Tradition, transition and transformation

What happens when a traditional art form is moved out of its context and projected on the urban proscenium before a suave audience not much in tune with its roots? Should it retain its robust and down to earth regional flavour or should it be “refined” and enabled to acquire a sophisticated sheen to cater to the tastes of national and international audiences? How much and what kind of change is permissible in an art form to prevent it from losing its identity? Who decides and who accepts? I am reminded of the seminar on ‘Tradition, Transition and Transformation’ in Kuchipudi organised last year by Saila Sudha on the eve of its 20th anniversary in Chennai. It was the first Kuchipudi seminar held in Chennai, probably in TamilNadu.

All these questions which plague the rasika came to the fore as we listened to the deliberations and watched the presentations at the two-day confest. The questions continue to bother you. The seminar did not directly address the above questions but the structure of the proceedings helped to highlight them. The inaugural session had the dignitaries and the convenor Sailaja (founder-director Saila Sudha) explaining evolving traditions, the history of Kuchipudi, and the role of pioneers like Siddhendra Yogi, Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry, Vempati Chinna Satyam and trendsetters like Yamini Krishnamurti (keynote speaker). Yamini said, “The three ‘Ts’ – tradition, transition and transformation – are integral to the creative arts, but one needs a lot of courage to bring about transformation.” You concur as almost all the classical dance forms have gone through a phase Should the art change to please the audience or should the audience equip itself to appreciate the art? Aesthetic values too change with time and place. Even as change overtakes the art, should we simultaneously try to retain and save portions of it as “period art”?

In the seminar, the lecdems and performances by artists from traditional Koochipoodi families drew attention to the rustic vitality and robustness of the art form which at times was overwhelming. Their colourful make-up, costumes and jewellery seemed loud under the modern spotlights on stage. Should the aharya become sophisticated to suit the stage lights, should the robust music and vachika be toned down to suit the sound system inside the halls, or should we find venues more suitable to veedhi nataka-s, we ask ourselves. Even in the case of Bhagavata Mela natakam-s, the performance space does make a difference. Over the years, I have seen the natakam-s staged at different venues in Chennai. Most suited to the ethos of the Bhagavata Mela was the mandapa in the Kapaliswarar temple in Mylapore – amidst the stone pillars, with the lights and shadows in the temple adding an aura to the characters, as the devotees sat around the performance space. It was a moving experience. The hall of the Anantapadmanabha Swami temple seemed to suit the tenor of the natakam-s better than the more sophisticated auditoria in the metropolis.

More discussions on the state of the art are welcome as they highlight the process of transition and transformation of the art forms. In the above seminar we also had a rare opportunity of watching Bhagavatula Seturam present some of the traditional adavu-s of Kuchipudi with the help of his well trained students Rohini Prasad and Lata who demonstrated some of them in four speeds. Yamini Krishnamurti, Sailaja and Anupama Kylash underlined a number of changes brought about by Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry and Vempati Chinna Satyam in Kuchipudi – how it has evolved from a dancedrama/ group idiom into a solo classical dance form with items sculpted out of the components of dance-dramas; how it has come out of a brahmin male preserve where men donned the stree vesham, but has now become very popular among women across the globe, which in turn has made it more glamorous and sometimes even cinematic. You even have Kuchipudi on roller skates!

Their expositions brought back memorable moments from Kuchipudi performances enjoyed over the years – of Vedantam Satyanarayana as the tall and stately Satyabhama, Korada Narasimha Rao as Bhasmasura, of “reconstruction” (if we can call it that) necessitated by circumstances. The reconstruction has generally been brought about by a group of authoritative individuals which may have included practitioners, teachers, scholars, writers and patrons of the art. “For any art form, transition continues to happen, enriching the art, making it attractive for contemporary audiences,” said Yamini. Vijayanthi Kashi put forth the view that changes were brought about in the performing arts through the imagination of great guru-s, their ability to shape presentations to current audiences without diluting the basic tenets. We have now moved from the age of great guru-s steeped in tradition to an era of dance teachers born and brought up in an urban milieu.

The depth of their understanding of the basic tenets of the art form and its rich tradition will surely have an impact on the quality of the art transmitted. Does change always enrich art? In fact, on the second day Sonal Mansingh pointed out that “In tradition or parampara, change is a continuous thing. It shouldn’t be forgotten that this eternal movement is not always to the front; sometimes it is to a side, sometimes oblique.” This leads us to the question: How much transformation is called for to make it attractive to contemporary audiences? Yamini Krishnamurti’s dynamic dance, Vempati Chinna Satyam’s expansive angika in his lecdems, of Raja-Radha Reddy’s personification of the purusha-prakriti pair, Swapnasundari’s mastery in song, dialogue and abhinaya in Bhama Kalapam, Mallika Sarabhai’s virtuosity in balancing brass pots and burning lamps as she danced on the brass plate, Vasanthalakshmi’s Simhanandana nrityam, and Sobha Naidu’s pancha nadai in the tarangam.

The Kuchipudi repertoire of songs and dance items has expanded from mythology to include novel themes, even. New dance-dramas are devised with a polished sheen in different languages like Tamil and Hindi. Prose dialogues have given way to poems set to melodious tunes. Kuchipudi music has undergone a change, incorporating a host of raga-s like Hamsanandi, Pahadi and Dwijavanti, not traditionally in vogue. Noteworthy are the contributions of music composers like B. Rajanikantha Rao, P. Sangeetha Rao and the late B. Gopalam. On the one hand, you have vachika in the form of Bhama Kalapam and Golla Kalapam, and on the other, English dialogues woven into the body of the

presentation. Nataraja Ramakrishna is propagating Andhra Natyam, and Swapnasundari Vilasini Natyam. Scholars like Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao and the late Dr. Arudra have helped Kuchipudi dancers understand the texts and lyrics better and brought them closer to the theory of the dance form. Urbanisation, reconstruction and the need to propagate the arts have often led to their institutionalisation and standardisation – which like everything else have their advantages and disadvantages. The teaching methodology has also moved from the time-honoured practices of traditional families to formal institutional teaching with modules introduced in a few universities in Andhra Pradesh. Some practitioners and Kuchipudi scholars like Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao are of the view that we do not find many of the basic salient features of Kuchipudi in today’s performances. According to them:

  • There are not many male dancers enacting female roles.
  • There is hardly any dialogue in the dance-dramas any more.
  • They have moved away from the ‘Yakshagana’ literary format they originally adhered to in which there was abundant scope for kandartham-s, seesartham-s, poems and dialogue and have adopted the present day dance drama format.
  • Music and orchestration have changed beyond their original flavour. The style and form of language used in the lyrics have also changed. Although there are changes in the aharya, it by and large continues to be faithful to the original form.
  • Now there are more freelance musicians who are not exclusive Kuchipudi vocalists. Most of them do not have special training to sing for Kuchipudi dance-dramas.
  • The original flavour and expertise are missing in the nattuvangam.

Changes are bound to occur as tradition is a dynamic stream. To quote Sonal Mansingh “Transition is a process, a journey, and not the goal. It is tangible, perceptible. Transformation, on the other hand, is more ingrained, it can be felt and experienced.” The Kuchipudi tradition, or for that matter any dance or art form is dynamic, it is in transition, and has been transformed from time to time.

Every step in transition may or may not be conducive to the art form. In the process, it can be transformed into something beautiful or it can lose its identity and become unrecognisable, with only remnants of its original form. In the face of changes in each art form, and with lines between different art forms blurring and becoming more and more porous, what is it that defines the identity of an art form? If it sprouts an offshoot or gets transformed anew, should we then rechristen them – call them by another name?

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