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Dance like a man

He floored people in his role as Satyabhama Meet veteran Kuchipudi dancer, Padmasri Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma

JUST A glance at the physique and person of the doyen of Kuchipudi dance and all our misconceptions about males learning classical Indian dance will melt into thin air. For here is a year-old -old professional whose forte wass mythological female roles. This is Padmasri Dr. Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma for you looking every inch a masculine, able-bodied veteran on whom time and age hardly made a dent.

The titles preceding his name seem overwhelming but the person comes across as a modest and gentle soul, steeped in the tradition of dance handed over as an ancestral vocation by his illustrious forefathers. For Kuchipudi, a village two hours away from Vijayawada, was once an exclusive abode of a dancing community of Brahmins and still remains to be so.

"Though now the village comprises other communities too, it remains a predominantly dance agraharam (where only the priestly class resides) with 200 families dedicated to the learning and teaching of this special genre of classical dance," says Dr. Sarma. "We have a peculiar tradition within the community where teaching and performing dance is limited only to the males of the household and no woman is permitted to learn or to be taught, a trait prevalent even today.

The custom must have originated from the fact that in early days, the dancers were a touring troupe and walked long distances braving the nights and extremities of weather. The fairer sex could not be exposed to the risk of such a profession. Further, other delicate female concerns weighed against them since the dance form involved rigorous learning," he defends the practice.

On the after effects of continuously donning female roles with feminine make-up and costumes, he says, "if you are referring to the social stigma, in our days, it was considered an exclusive talent to be able to take up such roles and look convincing.

In fact, my artistic prowess at dancing and acting a Satyabhama (in Bhamakalapam), an Usha in Ushaparinyam or a Mohini in Mohini Bhasmasura dance dramas was often appreciated by all. This inspired me to further hone my skills. There were days when I hardly had time to wipe the make-up off my face before I was booked to play the role at another venue for a whole month. Once the role was over, in real life, I was Satyanarayana the boy, the man with not a vestige of my artistic part revealed in either my gait, my talk or my gestures."

A performing artiste till very recently, Vedantam Satyanaryana Sarma decided to call it a day and is now training young boys. His school, Nartanasala, under the aegis of the Central Sangeeth Nataka Academy offers a full-fledged course in Kuchipudi dance. Dr. Sarma is conservative and has not taken to enrolling girls in this school. "When was an artiste known to have made big money even during our times? Mostly, all artistes work from within the heart, not the head. And not everybody can become an artiste. Given the fee and the chance, 99 out of every 100 students prefer to study computers but not even a tenth want to become a dancer or a singer. My school, for instance, does not recruit every boy who comes for admission like a regular educational institution. We are on the lookout for sharp featured boys with a certain tenderness and expressive eyes, an artistic inclination and so on. I have not given much publicity to my school nor has the other dance institution in Kuchipudi where both girls and boys learn. Our candidate strength is limited but we produce finished products who will be able to carry on the tradition with concentration, confidence and commitment."

His advice , "be proud of your heritage. Dance is the best form of physical exercise, mental development and sensitive approach to life. On a higher plane, it is a shortcut to divine grace. If one is able to master a dance form like Kuchipudi, it is like getting yoga, meditation, aerobics all in one package."

Though he was known for improvisation of old mythological thematic compositions, he never swerved from the path of tradition. "Even if the practitioners of dance are dwindling by the day, dance will not die. There will always be that special set of young minds to keep it alive.

My advice, as a guru and an artiste, to the teachers of art and the learners is — each art form is great in itself. But do not experiment and go for a mixture of tradition and modernity just for applause, whatever is the pretext. Abide by tradition. Patronage and praise will come."


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