118 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
sunday reading
Sunday, December 27, 1998
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"Classical arts have maintained
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IF dance is considered to be a poetic expression of life's variegated moods, Kuchipudi performances of Raja and Radha Reddy, with their melodic gestures, evocative facial expressions and manifold rhythmic patterns, create them effortlessly. Their dance is unfolding of a world of ecstasy and ethereal existence. A perfect combination of lasya and tandava.

Raja Reddy, inspired by the Bhagvatam performers in his village, resolved to be a dancer at an early age. Slyly, he started taking part in dance dramas. When discovered, he was despatched to a taluka for studies. But nothing hampered his strong resolve. Married to his first cousin, Radha, who eventually also began to share his resolution, he found the possibility of his dream coming true when Guru Vedantam Prahlada Sharma accepted him as his disciple.

The duo, the only couple-dancer after Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar, with their vibrant and versatile stage presence earned a lot of popularity after a few performances both among the common people and the connoisseurs. Today, they have carved a distinctive niche for themselves as incomparable stylists. Having given a new dimension to the age-old art of Kuchipudi, they are instrumental in elevating this dance form to its present status. They perform each item with rare excellence and technical perfection. While retaining traditional grace and subtlety of Kuchipudi dance form, Raja and Radha Reddy have given this dance form vigour and range of a ballet. In interpreting Kuchipudi into its modern, full-length recital form, they have not sacrificed any of its traditional poetry and dramatic sensibility.

Together, Raja and Radha represent lasya and tandava, the twin pillars on which the edifice of Indian dance rests. Radha’s femininity with all its lyrical charm and softness combined with Raja’s vigour and masculine power portrays a sense of identity with classical characters from Hindu mythology like Shiva and Parvati, Rama and Sita, Krishna and Radh-- a revelation of the twin concepts of Prakriti and Purusha.

The couple has popularised Kuchipudi dance form not only in India but across the globe. Having performed in the USA,the UK, Japan, South Africa, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, South - East Asia, Cuba, and Bangladesh, they are now recognised as the cultural ambassadors of the country. Recipients of the Padma Shree Award in 1984, they were honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademy Award in 1991 for their contribution to Indian classical dance. The couple maintains the tradition of the guru shishya parampara by teaching Kuchipudi in a more systematised manner to promising young students in a beautiful mandapan they have constructed in the backyard of their Kaka Nagar house in Delhi called ‘Natya Tarangini’. In an exclusive interview with Vandana Shukla, Raja Reddy along with his two wives -- Radha and Kaushalya -- delineates the finer nuances of Kuchipudi dance form as compared to Bharatnatyam and the sensitivity of relationships in his personal life.

Reddys are supposed to be rich landlords from the South. How is that both you and Radha decided to become dancers?

Yes, the Reddys are rich landlords but we are not. We are Kshatriyas and we are not supposed to dance and sing. In fact, my family was made an outcaste when the village folk learnt about my being a dancer.

I belong to a very small village in Telangana region and, since my childhood, I had a great fascination for Bhagvatam. The Bhagvatam performers narrate mythological tales in dance form for three to four nights at a stretch. Their performance has a very strong impact. It has a lot of drama, rhythm and movement. Bhagvatam got into my system and I wanted to be a dancer. I started enacting small parts without my father’s knowledge. When discovered I was sent to taluka for studies.

There I was exposed to cinema. I saw Nagin seventeen times. Vaijayantimala’s dance strengthened my passion for dance. Then I went to Hyderabad for my pre-university course. There I saw the performance of Uday Shankar, and once again I resolved that I will only be a dancer. Uday Shankar’s dance had mesmerised me.

I joined a music college and learnt Kathak for two years there. All my visits to great gurus of Kuchipudi turned futile. They did not accept me as their discipline as they found me too dark and masculine to be a dancer. Then, there was the caste factor. I was not a Brahmin. Most gurus are Brahmins.

Radha and I are first cousins. We were married when she was five and I was 11. While I was learning Kathak, Radha used to watch me dance and in my absence she used to imitate me. When I decided to learn dance, she supported my decision. She was also keen to learn. So, finally when I approached my guru Natyacharya Vedantam Prahlada Sharma, he accepted us and decided to teach all the feminine items, with lasya to Radha and masculine items with tandava to me. My guru was from the traditional village of Bhagvatam, or what we call Kuchipudi Yakshaganam.

