Kuchipudi is a dance-drama performance art, with its roots in the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text of Natya Shastra. It developed as a religious art linked to traveling bards, temples and spiritual beliefs, like all major classical dances of India. Evidence of Kuchipudi's existence in an older version are found in copper inscriptions of the 10th century, and by 15th century in texts such as the Machupalli Kaifat. Kuchipudi tradition believes that Tirtha Narayana Yati – a sanyassin of Advaita Vedanta persuasion, and his disciple an orphan named Siddhendra Yogi founded and systematized the modern version of Kuchipudi in the 17th century. Kuchipudi largely developed as a Hindu god Krishna-oriented Vaishnavism tradition, and it is most closely related to Bhagavata Mela performance art found in Tamil Nadu.
The Kuchipudi performance usually begins with an invocation. Then, each costumed actor introduced, there role stated, and who then performs a short dance prelim set to music (dharavu). The first part of pure dance (nritta), without expressions, acting or underlying story. This is followed with expressive part of the performance (nritya), where the dancer rhythmically uses gestures and body language as a sign language to mime the play. Vocalists and musicians accompany the artist, with the song recited in Telugu language, and the tala and raga set to (Carnatic music). The typical musical instruments in Kuchipudi are mridangam, cymbals, veena, flute and the tambura.
Kuchipudi is named after the village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh named Kuchipudi – shortened form of the full name Kuchelapuram or Kuchilapuri – where it developed. The name of village, states Ragini Devi, is itself derived from Sanskrit Kusilava-puram, which means "the village of actors". Kusilava is a term found in ancient Sanskrit texts and refers to "traveling bard, dancer, newsmonger".
Kuchipudi, like other classical dance forms in India, traces its roots to the Natya Shastra, a foundational treatise on the performing arts attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni. Its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures.
The dance-drama tradition in Andhra Pradesh is of ancient origins, and the region is mentioned in the Natya Shastra. Bharata Muni credits a graceful movement to Andhra region and discusses it as Kaishiki vritti. The pre-2nd century CE text calls one raga as Andhri, that is from Andhra. The Andhri, is related to Gandhari and Arsabhi, and is discussed in many other 1st millennium Sanskrit texts. Some, state Bruno Nettle and others, place the origins of Kuchipudi to 3rd century BCE.
Dance-drama performance arts related to Shaivism, in Telugu speaking parts of South India, are evidenced in 10th-century copper inscriptions, and these were called Brahmana Melas or Brahma Melas. The medieval era dance-drama performance artists were Brahmins. This art was likely adopted by the musical and dancing Bhakti traditions of Vaishnavism which grew in the 2nd millennium, whose devotees were called Bhagvatulus in Andhra region and Bhagvatars in Tamil region of south India. In Andhra, this performance art evolved into Kuchipudi, while in Tamil Nadu it became known as Bhagavata Mela Nataka. According to Saskia Kersenboom, both the Telugu Kuchipudi and Tamil Bhagavata Mela are strongly related to the classical Hindu dance tradition of Yakshagana found in Karnataka, all three involve Carnatic music, but these dance-drama traditions have differences such as in costumes, structure, interpretation and creative innovations.
According to Manohar Varadpande, the Kuchipudi dance emerged in the late 13th century, when Ganga rulers from Kalinga were patrons of performance arts based on the 12th century Sanskrit scholar Jayadeva, particularly the Gita Govinda. This royal sponsorship, states Varadpande, encouraged many poets and dance-drama troupes to adopt Radha-Krishna themes into the then prevailing versions of classical Kuchipudi. These were regionally called Vaishnava Bhagavatulus.
The modern version of Kuchipudi is attributed to Tirtha Narayanayati, a 17th century Telugu sanyasin of Advaita Vedanta persuasion and particularly his disciple, a Telugu Brahmin orphan named Sidhyendra Yogi.[note 1] Tirtha Narayanayati authored Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini and introduced sequences of rhythmic dance syllables at the end of the cantos, he wrote this work as a libretto for a dance-drama. Narayanayati lived for a while in the Tanjore district and presented the dance-drama in the Tanjore temple.
