Asian Music and Dance

Kuchipudi in Focus

Isabel Putinja gives a fascinating account of the origins, development and personalities behind kuchipudi, a lesser-known dance style, which has evolved from a dance-drama tradition performed by Brahmin men in one Andhra village to a solo form with an international presence.

Dancers such as Yamini Krishnamurthy and Swapnasundari have popularised kuchipudi on the bygone stages.  Will the young dancers profiled in Pulse do the same by imposing the form on public consciousness? Only time will tell.

2850 dancers. 200 gurus. 11 minutes. This was the recipe for history in the making. When on 26 December 2010, 2,850 kuchipudi dancers of all ages performed an 11-minute thillana in a stadium in Hyderabad, they created a world record. This was the largest group performance of kuchipudi, an historical event clocked in the Guinness Book of World Records. The world record was celebrated with much pomp in the Indian media as a majestic occasion, which showcased this South Indian classical dance to the world. 

For an Indian classical dance form, which is often overshadowed by more popular classical styles, the event was considered by many of its practitioners to be a magnificent achievement not only for its scale but also for kuchipudi’s visibility. This landmark event also marked a milestone in the dance’s long journey from its origins in a sleepy village in rural Andhra Pradesh. The dance presented on 26 December 2010 was different in many ways from its original form, for along kuchipudi’s 50-year-long-or-so journey, the dance has gone through a process of evolution and change, transforming itself on the way. 

“…Bhagavatulu-s would dance, act and sing, assuming both male and female roles”.

Writing in 1972, Ragini Devi describes a Bhagavata Mela performance in Kuchipudi village:

“Dance dramas are staged at night in Kuchipudi on an improvised stage facing the temple. The audience sit on the ground. A multi-coloured curtain is held up by two torch-bearers, who provide the stage lighting. Musical accompaniment consists of vocal music, a bagpipe drone, drum (mridanga) and cymbals… Preliminary prayers are offered behind the stage curtain. The stage manager (Sutradhara) appears before the audience and recites the invocation. Indra’s banner-staff is set up on the stage. The presiding deities of the theatre are worshipped with holy water, incense, lights, and flowers. An actor, wearing an elephant mask, impersonates the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, who blesses the actors and spectators. Then the Sutradhara announces the play. He is always present on the stage, bearing a crooked stick, the symbol of his office, to conduct the play and lead the vocalists… Resin powder is thrown on the torches to effect a sudden flash of light with the dropping of the curtain when certain powerful characters appear. Each actor introduces himself with a pravesa daru, an entrance dance appropriate to his role, accompanied by song and rhythm syllables (daru). There are both masculine and feminine darus with dramatic gestures, postures, and dance sequences, rendered with grace and elegance. Darus also provide the dance element throughout the play.” 

This dance-drama tradition had developed during the Bhakti movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, along with other forms of vernacular theatre, as a mode of religious expression through the recounting of religious stories. According to a legend, Siddhendra Yogi, an ascetic and Krishna devotee, is credited as the founder of kuchipudi dance drama.

“As the gurus moved out of the village to large cities, the dance form…evolved for the contemporary stage.”

From its origins as a dance-drama tradition performed in rural villages exclusively by Brahmin men, today the dance has evolved into a solo dance form performed on city stages by dancers from non-hereditary backgrounds, mostly women. The dance’s revival started, like for most of the other Indian classical dances, in the late 50s following India’s independence. As the gurus moved out of the village to large cities, the dance form and its repertoire inevitably evolved for the contemporary stage.

Over fifty years ago in Kuchipudi village from which the dance takes its name, what we know today as kuchipudi was presented as dance drama, performed exclusively by Brahmin men, who passed on their art to their sons. The performers (called Bhagavatulu-s) would dance, act and sing, assuming both male and female roles. They would travel from village to village, staging night-long performances, presented outdoors on makeshift stages.

Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri had made a significant contribution to the popularisation of kuchipudi in the early 1940s and 1950s. He significantly expanded the scope of the dance-drama form by choreographing many nritta and abhinaya items for solo dancers. He had a vast repertoire of ashtapadis, padams and javalis. He was also the first to teach female dancers, including temple dancers. His students included none other than Balasaraswati, Mylapore Gauri Amma, and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai who all became legends in their own right. 

“Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam…codified the technique of the dance based on the principles of the Natya Shastra.”

Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam is credited with having made the biggest contribution to the development of kuchipudi. He developed and codified the technique of the dance based on the principles of the Natya Shastra. He classified the dance units or adavus and introduced a systematic teaching method. He polished and perfected the nritta , or pure dance movements. He developed his own particular individual style, which is referred to as the Vempati style or ‘new style’ of kuchipudi. Characterised by strong clean lines, crisp energetic jatis and vibrant footwork, the Vempati style seems to be the most popular style of kuchipudi today. Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam is also a prolific choreographer, having choreographed 180 solo items and fifteen dance dramas. He has received many awards for his contribution to kuchipudi including the prestigious Padma Bhushan from the government of India. He established the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai in 1963. Some of his students who went on to become celebrated kuchipudi exponents include Yamini Krishnamurty, Sobha Naidu and Swapnasundari. His son Vempati Ravishankar has followed in his footsteps and is an established dancer and guru. 

Thanks to some prominent dancing couples, kuchipudi has also developed as a duet form. Jaya Rama Rao is from a traditional Bhagavatulu family. He and his disciple and wife Vanashree are well-known and respected kuchipudi dancers and gurus based in Delhi. Chennai-based gurus Narasimhachari and Vasanthalakshmi are better known as bharatanatyam dancers but they are also accomplished kuchipudi dancers known for their innovative choreographies created for duos. The Reddys are probably the best-known kuchipudi couple. They have won numerous awards for the excellence of their dance, including the Padmashri. Radha’s sister Kaushalya is also a prominent dancer, as are their daughters Yamini and Bhavana Reddy.

“Kuchipudi has a certain light-footedness… that distinguishes it from its cousin (bharatanatyam).”

Compared to the other Indian classical dance styles, kuchipudi is perhaps closest to bharatanatyam in terms of technique, but it has its own unique characteristics. Both styles feature a half-sitting posture as the basic position and strong, rhythmical footwork. But kuchipudi has a certain light-footedness and many graceful hops and leaps. Compared to bharatanatyam, it is less angular, with ‘rounded’ arm movements and characteristic bobbing, bending and swaying movements, which are unique to kuchipudi. 

“The dramatic aspect of abhinaya… is an inheritance from its dance-drama tradition.”

The kuchipudi repertoire presented by the solo dancer on the contemporary stage is still evolving and though there is a trend to standardise it, there is no fixed ‘recipe’ when it comes to a performance repertoire, as is the case for the bharatanatyam margam, for example. A kuchipudi performance may start with a prayer or an invocatory piece: an offering of flowers to a deity through a puspanjali, or a kautavam in praise of a certain god. Like in bharatanatyam, the jatiswaram set to swara patterns is a popular item (but performed on stage less often), as are thillanas as concluding pieces. Episodes from the traditional dance dramas are also popular, the most famous being Bhama Kalapam which tells the story of Satyabhama, a consort of Krishna. The dramatic aspect of abhinaya characteristic to kuchipudi is an inheritance from its dance-drama tradition. There is a rich repertoire of padams, javalis, kirtanams, shabdams, ashtapadis. The padams and kirtanams by Telugu poet and composer Kshetrayya are favourites. Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma is a renowned kuchipudi artist famous for his compelling and versatile abhinaya and especially his convincing impersonation of female roles during which he completely transforms, adopting the grace of a woman with ease and conviction. 

The Tarangam is unique to kuchipudi, often performed as a finale. This is a technique where dancers stand on the edges of a brass plate, sometimes balancing a pot on the head and holding oil lamps, as they move to complex rhythmical patterns. Another technique unique to kuchipudi which was popularised by guru C. R. Acharyulu is tala chitra nritya. Using her feet dipped in coloured paint, powder or dye, the dancer traces the outline of an animal: a peacock in Mayura Kautavam, lion in Simhanandanam or an elephant in Ganesh Kautavam

All of India’s classical dances went through a revival following independence, which involved a process of reconstruction and codification. Over the past few decades, kuchipudi has made many transitions: from a dance-drama tradition to a solo repertoire; from hereditary male performers to a proliferation of female dancers; from the makeshift stages of rural villages to the theatres of metropolitan cities; from guru-shisya-parampara to institutionalised teaching; from the Natya Shastra to the Guinness Book… This process of evolution continues with the contemporary kuchipudi gurus and dancers of today who inject it with their own perspectives, innovations and inspiration.

Dancer Profiles

Chitra Kalyandurg

Chitra Kalyandurg is a kuchipudi performer, educator and choreographer based in Maryland, USA. Speaking about the current state of kuchipudi in the US today, she says: “There are very few kuchipudi dancers who are solely performers, and who are regularly creating and performing new work that moves beyond the various ‘banis’ or styles. The stalwarts are performing much less nowadays; however, new work is being created, much of it by choreographers from India who work with kuchipudi schools in the US. Many schools bring kuchipudi exponents from India during the summer to conduct workshops and we benefit from their creativity.”  