I went to Kalakshetram at Eluru and learnt Kuchipudi dance for three years. Then we came to Delhi on a scholarship from the Andhra government to learn choreography. Initially, it was difficult to get programmes. The Tamil Nadu Sabha gave us a break. Then Dr Karan Singh saw us perform and recommended us for programmes. Thereafter, there was no looking back. Initially I used to dance with Indrani Rehman but it did not last long. Then Radha and I used to practice for 8 to 12 hours daily. We worked very hard to perfect our performances.

How is Kuchipudi different from Bharatnatyam? What are its special features?

Kuchipudi is basically a dance drama of Nritta, Nritya and Natya. The Nritta consists of teermanams and Jatis the Nritya of Sabdams, and the Natya of acting with mudras for the songs. Kuchipudi is a complete dance drama as conceived by Bharata Muni in Natya Shatra.

The Kuchipudi dancer is a multiple person on stage. The multiplicity is accomplished by the swift change of mime. There is dynamism of movement and emotion. Unlike Bharatnatyam there is vachikam in Kuchipudi. That means speech is combined with mime and pure dance. In Bharatnatyam it is a third person narrative, but here the dancer is the narrator.

Do you have some young students keen to learn this intricate classical art? Are they committed and sincere?

Yes, I have many students, sincere and willing. In fact, many of them are Punjabis. Before I accept a student, I see him/her dance for about a month. I do not accept students who are looking for short-cuts to stage performances. Because without developing an understanding of the language and the literature, they cannot enact. One has to meditate on the concepts of Shiva, Krishna. One has to develop a deep understanding of these characters.

How do you synchronise your dance with Radha? What are your individual strengths and weaknesses?

Radha is very hard working. For the first two years I used to dance with Indrani Rehman. Radha would get small roles but in those small roles she was noticed and received good reviews. Her abhinay had been very natural from the beginning. I used to get conscious of my expression but her expression would always be perfect and natural.

At the personal level, artistic aspirations are aimed at spiritual growth. How does art become relevant for social growth?

Art follows philosophy. It transports you to a different, higher world. But it also gives a message. The stories show how to live in relation to society. Most mythological tales aim towards purification of the human mind. Ashtapadi is full of devotional aspect. There is a message for the Lokbhakta. In Bhama Kalpam, Rukmani provides a broader outlook of life to Satyabhama, who was very proud of money and beauty. Krishna says that unless you are out of pride and ego, you are not worthy of love. Mahabharata relates more to modern life. The consequences of breeding greed are seen everywhere around in today’s world. These stories teach how important it is to correct oneself, how important it is to surrender to divinity. Fine arts purify the self.

How do you strike a balance between the pure art form and the popular stance of art?

I can’t change the steps I learnt from my guru, but how to use those steps can be important. The training in choreography helped me a lot in this regard. Maya Rao taught us how to make use of the stage. The entrance, the exit, the beginning and the climax are significant in today’s concept of dance.

What have you done to popularise this dance form in northern India?

After our successful tour of France for Avignon Festival we decided to stay back in Delhi to popularise our art in the northern region. Before us, only Indrani Rehman and Yamini Krishnamurti used to do a few pieces in Kuchipudi along with Bharatnatyam. To promote and popularise this dance form we conducted lecture-demonstrations, produced many dance dramas and we continue to teach many students at home. After retirement we plan to start an institution on the line of guru shishya parampara. Many students from the U.S.A. and other countries are very keen to come here and learn dance.

Do you think the government can do more to preserve our heritage?

Yes. Arranging festivals of India is good but I think it would be better if the government could invite the best people from all art forms and work out a programme for promotion of art. Abroad, people know India only for its art and culture. We have our distinct identity only on the strength of our classical arts. The ICCR should see that traditional arts should not die, security should be offered to the artiste. In the South, there is so much to be preserved but good things are dying. My guru’s sons are bus conductors and others are doing such odd jobs. With traditional means of livelihood disappearing, how can they sustain art?

Despite having a dance companion like Radha, why did you feel the need to marry again? And that, too, to Radha’s sister?

Radha is from a village. When we came here she used to feel very lonely. So she got her sister from the village when Kaushalya was only four. Since then she has been with us. In 1979, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations asked us to tour South East Asia. Our preparations were on when at the 11th hour our natvanar backed out, saying he was accompanying some other dancer to Europe. We were in a fix. Kaushalya was around 13-14 then. We decided to give her a try. She did well, and after a few performances she became a master natvanar. She decided to devote her life only to dance. Nobody could dissuade her. There was not much resistance. Radha’s grandfather also had two wives. It is quite common there.

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