Tribute to Kuchipudi’s unsung hero

Kuchipudi guru and author Munukuntla Sambasiva who died after testing positive for COVID-19 on July 10  

Clad in a khadi kurta and sporting a sling bag full of books, Munukuntla Sambasiva stood out among the galaxy of artistes at dance performances. The dancer, guru and author passed away recently after contracting COVID-19. He was 59.

Says Kuchipudi artiste Deepika Reddy, “He made it a point to watch performances of artistes from Andhra Pradesh and outside. He would also give me feedback after my shows, especially those based on themes with a contemporary resonance. His last voice message to me where he appreciated my video tribute to COVID-19 healthcare workers is still on my phone.”

Tribute to Kuchipudi’s unsung hero

Recalls dancer-scholar Prof. Anuradha Jonnalagadda, “Sambasiva treated both young learners and veterans with respect. His warmth and gentleness endeared him to all.”

Sambasiva was the first generation dancer in his family and probably the last. According to his daughter Keerthi, neither she nor her younger sister Jayanthi showed any interest in learning from their father. However, reassuringly, the dance institute, Nishumbita Natya Jnanapeet, started by Sambasiva at Esamia Bazar in Hyderabad, where he trained thousands of students, will now be run by Jayanthi.

Early life

Born in a suburb of Warangal district in Telangana on June 1, 1961, Sambasiva did his schooling at Zilla Parishad High School, Hayathnagar, and graduated from a private college in Hyderabad. He trained in Kuchipudi under the legendary Vempati Chinna Satyam. He helped many artistes become accomplished performers and took keen interest in their research for dance productions.

Tribute to Kuchipudi’s unsung hero

Sambasiva was so passionate about dance that he continuously collected and collated material around it and wrote many articles. “My association with Sambasiva began in the early 1980s when I was a student at Kuchipudi Art Academy, Hyderabad. Later, in the 1990s, when I was doing my Ph.D, we would have long discussions on different aspects of the dance form,” recalls Anuradha.

Tribute to Kuchipudi’s unsung hero

His books on Kuchipudi, points out Deepika, are extremely helpful to young dancers, with their diagrams and detailed theory lessons. Kuchipudi dancer and researcher Himabindu says, “I will always be indebted to him for his support. When I was doing myPh.D, he accompanied me to Hampi to study the sculptures. I remember how we walked in the scorching heat searching for dance sculptures.”

His first book Kuchipudi Natyamanjari, in Telugu, was one of the first to describe the technical elements of dance, different dance forms of India, carry biographies of the major composers whose songs are used in dance, especially Kuchipudi, and to define the basics of Kuchipudi. “His book, Gateway to Kuchipudi, published in 2010, shows the intensity of his work. He artist friend Ramakrishna would make the illustrations of the hastas and sketches of the body movements. For example, if the hasta is Suchi, the hand is sketched and also the corresponding image of a needle is given, to illustrate how the hasta is held to look like a needle. It was not easy for him to work on the book since he didn’t have enough resources. But his passion drove him on. He strongly believed the book would be a great source of knowledge for young dancers and gurus of Kuchipudi. His belief in the book came true. The book proved to be a turning point in his life and in the last decade, I saw Sambasiva gain recognition as a scholar and guru,” says Anuradha.

Dancer Sasikala Penumarthi, who runs the Academy of Kuchipudi Dance in Atlanta, says, “Sambasiva dedicated his life to this art and to Siva, considered the god of dance. He dedicated the book Gateway to Kuchipudi to me. I am very grateful to him for that. Written in a simple language, I use this book as reference material for my courses at Emory University.”

In the 25 years that she knew him, Deepika says Sambasiva’s biggest contribution to Kuchipudi was his selflessness. “He was a collector of old books. He’d get them to gift them to artistes. He was always there at our shows. I can never forget his smile, positivity and humility. I have had many conversations with him as he could discuss the many nuances of choreography.”

Despite his enormous scholarship and talent, Anuradha believes Sambasiva left the world an unsung hero. “We hope he will be recognised posthumously at least.”

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 12:53:02 PM |

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