Chitra began learning kuchipudi at a young age with Mrinalini Sadananda.  In 1994, she began training with renowned kuchipudi artist and guru, Anuradha Nehru, a disciple of the renowned Vempati Chinna Satyam. She also had the opportunity to learn with Guru himself during intensive summer dance camps, as well as with his son Vempati Ravishankar, and well-known guru Jaikishore Mosalikanti. 

“In the US there is a predominance of teachers following in the Vempati Chinna Satyam style,” she explains, “which makes sense, as he trained many kuchipudi artists who relocated here in the 1990s. Dr. Sobha Naidu’s school also has a large community of disciples here. Since there are many kuchipudi teachers who run dance schools, a lot of the performances are student- and community-centred. Throughout the country there are pockets of kuchipudi activity that stay regional, and which remain more of a cultural tradition rather than an artistic movement.”

Along with her guru Anuradha Nehru and two fellow students, Chitra co-founded the Kalanidhi Dance Company in 2005. The company has collaborated with several US-based and international artists, and has toured nationally and internationally. “I’m part of a group of young kuchipudi dancers who have been learning in this country for over twenty years and who are taking up the art form and running with it. As American dancers of Indian origin, these artists bring to kuchipudi a new perspective that I believe only enhances it and adds to its evolution.  I am optimistic that the art form will continue to grow artistically, and am really hopeful that classical Indian dance can one day reach the level of national recognition here, as it does in the UK,” she concludes.

Arunima Kumar

Moving from India where she’s a well-known dancer and starting over in London where kuchipudi occupies little space has been a challenging experience for dancer Arunima Kumar. “There were quite a few obstacles at first,” she reveals. “Having to audition for a performance slot, for example, was a completely new experience for me. But after my first performance, things really took off.”

In the space of only two years, Arunima has managed to attract much attention and establish herself as a dancer to look out for in a scene dominated by bharatanatyam and with little exposure to kuchipudi. She has presented over fifty shows and workshops across the country and already has a dedicated group of students. 

Arunima had the good fortune to study under eminent gurus. She had her first lessons in kuchipudi at the age of 7 from the renowned dancer Swapnasundari. She then trained for fifteen years under well-known gurus Jaya Rama Rao and Vanashree Rao. Arunima has performed extensively all over the world and is the recipient of many awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s prestigious Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar.

She’s set on bringing more visibility to the dance form: “I would like to have a strong base for kuchipudi in London. I’m keen on creating a kuchipudi dance collective and developing a syllabus for kuchipudi under the ISTD,” she says. Arunima is also interested in broadening her horizons by exploring new productions, and developing and promoting choreographic works and collaborations with dancers of other styles. In this way she hopes to explore new dimensions while retaining the classical identity of kuchipudi. 

Vyjayanthi and Prateeksha Kashi

Vyjayanthi Kashi is a highly respected kuchipudi performer, choreographer and guru. She’s an active and dynamic figure in Bangalore’s dance scene with an infectious enthusiasm and passion for the arts. 

Vyjayanthi grew up in a family of well-known theatre artists from Karnataka. She was drawn to dance at a young age, first studying bharatanatyam before finding that her passion was for kuchipudi. She studied with numerous eminent kuchipudi gurus. “I have been able to take something from each guru,” she says. “From senior guru C. R. Acharyulu I learnt the ‘old style’ of kuchipudi and temple rituals. Gurus at that time were looking for students who could continue their teaching. You will be my ‘dancing daughter’ is what he told me. I got a government of India scholarship to study in Andhra Pradesh. I studied with Vedantam Prahalada Sarma who gave me my foundation. We would have intense classes from morning to evening. Having strong basics is extremely important. I learned Yakshagana from Korada Narasimha Rao and Kalapam from Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma. I also learnt the ‘new style’ of kuchipudi from guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. I have been able to absorb the best from my gurus and I take the best from both styles.”

Vyjayanthi started her dance centre, Shambhavi School of Dance, on the outskirts of Bangalore in 1993. Over the past year, through her ‘Celebrate Dance’ series, she has invited top gurus of different styles to conduct workshops and offer dance students a taste of each classical dance tradition. Her annual Dance Jathre (dance fair) is a celebration of dance and the performing arts and brings together practitioners and connoisseurs from all dance styles. She has won numerous awards including the prestigious Puraskar award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Her daughter Prateeksha is only 21 but has already made her mark on the kuchipudi scene. She has performed in many prestigious festivals in India and abroad and has featured in many dance productions for television.



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