Dance

‘Art has to be nurtured to sustain’

INTO THE SWING OF THINGS Raja Reddy in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Sandeep Saxena

To be recognised, rewarded and awarded in the cultural hub of classical dance and music is every artiste’s dream. And for the eminent Kuchipudi dance couple it’s no less. Yes, the reputed Karthik Fine Arts, a private ‘sabha’, as all arts organisations are termed in Chennai has bestowed its prestigious ‘Life-time achievement’ award 2016 upon Radha and Raja Reddy for their extensive contribution to the cause of Kuchipudi of which they are both practitioners, performers and preceptors. Half-a-century into teaching dance, Raja Reddy along with his better-half Radha is a house-hold name in the field of classical dance, ever since the couple established themselves as twin performers.

Excerpts:

How does it feel to receive this award, especially during the ‘Margazhi Season’?

A sense of fulfilment spread across my heart as I sat there on the dais amid eminent scholars and rasikas while the citation was being read about me. Earlier, I have been the recipient of Nritya Choodamani and Padma Bhushan along with my wife and dance partner Radha but this was something that spoke about the volume of work I have created over time. I felt like the trekker to the daunting Himalayan mount who began at the foot of the hill with no clue of reaching the peak in one piece and then suddenly finds that he has made it to the top!

Now that you have a successful stint of five decades of dance behind you, what is the blue print for the future?

I would always refer to myself as ‘we’ as Radha has been an integral part of my journey both in life and dance. We have trained our two daughters Yamini and Bhavana to complete the dance family as I like to call it; we have been (still do) imparting traditional Kuchipudi dance to young aspirants year after year, making them perform both individually and along with us. But that is not all. We have decided to open our Natya Tarangini institute of dance to young talent who are not privileged to learn dance despite the passion for that single reason called money. We want to assure that this genre for which we sacrificed a lot of personal comfortsshould be handed over, not just to our progeny but to many more like us who are willing to go that extra mile to learn, perform and propagate it.

Another reason we chose to take up at least four poor students a year, give them home, food and training is because we were penniless when we began and the fire in our heart was something that refused to douse until and unless we mastered the art.

Looking at Natya Tarangini, it seems you have come a long way from those painful days.

Yes, it looks glorious now. Natya Tarangini was officially registered in 1976. Kaushalya Reddy, the secretary-treasurer was one of the first batch of students. They were a handful and then the word spread and the numbers swelled. What you see today did not happen in a day ! It took ages, but no, we neither nurtured an ambition to build a great school nor did we fret over our lack of resources at any point of time. Our passion or you can call it craze for Kuchipudi was such that we had one single aim-to perform and teach when not performing. Our objective is to make this into a high calibre institute that imparts dance education, offers a platform to perform and also in time to come become a centre for research. We plan to digitalise our choreographies and archive many of the traditional Kuchipudi repertoire for the future generations who can study them and make the best use of them..

Have you patented yourchoreographies?

Not so far, but may be in future we will because we want to standardise this style and keep its purity intact. Basically, Radha and me come from a simple agri-rural background which knew nothing of dance. So far all the thematic dances that we had done through the years are my own choreography. They have been recorded and preserved for posterity but patenting and such things, I think we are too naive for such thoughts hardly crossed our minds till recently though we have been giving performances abroad since the 70s.

When you started a man learning classical dance was looked down upon? How did you cope with societal and family pressure?

Kuchipudi, by itself, was essentially a male dance. It originated in the village by the same name where the Brahmin class called Bhagavatars performed solos and dance plays at street corners. It was not taught to the women folk because it required mobile staging. We don’t come from a dance-oriented family. Far from it, we belong to Narsapur mandal of Nirmal in Adilabad district, now in the new state of Telangana. Both of us were fond of watching Bhagavatha mela in our village. The craze to learn at all costs, even if the family drives us out in wrath overcame our initial fears and we literally ran away from home with some money in hand. Destiny directed us to our guru Vedantam Prahalada Sharma in Eluru in coastal Andhra where we stayed back to perfect ourselves in Kuchipudi since he was a guru in the hereditary line of dancers and par excellence. It was he who nudged me to go northwards and learn choreography, by which I arrived in Delhi with Radha and joined Maya Rao. It was the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who pressed upon us to make Delhi our home – impressed by our recital as a couple. The rest is history.

In the land of Kathak, the only south Indian dance anyone understood was Bharatanatyam? How could Kuchipudi make inroads here, more so since both of you were strangers to the Capital.

By sheer dint of hard work, creativity and above all luck and divine blessing. The last is intangible but ultimate truth. We still remember how our genre and we were shunted out to make way for Bharatanatyam whenever an opportunity presented itself for us to showcase our talent. We would be crest-fallen but with each fall came a determination to excel. I decided to give the audience here my tradition coated in their colour. I got songs composed in Hindi and Sanskrit and applied these to the Kuchipudi format. Our basics being strong and grounded it never gave room for dilution. I wanted to be unique within my tradition. Till then, there weren’t any couple dancing in Kuchipudi style. We were the only ones. That impressed the audience and the organisers who found something different in us. I personified the male aspect of Kuchipudi, the tandav and Radha symbolised lasya (feminine principle). We slowly began making an impact on the audience and dignitaries who publicly acclaimed us to be dancers of calibre.

How did you present Kuchipudi without denting its shape or essence?

Once we were recognised and were called for international shows abroad our exposure to the best in art grew with every country we visited. I imbibed the best choreographic details from Japan for instance, be it the aesthetics or the stage techniques, and improvised upon them to suit my genre.

Generally even with the best of performers, classical dance does not elicit continuous performances. Was yours’ the same case?

True. Classical dance is a niche area not appreciated by one and all. But once we established our credentials as serious dance pair, there was no dearth of performances. It was like a healthy competition with the who’s who of dance. Many a time when Radha would swoon into a chair after a hectic performance and would be immediately dragged to perform elsewhere within an hour’s gap and she would be her energetic, vivacious self once on stage. She would go empty-stomach, skipping her lunch, only to dance with me. This was what we had dreamed of and yearned for during our young days and when the opportunity presented itself we could never let it pass by. I never pleaded with anyone to give me a chance to perform.

Any new productions or plans this year?

I’m a creative artiste, who works on inspiration not by design. This year we are planning to make full use of our new amphitheatre recently opened on the premises of Natya Tarangini. We will be celebrating Maha Shivratri with dance and music for the first time this year. It will be a night-long affair starting at 9.00 pm on that evening and would go on way into the wee hours of the next morning. If this takes off well, then it will become an annual feature too like our Parampara Festival.


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