Narayanayati's disciple, Sidhyendra Yogi, followed up with another play, the Parijatapaharana,[note 2] more commonly known as the Bhama Kalapam.[note 3] When Sidhyendra Yogi finished the play, he had trouble finding suitable performers. So he went to Kuchelapuram, the village of his wife’s family and present-day Kuchipudi, where he enlisted a group of young Brahmin boys to perform the play. According to the tradition, Sidhyendra requested and the villagers agreed to perform the play once a year, and this came to be known as Kuchipudi.
Late medieval period
Kuchipudi enjoyed support from medieval era rulers. Copper inscriptions suggest that the dance-drama was seen by the royalty and was influential by 1502 and through the late 16th century. The court records of the Vijayanagara Empire – known for its patronage of the Indian religions and arts – indicate that drama-dance troupes of Bhagavatas from Kuchipudi village performed at the royal court.
The region saw wars and political turmoil with Islamic invasions and the formation of Deccan Sultanates in 16th century. With the fall of Vijayanagara Empire and the destruction of temples and Deccan cities by the Muslim army around 1565, musicians and dance-drama artists migrated south, and Tanjore kingdom records suggest some 500 such Kuchipudi artist families arrived from Andhra, were welcomed and granted land by the Hindu king Achyutappa Nayak, a settlement that grew to become modern Melattur near Tanjore (also called Thanjavur). Not everyone left the old Andhra village of Kuchipudi, and those remaining became the sole custodians of its tradition in Andhra.
Kuchipudi declined and was a dying art in the 17th century Andhra, but in 1678, the last Shia Muslim Nawab of Golkonda, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, saw a Kuchipudi performance and was so pleased that he granted the dancers lands around the Kuchipudi village, with the stipulation that they continue the dance-drama. The Shia Sultanate was overthrown in 1687 by the Sunni Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. In order to regulate public and private morals, as well as end un-Islamic practices, Aurangzeb banned public performances of all music and dance arts, along with ordering the confiscation and destruction of musical instruments in Indian subcontinent under control of his Mughal Empire.
Colonial rule period
After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire collapsed, Hindu rebellion sprouted in many parts of India, including the Deccan region. In the second half of the 18th century, during this period of political turmoil, the colonial Europeans arrived, the Madras Presidency was formed by the East Indian Company officials and became part of the British Empire. Andhra was part of the Madras Presidency. During the colonial era, Hindu arts and traditions such as dance-drama were ridiculed. Christian missionaries and British officials stereotyped and dehumanized artists, calling Indian classical dances as evidence of "harlots, debased erotic culture, slavery to idols and priests" tradition. Christian missionaries launched the "anti-dance movement" in 1892, to ban all such dance forms. The anti-dance camp accused the various classical Indian dance forms as a front for prostitution, while revivalists questioned the constructed histories by the colonial writers.
In 1910, the Madras Presidency of the British Empire altogether banned temple dancing. Kuchipudi, which was traditionally staged at night on a stage attached to a Hindu temple, was impacted and like all classical Indian dances declined during the colonial rule period.
After the ban, many Indians protested against the caricature and cultural discrimination, launching their efforts to preserve and reinvigorate their culture. Due to these efforts from 1920s onwards, the classical Indian dances witnessed a period of renaissance. Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri (1886-1956) was the influential figure who led the effort to save, reconstruct and revive Kuchipudi performance art. Sastri worked closely with other revivalists, between 1920 to 1950, particularly Balasaraswati and others determined to save and revive Bharatanatyam.
