In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with a performance of Kuchipudi dance by the Kalanidhi Dance Company from Maryland and an oral history with their director, Anuradha Nehru. This is one of two related articles on east Indian dance, the other, on the Sattriya Dance Company with the Dancing Monks of Assam Traditional Dance from Assam, India, is available at the link.
Kuchipudi, one of the eight classical dance styles recognized by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (the Indian national academy of music, dance, and drama), originated in Andhra Pradesh in the southeastern part of the country and has its roots in the dance dramas of the Telugu people of southern India. It has been dated to about the first or second century BCE, although it may be older. It is named for a small village where the dance form can be shown to have been well established by the 16th century. The dancers perform to music of the mridangam (drum), cymbals, veena (also spelled vina, a large lute), flute, and the tambura (a stringed instrument used as a drone). Kuchipudi is an athletic dance that combines fast rhythms with fluid movements, creating a blend of control and abandon, strength and delicacy. Expressive facial techniques and subtle body movements serve as the cornerstone of Kuchipudi. It was originally performed by all-male troupes with men portraying both male and female roles. It included elements of narrative, theater, mime, and dance to tell ancient Hindu stories from the Natya Shastra, a sacred text focusing on the performing arts. It was once thought that women could not duplicate the athleticism of the dance as performed by men. In the early 20th century women dancers took up the form and, of course, proved themselves capable of the dance style.
The dance has always had some gender ambiguity, with the men portraying the stories of gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon with a touch of femininity even as they played male characters and female characters that were strong and athletic. Today women may play either male or female characters. It may be performed as a solo dance today with one performer taking up multiple roles.
The costume worn by male dancers in male roles is usually simple white dhoti, a garment folded out of a single rectangular cloth wrapped around the legs and knotted at the waist. The costume worn by women is similar to that used in Bharatanatyam, a related dance form that also originated in Andhra Pradesh, but the Kuchipudi style is usually sparer and less embellished. A sari is wrapped so that it is tied up between the legs giving the dancer freedom of movement. A pleated panel between the legs provides a touch of femininity and accentuates the dancers movements, and the top end of the sari that goes over the shoulder is sewn down. This style gives women dancers freedom to portray male and female characters and to be as exuberant in their dancing as their role demands. Dancers often wear bells on their ankles to add sound to their dancing.
Here is the video of the 2013 performance by the junior members of the Kalanidhi Dance Company making their professional debut at the Library of Congress. I find it remarkable that this is their debut, as they are such polished performers! The performance of each dance begins with a short explanation of the story of the dance and characters the dancers portray. The following brief descriptions of the dances are based on Anuradha Nehru’s notes:
In the first dance, Ramya Durvasula and Pragnya Thamire perform the Ananda Nartana Ganapatim. The dancers, inspired by Lord Ganesha as the manifestation of the sacred sound Aum, imagine his playful dance as they perform their steps.
In the second dance, Siva Stuthi, the dancers portray five Hindu deities: Lord Vishnu on the drums, Lord Indra on the flute, Lord Brahma on the cymbals, the Goddess Saraswati on the veena, and the Goddess Lakshmi who sings. It features Supraja Chittari, Ankitha Durvasula, Ramya Durvasula, Pragnya Thamire and Deviga Valiyil.
The third dance, Alokaye Shri Balakrishnan, comes from a Sanskrit opera about the God Krishna, and is performed by Supraja Chittari, Ramya Durvasula, and Pragnya Thamire. At the end of this dance you will see two of the dancers dance on the edge of plates, a skill unique to Kuchipudi.
The last dance, Synergy, brings together traditional dance style with modern choreography and is what is called “pure dance” in Indian dancing. The dancers are Ankitha Durvasula, Ramya Durvasula, Pragnya Thamire and Deviga Valiyil.
Anuradha Nehru came to the United States and began teaching Kuchipudi dance in 1991. Soon she had talented students who were ready for the next level of performance, and so she founded the Kalanidhi Dance Company in 2005. Although the school accepts both boys and girls, boys often drop out as they find other activities they want to pursue as they grow older. So, at the time of the performance seen here, the company was entirely made up of women. The dance company’s artistic approach is to explore creative and contemporary ideas through the vocabulary of Kuchipudi, while retaining the essence and integrity of the classical form. Trained in the rigors of the Vempati style, the Kalanidhi Dance Company very quickly gained a reputation for producing new and original choreography that has been praised by Indian and American dance critics. An important part of the company’s mission is to promote dialogue in the arts and to nourish creativity through interaction with artists of other styles and genres.
Anuradha Nehru was trained in Kuchipudi dance by Vempati Chinna Satyam, founder of the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai, India. Vempati Chinna Satyam, in turn, was a student of Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastri, famous as an innovator in Kuchipudi dance. Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastri introduced solo performances in the 1930s, a major change for an art form customarily performed by an ensemble. But the solo dances caught on with audiences at a time when modern life and new interests were beginning to draw people away from traditional dance. He then began to accept female students. These changes in the tradition added enthusiastic new students of the dance, created performances that drew audiences, and likely made it possible for the dance to be preserved as an unbroken living tradition. Both Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastri are now celebrated as teachers who brought about changes that revitalized Kuchipudi and helped it to survive as a living art form to the present day. So Anuradha Nehru comes from this celebrated line of teachers and, like them, hopes to pass Kuchipudi on so that it continues to be enjoyed by future generations of dancers and audiences.
This video of Anuradha Nehru talking with Catherine H. Kerst was recorded in 2016, three years after the performance in the webcast above.
Hall, Stephanie, “Dance!” Folklife Today, April 19, 2016.
Hall, Stephanie, “A Dance for the Birthday of the Buddha,” Folklife Today, May 12, 2016.
Hall, Stephanie, “Homegrown Plus: The Sattriya Dance Company with the Dancing Monks of Assam,” Folklife Today, March 25, 2019.
Hall, Stephanie, “Vasant Panchami: A Celebration of Learning,” Folklife Today, January 24, 2015.
Hocking, Jesse, “Collection of music and dance from New York immigrant groups now available for research,” Folklife Today, September 19, 2018. (The Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD) Collection described includes South Asian dance.)
Surati: Indian Classical and Folk Dance from New Jersey (webcast), November 19, 2008, Library of Congress.
Sreevidhya Chandramouli & Friends — Traditional Indian Karaikudi Vina Music from Oregon (webcast), August 20, 2009, Library of Congress.