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Breaking myths, recasting tradition

Those dreamy looks notwithstanding, there's an efficient head on those shoulders, Swapnasundari proves with her maiden publication. ANJANA RAJAN meets the dancer and musician who is now an author. accomplished writer too. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.

IT'S LAVISHLY illustrated, glossy, colourful and big. And at Rs.3500 its price matches its coffee table looks. But this one has more to say and requires more brain if not more brawn to peruse it than the average coffee table book. As Swapnasundari, acclaimed Kuchipudi dancer and author of Shubhi Publications' "The World of Koochipoodi Dance", puts it, "As you can see, it is one of the few coffee table books on Kuchipudi, and it is the first such highly detailed book on such a lavish scale where the writer is a performer of the tradition."

Lots of dancers have written books on their chosen dance form. Most of the time one finds the tomes, no matter how erudite and comprehensive they may be otherwise, replete with pictures of the author or the author's children in various pretty poses. Swapnasundari's book is different, right from the cover design, which features a close-up of her as Ardhanarishwar - Lord Shiva's manifestation as half male, half female - duly decorated with a serpent, a painted third eye and half a moustache (an example of the Pagati Vesham tradition that is one of the influences on Kuchipudi today). Also, the book includes photographs of a range of other dancers who have contributed to Kuchipudi and related traditions.

Kuchipudi as it is known today did not start off as a solo technique, points out the eminent dancer who mesmerises audiences during her performances in which her acting skills bring centuries-old poetry to life with unmistakeable contemporary relevance. "It (the book) is not basically discussing Kuchipudi as a solo form. It actually telescopes into Kuchipudi after setting up a background, its gradual development from a larger dance drama tradition to a solo form."

As Swapnasundari, who has been performing for over three decades, waxes eloquent on her subject - "I've focussed on the revival, recasting of all traditions. It is not only a transference to a solo form but also from a male to a female form" - sounding like a learned professor, she shatters all the middle class myths about traditional performers not being well read, and then about well-educated people being the product of a formal education system, since she acknowledges she was so busy performing, she "never had time" to go back to school to finish her Board exams.

Not for beginners

"The World of Koochipoodi" says the author, is not a beginner's book as such. "It addresses someone who would like to know from the horse's mouth what has happened to Kuchipudi. I came into the thick of it in the 1970s, so it was exactly the middle of it (the half century when the form was evolving)."

Being an avid researcher, besides a singer and performer of various styles including Bharatanatyam, Swapnasundari still has reams of notes on aspects of art history, including the extensive interviews she recorded with the kalavantulus, or temple dancers of the Andhra Pradesh region, whose dance she has - not without controversy - helped revive and renamed Vilasini Natyam. Part of the reason she avoided writing a book on that subject - though she had offers earlier - was that people asked her to write the "real" (read lascivious) story of the temple dancers whom modern society reduced to destitution and prostitution.

The dancer says she took her time to pen a book since she wanted to avoid doing a fleeting job. However, now that the deed is done, she finds it an "addictive" vocation. This is one addiction that is likely to benefit everyone who catches it.

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