It was midmorning. The balmy easterly breeze was blowing soothingly with the fragrances of musk sandalwood and camphor picked up from the Varadaraja Perumal temple. A play by a group of street minstrels in the middle of West Mada Street came to an abrupt halt. The crowd around them dispersed, all at once, when the brass drum announced the arrival of some important personage. People lined up on both sides to catch a glimpse of whoever it was.
A boy of fourteen or so in the guise of Sita was shoved into their midst along with his troupe. He was enacting a scene from Sundara Kanda, a dialogue between the abducted heroine and the ten-headed villain, an involved performance. First he was confused and then his confusion had turned into impotent anger as he stared sullenly at the cause of the interruption.
It was an impressive procession, the drummer was followed by heralds with ten-foot long batons topped with golden knobs, and two elaborately outfitted men in turbans held a white umbrella, sure signs of high position. A group of beautifully decked up danseuses floated in, complementing the sound of their ankle-bells to the auspicious tunes of Nadaswaram and Mridangam. The boy watched the pomp as an open palanquin came into view flanked by maids with ceremonial fans made of yak-hairs. ‘This must be a king or a prince,’ he thought, and then the heralds announced his name…
Hear ho hear
The King of Poets is on his way
Shining Bright like the Glory of Sun
Ankle Bell of the Cosmic Dancer
Knower of the Secrets of Mother Divine
Beloved of the Cowherd of Muvva,
Kshetrajna Varadaraja Bhagavatar
Hear ho hear
The boy’s jaw dropped just for a moment, how can a Bhagavatar be so rich?
Quickly he resumed his earlier posture in keeping with his guise of Sita who is an Uttama Nayika, but the attitude of a Khandita an angry and defiant heroine remained on his face, two mutually contradictory emotions merged into one, something that came so naturally to him, even though he was still a novice, yet to qualify to perform on stage. Then he saw the man in the palanquin reclining against down filled cushions, his face aglow with some kind of divine radiance as though the Goddess of Learning was dancing in his eyes, and…
Kshetrayya also had noticed the group of minstrels in the crowd and the moment he saw the boy… he knew who he was. He had not seen him before. But his build, his stance and the facial features made it plain to him.
The boy reminded him of his native village Kuchipudi and more so of himself when he was still a child, learning the ropes of music and dance, from his teacher, traveling from town to town, singing and dancing in streets during the day and on stage in the evenings, at temples and the courtyards of benevolent patrons, earning a pittance. But his teacher had always claimed that it was enough to keep the tradition alive, just about enough to feed and clothe the families.
Kshetrayya, he was called Varadarajulu then, was too ambitious and his faith in his talent as a poet was as strong as his devotion to his favorite god, Gopala of Muvva. His teacher’s strict adherence to the antiquated rules of poverty was abhorrent to him. The rich lifestyles of those who followed the temple and court traditions held him in thrall. More, he believed that the body of the divine feminine as the only medium to express his overwhelming desire for union with the ultimate. Finally when his teacher had asked him to don the role of Satyabhama, he rebelled.
Today, it was this desire of the self, expressed in different moods and attitudes of his Nayika, for a romantic union with the ultimate, symbolized by Muvva Gopala; the theme of thousands of his ‘Padams’ popular across the temples and courts of South India. Among his patrons were some of the greatest courtesans of the country and such royal houses as Madura and Tanjore, and even the Sultan Ibrahim of Golconda.
Had he not rebelled that day…, he surmised presently, he would have been one among those Pagati Veshagallu, cowered among the crowd in the hot sun, with the paint on their faces running in their own sweat. His thoughts composed themselves, in the true style of Kalapam, into a question he addressed at the boy…
Why Sita Bhamini…
You shun the luxury of palace mine?
Cower here under the hot sun, whose
Rays pierce the tender skin of thine?
The boy saw the palanquin stop and there is something very familiar in the way the great poet was looking at him. Then the question was sung out, it was a clear invitation for a dialogue in dance. He was trained enough by his guru to know how a Kalapam, is played out, it’s like a challenge for a duel and being an unqualified learner still, he was not honor bound to accept it. But … he looked around at the members of his troupe for encouragement, which was immediately forthcoming. And he stepped out into the middle of the street composing a repartee…
I’m Sita dutiful wife
My place is in Sun, Abode of my lord
Son of Dasaratha, Of the Solar Line
Your eyes are closed to see His light
Enveloped by Tamas, You call it a palace?
It was an impressive performance, extempore, to the rhythms of percussion. Kshetrayya knew at once that he had found his match. Now it was his turn to join the duel in all earnestness as the boy had ended his piece with his hands making a Shikara Mudra, a sign of challenge. He stepped down from the palanquin and took stance.
Desires and Passion, Wiles and Temper
Essence of Thy nature, He pays no heed
No unguents to sooth thy parched lip
No rouge to glaze thy velvet cheek
No musk to sponge thy gazelle neck
No silks caress thy smothered breast
Duty you say, O’ beautiful dame?
