on November 24 at 5 p.m. There will be a lecture-demonstration by well-known Kuchipudi artiste Kala Krishna on the subject of ‘Roopanuroopam’ and ‘Satvikabhinayam’.