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Kuchipudi, a pre-eminent Indian classical dance form counted among ten leading classical dance forms of India, is a dance-drama performance art that originated in a village of Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, India. Similar to all leading Indian classical dance forms, Kuchipudi too evolved as a religious art rooting back to the age-old Hindu Sanskrit text ‘Natya Shastra’ and connects traditionally with temples, spiritual faiths and travelling bards. This ancient dance form finds place in the 10th century copper inscriptions and in 15th century texts like ‘Machupalli Kaifat’. Traditionally it is regarded that the sanyassin of Advaita Vedanta sect, Tirtha Narayana Yati, and his disciple Siddhendra Yogi initiated, methodized and arranged the present day version of the dance form in 17th century. Usually performance repertoire of Kuchipudi that is broadly oriented on Lord Krishna and the tradition of Vaishnavism include an invocation, dharavu – short dance, nritta – pure dance and nritya – expressive dance respectively.
History & Evolution
The theoretical foundation of Kuchipudi is rooted back to the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts called ‘Natya Shastra’ which is accredited to Indian theatrologist and musicologist Bharata Muni. It is assumed that the full version of the text was first completed between 200 BCE to 200 CE, but such period also varies between 500 BCE and 500 CE. It incorporates verses in thousands that are structured in different chapters and divides dance in two distinct types that are ‘nrita’ that is pure technical dance and ‘nritya’ that is solo expressive dance. ‘Natya Shastra’, states Russian scholar Natalia Lidova, explicates various Indian classical dance theories including that of standing postures, bhava, rasa, basic steps, methods of acting, gestures and Tandava dance, which is associated with Lord Shiva. Bharata Muni not only mentions the Andhra region in this ancient text but also attributes an elegant movement called ‘Kaishiki vritti’ and a raga called ‘Andhri’ to this region. The raga that is associated with ‘Arsabhi’ and ‘Gandhari’ also finds place in several other Sanskrit texts dating back to the 1st millennium.
The 10th century copper inscriptions validate the existence of Shaivism associated dance drama performance acts called ‘Brahmana Melas’ or ‘Brahma Melas’ in regions of South India with Telugu speaking populace. Brahmins performed this art during the medieval era. Vaishnavism that traditionally include Bhakti music and dance dedicated to Lord Krishna and evolved during the 2nd millennium presumably embraced this art form. It developed in South India’s Tamil region as ‘Bhagavata Mela Nataka’ and in Andhra region as Kuchipudi. Saskia Kersenboom mentions that both ‘Bhagavata Mela Nataka’ and Kuchipudi are closely related to the traditional theatre form of Karnataka called ‘Yakshagana’ and also incorporate Carnatic music like the latter, however the three retain their uniqueness palpable from their varied costume, format, innovative ideas and perceptions. Again author Manohar Laxman Varadpande states that this form came up in the late 13th century during the reign of the Eastern Ganga dynasty of Kalinga, who patronized art forms based on works of famed Sanskrit poet Jayadeva, most notably the ‘Gita Govinda’. Such auspices of the monarch saw several dance-drama troupes and bards incorporating concepts based on Radha and Krishna in traditional Kuchipudi, which were locally called ‘Vaishnava Bhagavatulus’.
Tirtha Narayanayati, a composer of Carnatic music and a sanyasin of Advaita Vedanta (the oldest extant sub-school of Vedanta) and his orphan disciple Sidhyendra Yogi, a Telugu Brahmin, are accredited for initiating, methodizing and arranging the present day version of Kuchipudi in the 17th century. Narayanayati penned down a tarangini or a Sanskrit opera called ‘Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini’. The composition deals with the life of Lord Krishna from His childhood till His marriage to Rukmini and encompasses 12 Tarangams and includes 302 slokams, 153 songs and 31 choornikaas. Written as a libretto, this work apt for a dance drama has been performed by umpteen Indian classical dancers over the last two centuries. Sidhyendra Yogi followed his guru’s footsteps and wrote the play ‘Parijatapaharana’ also famous as ‘Bhama Kalapam’. Facing initial hardships in getting appropriate performers for his play he finally zeroed in on a group of young Brahmin boys belonging to wife’s family village Kuchelapuram and was also granted permission by villagers to execute the play once annually. It is from this village, which is also known as Kuchilapuri, that the dance form derived its name as Kuchipudi. American born dancer Ragini Devi mentioned that the name of the village was deduced from the Sanskrit word ‘Kusilava-puram’ meaning of which is "the village of actors".
