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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Vempati China Satyam: The Kuchipudi Dance Maestro

Peeking  into the history of this intense and dramatic universe, one often ends up wondering: Is it out of abject poverty alone that stunning creativity flowers?  A Homer-like literary genius emerges?   

Is it that indignation alone can ignite the pursuit of mastery over artistry? Great characters, like Chanakya, get shaped? Is it that paskho, and penthos a must for owning creativity?

Is it that mastery over the art born only from the struggle between the ‘light’ and the ‘darkness’—struggle between despair and hope?  

That’s what indeed appears to be, when one looks at the journey of Vempati China Satyam—the Maestro of Kuchipudi dance, who passed away peacefully in Chennai on July 29. 

When China Satyam—having born into a family of dancers at Kuchipudi village in Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh, the very birth place of Kuchipudi dance form, on October 15, 1929, and having lost his father at the age of nine, as his mother was struggling to manage the family consisting of four daughters, besides China Satyam and herself—true to the family tradition went to learn dance from a guru in the village, who incidentally, happened to be a relative of him, he turned him away saying: “Your face isn’t suitable for dance,  go and learn some other profession to eke out a living.” But to his fortune, the dejected lad was picked up by another guru in the village, Tadepalli Papayya Sastry, who started teaching him dancing. 

Yet the streak of dejection that he suffered from the indignation heaped upon him by his relative-cum-Guru of dance at that age of innocence continued to haunt him till at least he attained the age of eighteen. As the quirk of fate would have it, at that point of life, he could unshackle himself from the past, and look at the future with a newfound hope, aspiration for something yet not clearly defined, but sure he was, that he must do something anew in the dance form that his village is known for. It was then he recalled the names of his relatives, Vedantam Raghavaiah and Vempati Peda Satyam, who by then had settled in the cinema-field in Madras.  He at once decided to go to Madras and try is luck there.  

At the age of eighteen, Chinna Satyam left his village and reportedly walked all the way to Madras—a distance of more than 350 miles—and joined his cousin, Vempati Peda Satyam. But Peda Satyam was not in a position to really help him out. Nor did he have time to quench the thirst of China Satyam for mastering Kuchpudi dance. Inspired by the dance performance of Kamala Lakshman, and aspiring to acquire such perfection in his dance form, Kuchipudi, China Satyam started searching for a suitable Guru. That landed him at the doorsteps of Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry, a known exponent of ‘Abhinayam’, the art of expression and by then a recognized renaissance teacher of Kuchipudi dance. 

Encouraged by Sastry garu, China Satyam practiced the dance with more devotion. Simultaneously, he started reading ShastrasNatyashastra of Bharatamuni, Natyavedam by Jammalamadaka, Abhinayadarpanam, etc.—to learn the finer aspects of dance. 

Meanwhile, to earn means to keep his body and soul together, China Satyam, working as an assistant to Vempati Peda Satyam and Vedantam Raghavaiah, choreographed dance for many songs in Telugu films. Later, choreographing dances for the film, Parvatikalyanam, independently, he earned appreciation from the cine-pundits. 

In 1957, at the recommendation of BN Reddy, Viswodaya College, Kavali, approached China Satyam to help their students present a dance program. He choreographed the dance-drama, Srikrishnaparijatam, penned by Bhujangaraya Sarma, a lecturer of that college. Then in 1961, in association with the same Bhujangaraya Sarma as scriptwriter and Sangeeta Rao as music director, he presented Ravindranath Tagore’s Chandalika as a dance-drama in Telugu. In 1962, he choreographed the Rupakam, Ksheerasagaramadhanam penned by Krishna Sastry and it won many laurels. 

And, that’s it: there was no looking back since then. In 1963, he established the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Madras with 40 students. It grew in strength over the years. Being a teacher rooted deeply in Shastras, with a perfect knowledge of Laya and Tala, capable of singing and being innovative, and above all being able to teach in a way that motivates learners to learn, he produced many dancers of excellence in Kuchipudi art form, notable among them being: Shobha Naidu, Hema Malini, Jaya Lalitha, Bala, Padma, Prabha, Manju Bhargavi, etc.  

Moving away from the tradition of no solo performance in Kuchipudi dance, China Satyam, with his creativity and innovation, transgressing the boundaries defined by the traditionalists, composed and choreographed more than 180 solo items. In association with writer, Bhujangaraya Sarma and music director, Sangeeta Rao, he had also choreographed 15 dance-dramas. Suffice to say that over a period  Vempati China Satyam garu, with his relentless efforts, had become an institution by himself.

As an innovator par excellence, he took Kuchipudi dance to the world-stage. And having carved a permanent place for it in the world of arts and thus having fulfilled his childhood mission of reforming and rehabilitating "the rustic, robust and  yet the lively  form" of Kuchipudi dance that he had inherited into a classical form which today's viewers can appreciate , China Satyam garu, withdrawing himself from the center stage, has gone to his heavenly abode.   


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