The three influential figures in Kuchipudi, during the first half of twentieth century, were Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri, Vempati Venkatanarayana Sastri and Chinta Venkataramayya. Sastri focused on reviving and relaunching Kuchipudi after classical Hindu dances came under sustained ridicule and political degradation in the British Raj, while Venkataramayya was influential in productions for public performances and developing specialized forms of Yakshagana – another classical Indian dance, and Kuchipudi. Sastri is also remembered for encouraging and teaching Indian women to dance Kuchipudi as solo performers and in teams, as well as working with artists of other classical dances such as the Bharatanatyam that enabled the sharing and cross flow of ideas. Vempati Venkatanarayana Sastri was the guru of Sastri, taught him Kuchipudi, and was a key figure in helping preserve Kuchipudi. The historic All India Dance Seminar, organized by the national arts organization Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1958, thrust Kuchipudi to the national stage.
Some Western dancers joined the Indians in preserving dance. The American dancer Esther Sherman, for example, moved to India in 1930, learnt Indian classical dances, changed her name to Ragini Devi, and joined the movement to save and revive classical Indian dances. Her daughter Indrani Bajpai (Indrani Rahman) learnt and became a celebrated Kuchipudi dancer. The public performances of Kuchipudi by Indrani Rahman and Yamini Krishnamurti outside of Andhra region, created wider enthusiasm and more interest through new students and the expansion of Kuchipudi as a creative performance art both within India and internationally.
Kuchipudi is a team performance, with roots in Hindu religious festivals. The drama-dance involves extensive stage movements and exacting footwork, wherein the underlying drama is mimed by expressive gestures of hand (mudras), eye and face movements. The expressive style is through a sign language that follows the classical pan-Indian Sanskrit texts such as Natya Shastra, Ahhinaya Darpana and Nrityararnavali. The dance is accompanied with Carnatic music, while the recital is in Telugu language. Just like the Carnatic music style, Kuchipudi shares many postures and expressive gestures with Bharatanatyam, such as the Ardhamandali (half seating position or a partial squat, legs bent or knees flexed out). However, there are important differences, such as Bharatanatyam as a Hindu temple tradition trending towards geometric perfection and the spiritual, while Kuchipudi as a Hindu festival tradition trending towards more sensual supple and the folksy.
Traditionally the traveling dance troupe consisted entirely of men (often Brahmins), who moved from village to village, and performed on a stage set next to a Hindu temple. The male artists would dress up and act out the female role in a drama performed by these traveling troupes. In modern times, Kuchipudi has diversified, women have joined Kuchipudi dance, outnumber male artists, and are among its most celebrated artists. In some cases now, it is the Kuchipudi girl artists who dress up and act out the role of boys.
The repertoire of Kuchipudi, like all major classical Indian dance forms, follows the three categories of performance in the ancient Hindu text Natya Shastra. These are Nritta, Nritya and Natya.
- The Nritta performance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance. The viewer is presented with pure movement in Nritta, wherein the emphasis is the beauty in motion, form, speed, range and pattern. This part of the repertoire has no interpretative aspect, no telling of story. It is a technical performance, and aims to engage the senses (prakriti) of the audience.
- The Nritya is slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes in Hindu dance traditions. In a nritya, the dance-acting expands to include silent expression of words through gestures and body motion set to musical notes. The Kuchipudi actor articulates a story (particularly of Krishna) or a spiritual message. This part of a repertoire is more than sensory enjoyment, it aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.
- The Natyam is a play, typically a team performance, but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story. A Natya incorporates the elements of a Nritya. Kuchipudi, in its history relied on a team a dance-actors, while in modern times Kuchipudi productions include solo or duo performances.
A complete Kuchipadi show sequence always consists of nritta and nritya in solo or group performance, but when the underlying text is a play, it may include a natya. The nritta or pure abstract dance parts of Kuchipudi, states Reginald Massey, may include parts such as darus, jatis, jatiswarams, tirmanas and tillanas. The nritya or expressive performance in Kuchipudi includes padams, varnams, shabdams and shlokas.
