The distinction of internationally renowned Kuchipudi dancer and guru, M. Venkateswara Rao as an outstanding performer and dance communicator lies in his record of 3, 900 presentations of the challenging role of Ardhanareeswaram, bringing into limelight this significant role in the Yakshanagana format through his own creative skills and innovative style. Holder of eight world records for Ardhanareeswaram, the pioneering 43-year-old performer and researcher from Hyderabad is the recipient of Siddhendrayogi Award instituted by the Andhra Pradesh Government, Simhatalatam (lion-headed golden bracelet, an age-old symbol of highest honour) Kanakabhishekam, Garuda Puraskar by TTD, Tirumala and many more for his significant contribution to the Kuchipudi tradition through numerous publications, thematic solos like Kelikas, Simhanandini apart from his signature Ardhanareeswaram (with which his name has become synonymous). The director, principal and Guru of Nrutya Darpana mesmerised the audience at the Aekalavya Samman Festival in Bhubaneswar recently with his spellbinding performance after which he had an enriching discussion on the dance form:
Excerpts from an interview...
Can you please talk about your training?
Actually I started with Guru Korada Narasimha Rao at Elluru near Kuchipudi village. Then I went to Chinta Adi Narayan Sarma for Vempati Chinna Satyam style. Now I do all items purely of Guru Vempati’s style only. I did not learn from him directly. I am a ‘prashishya’, as I could not stay in Madras and learn. For MA dance I was under the guidance of Uma Rama Rao and M. Phil was on the comparative study of Puttaparti Narayanacharya Shivatandavam and Natya Shastra. After that Ph.D. was from the Delhi University on the comparative studies of Kuchipudi and Pagaativeshas with specialisation in Ardhanareeswaram. It was in Telugu.
It is purely Yakshagana style adopted from Pagaativesham. The footwork is also traditional. I have not modified anything. Now we have four-five different styles in Kuchipudi. One is traditional style of Kuchipudi village, the Chinta Krishnamurty style which was modified and stylised by Vempati Chinna Satyam. Then the Uma Rama Rao style is Kaishikibritti where there is almost fully lasya. Then my master Korada Narasimharao’s style which is very old traditional Kuchipudi which he had learnt from C.R. Acharya from Ahmedabad. In Korada style, 78-80 per cent is Tandava and Roudra, almost no lasya is there. My solos are Vempati style and only Ardhanareesawaram is old Yakshagana style.
Then how do you perform natyas like Bhamakalapam?
I never perform Bhamakalapam, I never do a lady character. My personality and physique does not permit me to do so. My face is also very rough. Who will see a muscled man as a woman? (laughs heartily). Only the female principle as Parvati in Ardhanareeswaram I do, but with a lot of care in dressing and performing in the lasya style, very sincerely. This much is okay. Nowadays none will want to see a man in female roles! Korada used to perform Bhamakalapam, but a little differently in an absolutely male oriented style, with no lasya at all.
You claim Ardhanareeswaram has been revived from the verge of extinction. How?
According to Natya Shastra, we have Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi. Kuchipudi and Karnataka Yakshagana are Lokadharmi. Yakshagana is a group performance and is drama oriented. Kuchipudi is not a nrityam but a natyam. It has episodes, should have a mythological background and group characterisation of about 20 members. In the forties, Chintamurthy garu made it into solo dances, Beschiya nrityam. From there Kuchipudi became Nrityam. Before this it was Natyam. Actually Adharaeeswaram was in the folk format and not fixed in the tala system like Bharatanatyam. There were dialogues in between the performances like when Shiva comes he says, ‘Ye Parvati yevate yetachau?’or the song ‘Yumakesha Nidu nidu momo sadamaye mungurulu, mungurulu ama’(not in tala). The performers go from door to door and talk to the people. My guru Korada and me took the literature and fixed up in the musical scale and set to ragas and talas and also composed the last jatis as you have seen in today’s performance and brought it from folk to classical from the street to the stage.
We changed the dress also because earlier Ardhanareeswaram costume used a big cloth tied from one foot through the back covering the body till the other foot. So Shiva used to come after the cloth was removed off Parvati. We cannot do that on stage. So we use a small veil from the middle of the face vertically downwards and the performance is continuous.
Wonderfully effective indeed in changing the images...
Yes, within a fraction of a second we can change from Shiva to Parvati.
Why did you specially concentrate on Ardhanareeswaram?
Because from childhood my mother wanted this son to become a Kuchipudi Yakshaga. She wanted me to be a great dancer conferred with Padmabhushan or so! Actually Ardhanareeswara was not my idea. My mother went on searching and finding out what special I should do in Kuchipudi. I did my work in dance but she wanted me to perform Ardhanareeswaram. She is the one who decides my costume and still at 81, stitches my dress. I generally wear my brand of parrot green and orange. Till now she is totally involved in the work of dance.
Was she a dancer?
No. We are a family of seven brothers and four sisters and I am the only artist, but they all support me whole-heartedly and my parents are very caring about my art and are totally involved in it.
What difficulties do you face as a male dancer?
So many! I am the leading male dancer in Kuchipudi but still don’t get programmes because no aesthetic beauty is there in the male dancer. I only bring out that male beauty in my performances. Mostly male Kuchipudi dancers perform in streevesham! Initially so many people discouraged me, saying your face is rough and the body is not suitable for dance! But I have ignored it, struggled and survived with the Ardhanareeswaram being Venkat’s stamp. Also I am supported well by scholarships and salary grants by the Government. There are many resources which people do not know. I teach in my school.