Hallowed Kuchipudi village and its inhabitants have been closely connected to the growth and history of the dance form, which even derived its name from the place.
From the window of a small, nondescript house, the strains of ‘Bhaamane Sathyabhaamane' drifts out, to the sound of anklets and nattuvangam keeping perfect beat. Down the road, at another home, a brisk Narayanatheertha tharangam is in progress with students practising ‘Neelamegha Shareera'. In the neighbouring building, a vocalist ends his Atana raga delination, and clears his throat as a prelude to Tyagaraja's ‘Balakanakamayachela.'
Almost every corner of the Kuchipudi village, reverberates with swaras and the jingle of ankle bells, one discovers.
This village is perhaps the only place in India, which has given its name to a classical dance-form.The history of this village and its inhabitants is interwoven with the evolution of the exquisite dance form of Kuchipudi.
This Andhra Pradesh village was originally known variously as ‘Kuchelapuram,' ‘Kuchelapuri' (one legend holds that Krishna's devotee Kuchela was from this place ), ‘Kuchennapoodi' (after Kuchenna, a famous disciple of Siddhendra Yogi) and ‘Kuchipundi.' It was populated by Bhagavathulu and their families.
The propagation of bhakti through artists called Bhagavathulu, who sang the stories of God (Bhagavatam) and danced too, was common in south India through the centuries. In this region, the dance was known as Kuchipudi Bharatham.
The village has produced some of the greatest classical dancers and teachers of the country.
The earliest-known maestro from this village was saint Siddhendra Yogi (who lived some time between 11th and 13th century). Based on Bharata's Natya Shastra, Nandikeshwar's Bharatarnava and Abhinaya Darpanam, Siddhendra systematised and streamlined Kuchipudi.
His sterling contribution was ‘Bhama Kalapam,' a Telugu dance-drama, where the lyrics, tunes and script (trouryartrikam) were by him. To have this enacted, Siddhendra Yogi, also a great choreographer, selected a group of boys from Kuchipudi and trained them. This was a milestone in the history of the dance-form and village.
“Later, Kuchipudi village was granted as a gift to the Bhagavathulu by an impressed Abul Hasan Tanisha of the Golconda Nawab dynasty in the 17th century,” explains Dr. Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, Principal, Siddhendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kala Peetham, the college here, which is run by Telugu University. Freed of tax burdens, the inhabitants found more resources to focus on their art.
However for centuries, the dance-form was confined to Brahmin families and males. They were forbidden to teach the art to their daughters. All female roles were performed by men, in a tradition called stree-vesham or bhrukumsa (female impersonation).
“The dancers were part of itinerant troupes and often performed throughout the night. That is why women were kept out, for practical reasons and not because of male chauvinism,” says stree-vesham icon Vedantam Sathyaranarayana Sarma, a Kuchipudi-resident.
In the 20th century, teacher-performer Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry of this village became another trailblazer like Siddhendra. He broke the convention by taking the dance form to non-Brahmins, women and devadasis. This was taken forward by Bhagavathula Vissaiah. Many established dancers, such as Bharatanatyam legend Mylapore Gowriamma, went to Vissaiah to enhance their knowledge of abhinaya nuances.
Another famous son of this village is the legendary Vempati Chinna Sathyam who relocated to Chennai. With his outstanding creativity and brilliant choreography, he spread the art form across India and abroad. His brother Vempati Pedda Sathyam, Pasumarthi Krishnamurthy and Vedantam Jagannatha Sarma, followed another pioneer, Vedantam Raghavaiah, to Chennai and took this sensuous art to the film industry. They choreographed Kuchipudi-based dance sequences for many Telugu movies.
Sathyanarayana Sarma regularly travelled out of Kuchipudi for his much-celebrated stree-vesham performances, especially as Sathyabhama.
Today, women greatly outnumber men as Kuchipudi dancers and teachers! Chinna Satyam took this one step further when he gave male roles in his dance-dramas to women!
Many Kuchipudi artists born and bred in this heritage-rich village migrated to other cities and countries, which gave the art a wider platform. Their students in turn are grooming more performers. Together, they have put Kuchipudi on the cultural map of India and the world.
Although the village has a dance college and hosts an annual dance festival, it lacks a hi-tech library, archives centre and a national-level auditorium. The government could do more. The business barons of the State do not seem interested in contributing towards sustaining this great tradition either.
For the legions of Kuchipudi practitioners, the village remains a hallowed spot. Renowned dancers Shobha Naidu and Manju Bhargavi call it a “pilgrimage centre.” For the famed artist-couple Raja and Radha Reddy, the village is akin to a “wonderful temple” and “cultural treasure.”