To a man who’s no man at all?
Kshetrayya’s conviction that the women are more suited for the art of Abhinaya, showed in every word he sang. To him the feminine body is divine like a temple of god, to be worshipped, cared for and never to be neglected. And, the rule of excluding women, who are more suited to present the nuances, and taking in only boys for training, is unreasonable and even unmanly. Now, he was eager to see the boy’s response to the deliberate slur on his manliness.
‘Yes,’ the boy began…
My man is a Man who’s no man at all
Man among men, He’s Purushottama
The Means of Man are pursued in four
Dharma Artha Kama and Moksha
The first is Root and the last the Goal
Riches and pleasures may take you far
Like a kite that drifts without line
Kshetrayya was stunned by the words that pierced the depths of his heart as the boy continued…
Fall at the feet of my Lord your Master
Before His arrows make you Realize
By now Kshetrayya was overwhelmed by guilt of forsaking his legacy. He fell on his knees. His eyes blurred by tears, he drew the boy to him in a desperate hug and asked him, ‘Where’s your grandfather and my guru?’
The boy was smothered by conflicting emotions, he knew he had won but the shock was too much even to think of rejoicing. And, the great man was asking for his grandfather? He stuttered an answer, ‘He’s resting at the temple inn and we’re here canvassing for the evening stage show.’
‘Take me to him,’ he said and rushed towards the temple, the boy struggled to keep pace with him, his troupe and half the population of the temple town followed them.
The teacher recognized his pupil, who had gone astray, long ago, now prostrate at his feet mumbling repeatedly, ‘Have I been wrong?’ He lifted him up put a hand around his shoulder and made him sit next to him. Kshetrayya continued feebly, ‘Will you forgive this sinner who had been a traitor to his legacy?
The boy was among the hundreds of men and women waiting to hear what the teacher would say. After giving enough time for his pupil to settle, ‘Look Varada, Art is larger than you and I,’ he said finally. ‘It’s like the tree and we just live in its shade. We both belong to the same tradition that’s as old as mankind. The kings and even gods came later. It’s born out of the human urge to express emotions, and you’ve done exactly that and there is no sin in it.’
‘Nonetheless, hadn’t I forsaken Dharma, hankering for wealth and pleasure?’
‘Not so, my son,’ he replied patting his back, ‘Isn’t in the nature that some get to enjoy the fruits and the others not. Our art has three branches each equally important, the temple, court and street traditions. Your Padams to Muvva Gopala may be unusual but they have helped spreading the branches to bring more and more under its shade…’
‘While my mandate,’ he continued, ‘is to tend to the root, to preserve the foundations on which the Bhagavata tradition is built. And therefore, my place is in Kuchipudi where the first seeds of Andhra Natyam took root.’
‘But sire, isn’t it time…,’ Kshetrayya asked, ‘when likes of mine who had enjoyed the fruits, come back to Kuchipudi… to lend a hand in tending to our culture?’
The teacher smiled.
Kuchipudi had once been a suburb of Srikakulam, traditionally the Earliest Capital of Andhra. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that, in a folk form, the Andhra Deśa Nātya Paraṃpara at Kuchipudi predated it, giving a probable date earlier than 5th century BC. Mentions in Pāṇini’s Ashṭādhyāyi and Bharata’s Nātya Śāstra support this view. 12th century treatise, Nritta Ratnākaram of Jāyapa Sēnāni, who hailed from Divi Seema in the neighborhood of Kuchipudi, also points to its preeminence. The temple of Muvva Gopala is hardly a mile away from Kuchipudi. The Veedhi Bhāgavatula tradition of Kuchipudi is the most prominent alongside those of Pithapuram and Melathur. This only shows that the exponents of the Saṃpradāyam later branched out to new political foci of Vengi and Tanjore.
The roots of every Nātya Paraṃpara are in the folk forms of minstrels who traveled from place to place entertaining the common man. As the political and religious institutions grew in prominence the art form also branched out to cater to them, and thus we see three streams – Ālaya Saṃpradāyam (Temple), Kacchēri Saṃpradāyam (Court) and the original Veedhi or Bhāgavata Saṃpradāyam. For over a thousand years or more the Bhāgavatula tradition had been conserved and nurtured by a few lines of teachers. Today, the Classical Kuchipudi tradition is a harmonious mixture of all three streams, thanks to the innovations of some great gurus of modern times. A Brahmānjali to them
The debate of ‘Tradition versus Innovation’ is common to all classical arts. Today, there are more than ten thousand schools, worldwide, teaching Kuchipudi. Changing preferences of audiences and compelling circumstances are leading to certain novelties gaining ground and some traditions losing. Some of the age old formats like Veedhi Nāṭakam, Pagaṭi Vēshālu are vanishing fast due to lack of prospects, while complex forms such as Golla Kalāpam are fading due to the dearth of serious exponents.
After a gap of two millennia, Kuchipudi once again will be a part of urban landscape called Amaravati, time for us to refocus on this ancient and continuing tradition.