For over three decades now, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam exponent Alekhya Punjala has explored the boundaries of classical dance as a performer, teacher, researcher, and choreographer. Dr. Alekhya is a true scholar of abhinaya. She has not only researched extensively on this aspect of dance (her PhD was in ‘Kshetrayya Padams – their importance in the abhinaya aspect of Kuchipudi), but she has also excelled in the art of abhinaya. Given her penchant for satvika abinaya and her interests in experimentation and innovation, the soft-spoken, elegant Dr. Alekhya has breathed life into many mythological heroines such as Alamelu Manga, Mandakini Durga, Sasirekha, Andal, and Radha, to name but a few. Her latest dance drama is ‘Lakuma Swantham' – the story of Lakuma Devi, the court dancer of the 14th century Kondaveedu Kingdom. Dr. Alekhya currently heads the department of dance at the Potti Sriramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad. The artiste was in Thiruvananthapuram for the inauguration of the ‘Germany + India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities,' organised by the Goethe-Zentrum Trivandrum. Along with contemporary dancer Victoria Hauke, Dr. Alekhya performed ‘Meeting with you and me' – literally, a dialogue between modern European dance and classical Indian dance. Excerpts from an interview with the danseuse…
Turning to dance
I started dancing when I was about three-and-a-half years old. I studied in a Montessori school in Hyderabad, where dance and music was part of the curriculum. The moment I heard the rhythms of the tabla, I would walk out of whatever class I was in and head straight for dance class. Even at that young a age I was fascinated and passionate about dance. My dance education continued till class 10. Then I had to make a choice: academics or dance. I realised I could not stay away from dance and thus chose to study the arts. My mother, Suguna Narsingha, though, understood my passion for dance and allowed me to pursue it. But she was very clear that I should not neglect studies. That's when I made a conscious decision to pursue both academics and dance seriously. My arangetram was in 1977 during the silver jubilee celebrations of the Indian National Theatre. The then governor of Andra Pradesh, Sharada Mukherjee, was the chief guest.
I first learned dance under the late Dayal Sharan, a Kathak and Odissi exponent, who was mentor to guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. He tried to get me interested in Kathak and Odissi, but I was too enamoured with Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi – probably because at that young age I understood better, the language, stories, and the aharya of these South Indian dances. My formal training in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi was with Uma Rama Rao. I also had the opportunity to hone my skills under Kuchipudi greats such as Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma and Pasumati Krishnamurthy.
Bharatanatyam vs. Kuchipudi
As an artiste, I love both. But as a performer and teacher, Kuchipudi is after my own heart. That's because Kuchipudi gives me more scope for abhinaya, subtle satvika abhinaya. I want to be known for satvika abhinaya. I like to explore different compositions and see how best to bring out the innate bhava in them. That freedom is there in Kuchipudi. Whereas, I feel, in Bharatanatyam, abhinaya is more methodical, theoretical and limited.
Training is for personal physical discipline only. We cannot be restricted by the technique we learn. I try to put in my own interpretation on whatever I'm working on. I look at dance as a spiritual experience, and I wish – and pray – that my audience feel it as such too.
Performer, teacher, researcher, choreographer…my favourite role
Thanks to my job, I'm able to focus on all and do a little justice to all. At the University, I'm always teaching and talking about and indulging in my passion for dance. Honestly, though, I prefer the role of a performer because that where you can see the real Alekhya. Of course, all other roles are equally important. You have to be a choreographer to put your ideas on stage. Likewise unless you research you can't put anything on the stage.
On institutional learning overtaking the traditional guru-shishya relationship
I value the guru-shisya parampara because it gives you the space and the time to understand each other and explore the art form. This cannot be done at length at the university level. However, if you want the art form to reach out and for it to move beyond the confines of a teacher/school we have to look at university education. Of course, individual attention is just not possible when teaching a class of 20. Finishing the syllabus is what matters here. The advantage then lies in the scope for research, which has become more methodical thanks to Universities.
Besides, institutional learning is important for classical art forms to survive. In Andra Pradesh, for example, we are fighting to get classical arts into school syllabi. After all, what is the point of blaming the new generation for not being involved in the arts if they don't really know what it's about? This way, not only will be able to tap the potential of the kids but we will also ready a knowledgeable audience of the future.