Vedantam Satyanatrayana Sarma, whose alluring portrayal of female characters won him matchless fame far and wide, is the original ‘diva’ of Kuchipudi Yakshaganas. He was rage at the pinnacle of his performance career; when their troupe was touring with more than a 100 shows in a year. “After a performance, I would never remove my make up until the last visitor to the green room had left. Even while opening the door for a visitor in the green room, I would act coy and display a lot of attitude. It was a strategy to keep the admirers completely in awe of my persona; and extending the magic built up by my character on the stage,” smiled the maestro whom this writer met in the Kuchipudi village recently. The Master was cheerful and sang many daruvus explaining the nuances of Bhamakalapam and the female roles in Yakshaganas.
Born into a traditional Kuchipudi family, to Vedantam Venkataranam and Subbamma, on September 9,1935, Satyam was initiated into dance early. He was trained under the exacting supervision of his elder brother Vedantam Prahlada Sarma. He learnt music under Yeleswarapu Seetharamanjaneyulu in Kuchipudi and later under the famous vocalist and violinist, Sishta Brahmaiah Sastry in Machilipatnam. “In those days, we children were not allowed to sit idle. Either we had to learn dance or sit during classes and observe others dancing. We were pushed into performing some role or the other. For a long time, as a young boy, I did not know which role I was good at and what I wanted to do. We just did as our elders instructed.”
He started with the child roles of Lohitasya in Harischandra , Lava in Ramanatakam , etc. in Pasumarti Kondalarayudu’s troupe in which his brother played the lead female roles. He slowly graduated to secondary female roles. However, not much appreciation came his way. One day, when he was feeling exceptionally depressed over his failures, a man with a towering personality who seemed to have emerged from nowhere approached him. He put a hand on his shoulder and prophesised that from his 19th year, Satyam’s fortunes would reverse and he would achieve great fame. And true to the prophecy, in 1958 Satyam got an opportunity to play Parvati in UshaParinayam with Mahankali Sriramulu as Shiva in Delhi, at Sapru House. They found a set of Kailasa, ready on the stage, which was used by the previous group. This was nothing less than a divine intervention for Satyam’s group which could not afford such a grand set befitting their Yakshagana, otherwise. Satyam always felt that it was Siddhendra Yogi, the founder of Kuchipudi, himself who had blessed him with a wealth of talent and success.
He was the prima donna of the Venkatrama Natyamandali lead by Chinta Krishnamurthy and won many accolades for his female roles over the years. He played Usha in Usha Parinayam , Satyabhama in Bhamakalapam , Mohini in Mohini Rukmangada , Deva Devi in Vipra Narayana , Sasirekha in Sasirekha Parinayam , Gollabhama in Gollakalapam and every role was surpassed by the other. “I polished my roles by imbibing the mannerisms of women, which I learned by constant observation. Of course one has to be endowed with natural grace and charm. I chiselled the characters by lavishing attention to detail. My jada for Satyabhama varied from the jada, I used for Usha. I got anklets made of more than 40 tolas of silver to adorn my character,” explained Satyam. He spoke of how, he experimented with the smallest of the details like placement of a beauty spot on his face for his female characters. He would change its place often, till he was aesthetically pleased with its impact. At all times he was engrossed visualising his characters which would enable him to polish his portrayals further. His transformation into the female character began while donning the make up for the performance and lasted till, much after the performance had concluded. At times, so deep was the reverie that it took a reminder from someone, for him to come out of the character and be himself again.
He remembers that there were only two instances when he played a male role. One was when he played the role of Manmadha in the sequence of Girija Kalyanam in the film Rahasyam . He remembered with amusement that, it took him 15 days to give a shot which was satisfactory to the director, Vedantam Raghavaiah. His co actors teased him, “Why has this girl been chosen to play Manamadha?”
He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1961 and chosen a fellow of the Akademi in 1968; he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970. No award can truly befit the maestro Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, a rare gem who adorns the pantheon of the Kuchipudi stalwarts of all times.
In those days, children were not allowed to sit idle