Manju Barggavee on the present and future of Kuchipudi, and why people who meddle with her guru’s original style make her angry
The most astonishing thing for some is that 62-year-old Kuchipudi exponent Manju Barggavee, best known for her performance in the Telugu blockbuster “Shankarabharanam”, is the star disciple of her guru, an ace dancer first and an actor later. She still performs with consummate ease and her tenacity was admirable during her performance in Bhubaneswar some time ago.
Known for her male roles in traditional Kuchipudi dance-dramas because of her height, she is remembered for her unforgettable role of Satyabhama in Guru Chinna Satyam’s “Bhama Kalapam”. She is the Chairperson of the Kuchipudi Syllabus Committee, Government of Karnataka, and a Senate member for Performing Arts at All Women’s University, Tirupati. Feeling strongly for the uplift of the dance form, Barggavee wants to start a Kuchipudi Research Centre in Bangalore. Excerpts from an interview:
Did you ever modify your guru’s style in any of your performances?
I have imbibed my Guru Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s style 190 per cent, I would say. I have learnt from him from the beginning, when he started the school, from the age of seven. I can say very proudly that I am the only student who has till date never changed even one bit of what he has choreographed, even in the basics. Even his Kuchipudi Art Akademi doesn’t teach the original way we have learnt, the original way our Master taught us. He is my only guru in Kuchipudi. There is no second person I could think of or go to, as he is the ultimate in Kuchipudi. I am very fortunate to have learnt from him for so many years.
Each one has one’s own body language. If you make a hundred people stand and do “dhi dhi thai” they would all do it differently. So it is the body which adapts to two particular movements, and you move according to your mindset. We used to look at our Guru in awe when he used to show us some movements, you know!
So, are you the torchbearer of his original style?
Yes, yes. For instance, the first Jaidev Ashtapadi, “Sanchara Dadhara”, that I am performing today has the shlokam “Yadi Hari smaraney” in the beginning, where the dancer doesn’t enter; she enters with “Sanchara Dadhara”. My singer says she doesn’t have it because nobody does it and they don’t sing it. I said, “You don’t have the right to do so.” Why, was Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam so jobless to have a shlokam like that? There is a meaning behind the item that he was going to present.
To prepare the audience’s mind he had put in the shlokam. So it is mandatory that you have to sing the shlokam before you go on to “Sanchara Dadhara”. When people modify it I get very angry. Even in my speeches I say, “Listen, if you can’t do his style don’t do it, but then don’t ever modify it because he has given a lot of thought to every line he has choreographed and there is so much depth in the dance.
We have no business to change or alter what he has done. When I teach my students today what my guru has taught me, they are unable to do it. I ask them, “My God! Is it so difficult? When we learnt it we didn’t find it that difficult!” Whatever he told us we did.
Nowadays people are interested in performing, not learning exhaustively…
Yes, and not practising or understanding. Most students don’t have the time, they are also not bothered to practise. And some of the students have the audacity to compare themselves with me. Even if I have time, they don’t.
Are you documenting his instructions?
Yes. All this I am putting together in the form of a book. Many people are adept Bharatanatyam dancers but they go to different gurus to learn abhinaya. But in Kuchipudi you don’t need it. Kuchipudi is a whole dance form. When we do abhinaya the whole body language is involved with the dance.
When you do “Dhi dhi tai’ your whole body and face is involved. So the abhinaya goes with the dance. That’s why the abhinaya is there. Plus, the footwork is also there. This is what he has done for Kuchipudi.
So on you lies a great responsibility.
Very true. Nowadays even the choreography is made so light and the students say “No, no, no, we don’t want to learn Vempati Chinna Satyam’s choreography because it is very tough.”
What do you think is the future of Kuchipudi?
Diluted. What else can we do? Kuchipudi village only wants to make money. They don’t teach anything. All of us have to get together and have to do something to save the art form. The Government has to take the initiative to put all of us together, employ us as visiting professors in the different Kuchipudi institutions of the State, come forward to help.