ARUNA CHANDARAJU

Her dance defines what actor-Kuchipudi dancer Manju Bhargavi is today. She speaks in awe of her guru Vempati Chinna Satyam

I had a strong desire to learn dance. My mother would call it an obsession!

Well-known Kuchipudi dancer and actor Manju Bhargavi is in a reminiscent mood. She is telling us of her growing-up years and her journey in classical dance –– an art form that defines so much of what she is.

“I was fascinated by this art ever since I can remember. I had a strong desire to learn dance. My mother would call it an obsession! Finally, tired of my persistent pleading, when I was seven, she enrolled me in Vempati Chinna Satyam’s dance school.”

The choice of Vempati as teacher was natural considering that Vempati Pedda Satyam (Chinna Sathyam’s famous elder brother) was a friend of Manju’s aunt. Moreover, Vempati himself was a friend of Manju’s father. For nearly three decades later, Manju continued to be his student.

In dance and music, the best guru-shishya relationships have had their share of friction, differences of opinion, and instances of disappointment and disillusionment on both sides. So it was with Manju and her guru Vempati. “On several occasions, we disagreed or felt let down by each other. However, this is natural and unavoidable in most teacher-student relationships so I don’t dwell on it too much,” she says with characteristic candidness. “There were countless and overwhelming positive aspects to our association.”

As guru, Vempati has groomed a long line of widely-acclaimed students including famous film stars. Vempati’s choreography skills are also legendary and he is considered one of the most creative Indian classical-dance choreographers. His individual items and group ballets turned out to be riveting performances, earning rave reviews.Visualising a piece, then communicating it to his students, and making them recreate it perfectly were his special skills, says Manju. “To be part of most of his ballets was my great good fortune. And thanks to my physical stature I always got the male lead! Even when I wanted a change, he would say ‘but you suit male roles better’.”

So, just to prove a point, she organised a dance programme of her own “Bhama Kalapam”, a well-known Kuchipudi item wherein the central character Satyabhama vainly struts her extraordinary feminine beauty and grace, and exhibits many feminine wiles and guiles too! She invited her guru to the performance and Vempati conceded with amusement –– and pride too in his student –– that she indeed could do female roles also with aplomb.

Vempati insisted on rigorous training in basics saying the foundation is what makes or breaks a dancer. He was also a stickler for discipline and uncompromising when it came to attendance and practice, reveals Manju. A perfectionist to the core, he would insist on countless rehearsals till an item came out right. “Though this made us groan and grumble sometimes, we later realised this was why he acquired such a great reputation as a dancer, teacher and choreographer. He would be satisfied with nothing less than the best.”

Manju recalls the rehearsals for “Shivatandavam”, wherein she had to jump, turn in the air and then sit in a mandalam. After countless trials, Manju gave up, saying it was too difficult. Vempati admonished her saying he had visualised it with great difficulty and that she wasn’t trying enough. “You have to do it, no excuses,” he said. “Finally, I killed myself for it, and got it right. And the glowing reviews next day made it worth it all,” she exclaims.

His emphasis on excellence meant he was very choosy about admitting students –– only those willing to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly were accepted. “He hated it when anyone wanted to stint on time or effort. His stand was clear: Learn dance by giving your best or don’t learn at all,” says Manju.

This was also why so many aspiring students (starters and the experienced) were turned away. The “Vempati student” tag was prestigious. Many dancers wanted it. But Vempati wouldn’t accept a student who came only for that –– he wanted total commitment to the art form.

A lesson Vempati taught his students by example was to adjust to any situation when one went for a performance.

Often, the arrangements for outstations performances, especially accommodation, transport, and auditorium, would be far from satisfactory. “But Vempati would uncomplainingly adjust to difficult circumstances saying ‘Ignore them –– the only thing that matters is delivering a good performance’. Today, I do the same,” says Manju.

Above all, Vempati was an artiste never satisfied with his just-completed work, and constantly sought improvement. He embodied the pursuit of excellence. That is inspiration not only to dancers but to anyone who seeks success, concludes Manju.