A Kuchipudi performance traditionally is a night performance, when rural families return from their farms and are free of their daily work. It has been performed in or next to a Hindu temple, and the stage lit by the yellow lights of castor oil burning torches. The dance-drama begins with an invocation (melavimpu, puvaranga). This may be an on stage prayer to Ganesha, the Hindu god of good beginnings, or may be an invocation expressing reverence to various Hindu gods, goddesses, earth, or one's guru (teacher).
The conductor of the performance enters and plants an "Indra's banner" staff, then introduces all the actors and the characters they play, who are revealed behind a curtain, and when each actor arrives, colored resin is thrown into the flame of one or more torches for dramatic color effects and audience's attention. Each actor performs a short dance called the Pravesa Daru[note 4] accompanied by a short musical piece, as the vocalist describes his or her role. The conductor is typically present throughout the performance, on the stage, explains the play, talks and humors the audience.
After the actors have been introduced, the nritta part of the Kuchipudi performance starts. The actors present a pure dance (jatis or jatiswarams), performed rhythmically to a musical raga, and these are called Sollakath or Patakshara. A basic unit of dance in Kuchipudi is called a adugu (or adugulu), and these correspond to the karana in Natya Shastra. Each basic unit combines hand and foot movement into a harmonious sthana (posture) and chari (gait), that visually appeals to the audience wherever he or may be sitting. Each dance unit, according to the ancient text, is best performed to certain recitation of mnemonic syllables and musical beat. A series of karana form a jati, formalized originally as an oral tradition through Sanskrit mnemonics, later written, and these form the foundation of what is performed in nritta sequence of Kuchipudi.
Thereafter comes the nritya, the expressive part called abhinaya, and this is the heart of the play. The actor-dancer uses hand mudras and facial expressions inspired by the sign language in ancient Sanskrit texts, with an exacting footwork, to communicate the underlying story to the audience. A solo play or solo part of the performance is called a Shabdam, and this may be set to a poem, a verse or a prose. A varnam combines dance with mime in order to draw out and express the rasa (emotional taste), and this can be solo or group. Parts set to poetry that are love lyrics or express deeper sentiments are called a padam, and this part constitutes expressing the emotional, the allegorical and the spiritual aspects of the play.
Kavutvams are a feature of the performance that is distinctive to Kuchipudi. These are performed either as nritta or nritya, to different talas, wherein the dancer adds acrobatics to the complexity of presentation. For example, the dancer may perform the footwork, rhythmically to music, while balancing a series of pots on his or her head, and then add burning Diya (lamp) in both hands, as the show goes on. Some artists dip their foot on a wet ink pad, then dance rhythmically on a blank white piece of paper, thus painting it; alternatively, the troupe places colored rice powder on floor and on top the white piece of paper, then dances the musical composition on it, their weight and steps causing the pigment to stick. At the end of the performance, the artist shows the audience the nature scenery or bird or flower or Ganesha or something that results. A Mayur Kavutvam dance produces a painting of a peacock, a Vinayaka Kavutvam of Ganesha, a Simhanandi Kavutvam yields the painting of a lion, each set to a certain classical composition and beat, for instance.
The traditional Kuchipudi was performed by all males troupe. A dancer in a male role would be bare chested, wear a dhoti (a single pleated piece of cloth hanging down from the waist). A dancer in a female role would wear a Sari with light makeup.
Modern productions retain the male dress, but are more elaborate and Bharatanatyam-like for the female roles. Women artists wear a brilliantly colorful Sari (or a body fitting dress) with a pleated fan stitched in front to help highlight the exacting footwork. The end of the wrapped Sari is held fast under a light metallic (golden or brass) belt at waist. A Kuchipudi artist braids her hair somewhat differently than a Bharatanatyam artist, to reflect the regional traditions, yet wearing flowers are common. Both have symbolic elements embedded in their hair and face jewelry, such as the Vedic symbolisms for the sun and the moon, the soul and the nature, and she sometimes sets her hairdo in the tribhuvana style which represents the three worlds. Her jewelry may include hair jewelry, ear, nose, armlets, necklaces and often a leather anklet piece with little bells (ghungroo). The forehead has a round red bindi or a symmetric tillaka, while the eyes are typically ringed with black collyrium to ease the viewing of expressions by the audience.