Development & Decline in the Late Medieval Era
The dance form flourished in the 16th century under the auspices of the rulers of medieval era, which has been manifested by several copper inscriptions. The Vijayanagara Empire court records also indicate its performance at their royal court. However Islamic invasions, establishment of the Deccan Sultanates in the 16th century and a major military defeat of the Vijayanagara Empire at the hands of the Deccan sultanates in 1565 saw its decline. The political disturbances and wars also witnessed Muslim army demolishing temples and creating havoc in Deccan cities that lead many artists and musicians leave the place of whom around 500 families of Kuchipudi artists were given shelter by the Hindu king Achyutappa Nayak of the Tanjore kingdom. The king gave them lands to settle which developed to become the present day Melattur. As the art form withered in the 17th century the last Shia Muslim Nawab of Golkonda, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah impressed by its performance in 1678 aided the dancers in reviving the form by granting them land near the village of Kuchipudi (Kuchelapuram) on condition that they take forward this ancient dance form. However after Sunni Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb overpowered the Shia Sultanate in 1687, he ceased all non-Muslim practices ordering seizure and destruction of musical instruments and ban of music and dance performances in public.
Opposition & Ban During Colonial Rule
The art form somewhat revived following the demise of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the subsequent decline of the Mughal Empire. However emergence of rule of colonial officials of East India Company during the 18th century and establishment of the British colonial rule in the 19th century saw decline of various classical dance forms which were subjected to contemptuous fun and discouragement including Kuchipudi. Eventually the social stigma associated with nautch girls of north India and Devadasis of South India added with highly critical and despicable attitude from the Christian missionaries and British officials, who held them as harlots, disgraced such systems. Furthermore the Christian missionaries launched anti-dance movement in 1892 to stop such practice. The Madras Presidency under the British colonial government banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910. With this Kuchipudi that was performed conventionally during night time on a stage associated with a Hindu temple also saw its decline.
The Indian community disapproved such ban worrying that the rich and ancient custom of Hindu temple dancing was being persecuted on the pretext of social reform. As the Indian freedom movement progressed steadily during the early 20th century, an effort to revive Indian culture and tradition seethed with excitement among Indians. Many classical art revivalists questioned against such discrimination and joined hands between 1920 and 1950 in reviving the ancient classical dance forms. Among them Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri played an instrumental role in reviving and reconstructing Kuchipudi and also inspired women to tread this dance form. His guru Vempati Venkatanarayana Sastri also remained a central figure in preserving Kuchipudi. Chinta Venkataramayya, another stalwart popularised the dance form through public performances. Many Western artists who came to learn Indian classical dance forms became a part of the revival movement. One of them was American dancer Esther Sherman who came to India in 1930 and later adopted the name Ragini Devi.
The repertoire of Kuchipudi follows three performance categories namely ‘Nritta’ (Nirutham), ‘Nritya’ (Niruthiyam) and ‘Natya’ (Natyam) mentioned in ‘Natya Shastra’ and followed by all major Indian classical dance forms. ‘Nritta’ is a technical performance where the dancer presents pure dance movements giving stress on speed, form, pattern, range and rhythmic aspects without any form of enactment or interpretive aspects. In ‘Nritya’ the dancer-actor communicates a story, spiritual themes particularly on Lord Krishna through expressive gestures and slower body movements harmonised with musical notes thus engrossing the audience with the emotions and themes of the act. ‘Natyam’ is usually performed by a group or in some cases by a solo dancer who maintains certain body movements for specific characters of the play which is communicated through dance-acting.
While a male character wears dhoti, a female character wears a colourful sari that is stitched with a pleated cloth which opens like a hand fan when the dancer stretches or bends her legs while portraying spectacular footwork. Make-up is generally light complimented with traditional jewellery of the region which adorns her hair, nose, ear, arms and neck. A light metallic waist belt made of gold or brass adorns her waist while a leather anklet with small metallic bells called ghunghroo is wrapped on her ankles that produce rhythmic sounds while she performs brilliant footwork. Her hair is neatly braided and often beautified with flowers or done in tribhuvana style that depicts the three worlds. Her eye expressions are highlighted by outlining them with black collyrium. Sometimes special costumes and props are used for particular characters and plays, for example a peacock feathered crown adorns the dancer playing Lord Krishna.
Instruments & Music
The ensemble of a Kuchipudi performance includes a Sutradhara or Nattuvanar who is the conductor of the entire performance. He recites the musical syllables and uses cymbals to produce rhythmic beat. The story or spiritual message is sung either by the conductor or another vocalist or sometimes by the actor-dancers. The musical instruments usually include cymbals, mridangam, tambura, veena and flute.
Indrani Bajpai (Indrani Rahman), daughter of Ragini Devi, and Yamini Krishnamurti expanded this art through public performances outside Andhra that not only garnered new students in the art form but also made it widely popular both at national and international platforms. Other imminent Kuchipudi dancers include internationally famed dancing couple, Raja and Radha Reddy, their daughter Yamini Reddy; Kaushalya Reddy; Bhavana Reddy, daughter of Raja and Kaushalya Reddy; Lakshmi Narayn Shastri; and Swapana Sundari among others.