Vempati Chinna Satyam speaks on his journey from Kuchipudi.
After a lifetime of dedicated work, Vempati Chinna Satyam can afford to put his feet up. They are the same feet that danced their way into the hearts of his admirers as he put Kuchipudi firmly on the map, at par with the other classical dance forms, during the 1960s and '70s. The same feet, too, that once upon a time walked all the way from his village, Kuchipudi, in Andhra Pradesh, to Madras, when as an 18-year-old he set off to find his destiny in the art.Age has caught up with him, but on an average, he says, he tries to produce a new choreographic work every four years. At his Kuchipudi Art Academy, which he founded in Chennai in 1963, he teaches according to the guru-shishya system and not a set syllabus. Only when he decides students are ready does he present them in an arangetram performance, at his own cost, points out his son Vempati Ravi Shankar, one of the Academy's lead dancers. Today there is a branch in Hyderabad too.Some of the best-known dancers have trained under him, including Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Manju Bhargavi, Lakshmi Viswanathan, the sisters Padmini and Ragini and the duo of Narasimhachari and Vasanthalakshmi. Some are better known as Bharatanatyam dancers. Even relative youngsters like Sailaja seem to get more opportunities to perform Bharatatnatyam, though Uma Muralikrishna has made a mark as a Kuchipudi exponent. The Vempatis are noncommittal. Perhaps it is a question for the organisers, they suggest.The walls of the Academy are lined with photographs of Vempati performing Kuchipudi, a reminder of the svelte, slim dancer whose strong lines never lost track of the characteristic grace of the dance form."Even Rukmini Devi invited me to perform at Kalakshetra," recalls the veteran, who belongs to a generation for whom Rukmini Devi Arundale's approval was a benchmark, with her reputation for appreciating only the highest technical and spiritual attainments in art.
Cinema experienceVempati was blessed with a vision not always found in dancers born within a tradition. "I always wanted to establish Kuchipudi as a classical art," he says. "I started learning under my guru Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastry when I was 10. I was with him for 10 years. I also trained with my cousin, Vempati Pedda Satyam who was a dance director in films."He analyses the differing demands of film and stage. "For films there can be some changes in style. You can go according to the mood. You might have to suddenly change the choreography for the camera angle. But on stage, the classical dance should be pucca."Film choreography was not an impromptu affair though. He would choreograph at 5 a.m. on a senior student. Then he would rehearse with the film star, and then proceed for the shooting spot.The cinema experience made him realise Kuchipudi's potential as a classical form. Strict in his appraisal, Vempati has choreographed numerous themes using the Kuchipudi technique, but he only gives the term `classical' to some, like his recent production `Ardhanariiswaram'.The aramandi posture considered essential for Bharatanatyam is as important for Kuchipudi, he points out. "If you don't see it, it is because people are not dancing properly." The lip movements, when dancers mouth the lyrics while performing, are essential, he feels, to bring greater depth to facial expression, but they should be restrained. "The divinity and dignity should be preserved."Valuable advice from a guru reputed to have trained over 8000 dancers. If his guru is credited with introducing women dancers to an art that had only male performers, Vempati has brought the process full circle, with girls taking on men's roles. Now he is preparing for another return, this time to Kuchipudi village where he has been asked to oversee the half-century old Siddhendra Yogi Mahotsav of Kuchipudi dance (February 26 to March 4). This time though, he knows he won't have to walk, and even if he did, it would be on a red carpet.