Some special Kuchipudi plays may include unusual costumes and theatrics, such as round bottom water pot balanced on the head, dancing with gymnastics or stilt athletics. Other plays may include wing props, a transparent head sheet, or peacock feathered crown to identify the actor playing Krishna.
The Kuchipudi performance is led by a conductor (chief musician) called the Sutradhara or Nattuvanar, who typically keeps the beat using cymbals and also recites the musical syllables; the conductor may also sing out the story or spiritual message being enacted, or this may be a role of a separate vocalist or occasionally the dancer-actors themselves. The Kuchipudi orchestra ensemble includes a drummer (mridangam), a clarinetist and a violinist. Depending on the legend being danced out, other musicians such as a flutist may be present.
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The dance styles are based on the standard treatises, Abhinaya Darpana and Bharatarnava of Nandikeshwara, which is sub-divided into Nattuva Mala and Natya Mala. Nattuva Mala is of two types — the Puja dance performed on the Balipitha in the temple and the Kalika dance performed in a Kalyana Mandapam. Natya Mala is of three kinds — ritual dance for gods, Kalika dance for intellectuals and Bhagavatam for common place.
Major Kuchipudi dramas
The most popular dance-drama is Bhama Kalapam of Sidhyendra Yogi. Narayana Teertha composed the Krishna Lila Tarangini, a story of Krishna’s life beginning from his birth to his marriage to Rukmini. Ramiah Sastri, inspired by the Bhama Kalapam, wrote the Golla Kalapam, which portrays the theme of an ethical satirical conversation between a Gopi and a Brahmin. Other commonly performed plays are the dance-songs (kritis) of Thyagaraja, and the 700 surviving padams out of 4500 composed by Kshetrayya of Muvvu.
Traditional compositions that have been internationally performed by Kuchipudi artists, particularly among Telugu diaspora communities, include Srinivasa Kalyanam, Rukmini Kalyanam (marriage of Krishna and Rukmini), Sakuntalam Bhamakalpam, Hara Vilasam, Prahlad Charitram (Holi festival-related story), Usha Parinayam, Sashirekha Parinayam, Rama Natakam (probably the oldest play), Mohini Rukmangada, Chamundeshwari Sabda, Ardhanareeswaram Sabda and Perini Thandavam.
Schools and training centers
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Kuchipudi training, as with all major classical Indian arts, have traditionally begun at a young age. The training includes physical exercises, theory, demonstration lessons and a lot of practice. The physical exercises range from yoga to special exercises to develop a supple body and flexibility in leg muscles, lower body, core, arms, shoulders and neck. Some examples of special exercises, state Kothari and Pasricha, are Dandemu, Chakradandemu, Ekapada, Gunjeelu, Kailsamu, Kappilu and Moggalu.
- His name is sometimes spelled Siddhendra Yogi.
- Parijatapaharana means "The Stealing of the Parijata Flower".
- There are three versions of the story. In the first, Lord Krishna appears before Sidhyendra and promises moksha if he told this love epic. In another, Sidhyendra promises Krishna to dedicate his life to bhakti if his life was saved during a dangerous river-crossing. In the third, Sidhyendra was simply inspired by his devotion and love for God to compose the work. The Parijatapaharana tells the story of how Rukmini asked Krishna to get her the Parijata tree from the garden of the god Indra and Satyabhama's jealousy as a result.
- This is called Dhruva in the ancient text Natya Shastra, which explains its purpose as 'form an emotional connection between the actor and the audience'.
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