Tracing the steps of Kuchipudi

Kuchipudi Yakshagana exponent Guru Pasumarthi Rattaiah Sarma   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Once upon a time, there was a village known by the name of Kuchelapuram. In this village lived about 300 Brahmin families for whom dance, music and theatre were not just a vocation, but their raison d'etre.

Every newborn male child in these families would have a single bell of the anklets (gunghroo), tied to his neck, in a gesture that bespoke of this dedication to the art, the kuladharmam. In course of time, they would be groomed to grow up to become Bhagavathalus, practitioners of Yakshagana, the genre of dance-drama that brought together the best of dance, music, acting and orchestra.

This popular theatrical art came to be known as Kuchipudi Yakshagana, after the place of its origin, for the name of the village Kuchelapuram, had by then transformed into Kuchipudi. This village in Andhra Pradesh lent its name to what we now know as Kuchipudi, one of the eight forms recognised as the major classical dances of India. Of course the version that we see today is a far cry from the original. Pasumarthi Rattaiah Sarma is perhaps one of the very few Bhagavathalus today who were born into the tradition and has been a practitioner of Kuchipudi Yakshagana.

Tradition of theatre and dance

Pasumarthi is one of the traditional Bhagavathalu families such as Vedantam, Chinta, Taddepalli and Vempatti among others. Guru Rattaiah Sarma's father, Pasumarthi Viswanatham, and uncle used to sing for the performances, do nattuvangam and take up roles of the Sutradhara. They also used to perform the now practically extinct Pagati veshalu, the solo folk theatre form of role-play, enacted from door to door. On the maternal side were relatives like Vedantam Prahlada Sarma and Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, one of the youngest recipients of the Padma Shri and who was famous for his brilliant portrayal of female characters.

Guru Rattaiah Sarma was in Thiruvananthapuram to worship at the Sreepadmanabha Swamy Temple. After visiting the temple, he met Friday Review, to talk about the making of a Bhagavatalu and his life in Kuchipudi.

“A child is initiated into the art at the age of four when he is taught music, rhythms and Sanskrit. Stories of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatham in Telugu are narrated to them. It is important that the students gain in-depth knowledge of the literature and mythology, for it would aid effective enactment of these characters, when they become full-fledged performers. In the gurukulam, a typical day would start with music classes from 4 am to 6 am, followed by the basics of tala, up to 9 am. Songs of Yakshagana plays, solo pieces, small roles and prayers were taught in the course of the day. Special physical exercises that hone the body language also formed part of the training. Until the students took up main roles, at around the age of 20, they accompanied the troupe to the performances, imbibing the techniques, watching how the dharavus, entries of the characters, are made and so on. By the time one is a mature artiste, he would have memorised the whole body of songs and plays and internalised the moves and nuances as well. In short, every one was a complete artiste, well-versed in music, dance, theatrics and dialogue delivery.”

The artistes had the freedom to compose and sing in the ragas of their choice, so as to convey the bhava. This is so while adhering to the general framework of the music set by Chinta Venkata Ramayya, the pitamaha of Yakshagana.

“In those days, we used to travel by bullock carts, carrying the props along, for performances in neighbouring villages. Sometimes, we even used to walk all the way. Very often we would be working in our farms till evening before going on stage,” reminisces Rattaiah Sarma.

“After every performance, we used to wait anxiously for the audience’s reaction. If our presentation fell short of expectations, we would go back and work towards improvement. The art was everything to us. Money and remuneration were not priorities,” asserts the guru.

The master traces how Kuchipudi Yakshagana made its way to the national scene. “Banda Kanakalingeswara Rao from All India Radio (and who was also with the Sangeet Natak Akademi) watched a performance and went back impressed. This was around the time that India became a Republic. Rao then invited us to perform in Delhi before Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad. We presented excerpts from ‘Bhama Kalapam’ and ‘Prahlada Charitram’. I was around 11 years at that time and I performed the ‘Balagopala tharangam’.”

When cinema came calling

With the ushering in of the era of movies, a lot of the senior artistes moved to Madras [Chennai] to act and choreograph in cinema. The Yakshagana scene in Kuchipudi became dull and there were few takers for it as a full-time profession with the rigours of practice and performance.

Simultaneously, the art form narrowed down to becoming more of a solo performance, with live dialogue and music taken away from the artiste and handled by the supporting orchestra. Traces of “cinematic style” also crept in.

So what does the master have to say about the Kuchipudi that is in vogue today? “I am not one to judge anything. I am 77 years old today and I have been performing since I was seven. I will demonstrate the way I have learned and known the art form. You are free to make the judgement yourself,” he says firmly.

The master artiste then gets hold of a key, strikes the rhythm with one hand on the table, with the other hand holding the mudras, singing beautifully, while the bhavas flit across his expressive face. One realises that it is a rare and blessed privilege to watch this legendary master in action.

“The Kuchipudi dance drama used to begin with a ‘Ganesha sthuthi’, followed by the ‘Amba paraku’ in praise of the goddess. ‘Ardhachandrika’ followed before the entry of the sutradhara, who introduced the play. The dwarakudu informed the audience of the entry of the main character, the dharavu, and the enactment of the whole play would ensue. The scenario would be interspersed with songs and dialogues rendered by the characters, spontaneous repartee by the sutradhara and so on.

“Solo items like the tharangam, shabdam, jathiswaram and thillana were interwoven as part of the sequence of the story. Techniques to intrigue the audience and keep the interest alive were part and parcel of the show. All this called for considerable skill and mastery from the part of the performers and needless to say they were complete artistes,” explains the septuagenarian.

Listening to the in-depth narration, one realises that it is a great legacy that is on the verge of oblivion.

Guru Rattaiah Sarma is keen on passing on the legacy and is now documenting, recording and writing down the oral tradition that is all fresh in his memory. Srilakshmi Govardhan, his student, has taken up this project, and hopes to keep the torch burning.

“I hope that students from Kerala will take this up seriously. I am willing to teach anyone who can dedicate themselves to the art,” Rattaiah Sarma says, in the spirit of a true guru.

Stepping into the heroine’s role

In traditional Kuchipudi Yakshagana, there were no women artistes. Men played the female roles as well. “There is nothing much to be commented on when a woman plays a female role. But when a man enacts the role with conviction, it is a true testament to his skill as an actor,” says Pasumarthi Rattaiah Sarma.

Devoted to devotion

The Yakshagana being a popular art form with elements of music, dance and drama, served the cause of enhancing devotion among the people, while keeping a tab on trends in society. While the stories had a religious theme with morals and values, the dialogues would be sprinkled with social comments and satire. The rise of this art also seems to have had a link with the Bhakti movement and helped resolve differences between Shaivites and Vaishnavites.

Dance drama

Siddendra Yogi, the disciple of Narayana Theertha who lived in the 17th century, is credited to have systemised the art form of Kuchipudi Yakshagana. It was he who organised the Brahmin families, taught them, and equipped them to stage regular performances. Among the many works that he authored, ‘Bhama Kalapam’ is by far the most famous, popular even to this day. Well-known works by other scholars include ‘Usha Parinayam’, ‘Golla Kalapam’, ‘Sasirekha Parinayam’, ‘Sri Krishnaleela Tharangam’, ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ and ‘Prahlada Charitram’ among others.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 2:13:02 AM |

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