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Kuchipudi : Fall From Grace

"We have nothing to do with the dance. We want a bus stop."

Kuchipudi : Fall From Grace
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WE sit in the shade of the coconut palms, the Brahmin patriarchs and I, tap-tapping our feet to the mridangam, sounding as it has for the last 700 years, here in the little village of Kuchipudi in the basin of the river Krishna. In the kingdom of the computer, this is Andhra Pradesh's culture enclave where generations of gurus from about 100 Brahmin families have kept alive Kuchipudi dance by teaching it to their sons.

Evidence suggests that Kuchipudi was first created in the 13th century and the village is unique because it's one of the only geographical locations that has given its name to a dance form. A dance form now becoming internationally renowned because of Yamini Krishnamurthy, Swapnasundari, and Radha and Raja Reddy.

The mridangam beats out from red-roofed, colourfully-decorated houses. Violin and veena sing out along the rough kuchcha roads. In the Brahmin area of the village, small cake-like houses are arranged in a neat line along a village tank ringed with palms. "Our village is divided strictly according to caste," says the priest at the small, richly-decorated temple of Ramalingaswami and goddess Bala Tripura Sundri.

But the air in Kuchipudi is forlorn. In the familiar paradox of India, a unique village is also a forgotten one. An ancient birthplace of the arts is cash-strapped, the home of a centuries-old continuous tradition is dilapidated, bucolic and neglected.

Dr Chinta Ramanadham is principal of the Siddhendra Kalakshetram school, founded as recently as 1965. Before this school, Kuchipudi dance had no central institution. Individual gurus taught their pupils who, in turn, became gurus. We sit with Ramanadham and other masters on the pillared verandah of the school. Inside, in the Venkateswara Bhavan—a long stone dance-hall hung with a massive painted portrait of Siddhendra Yogi, said to be the founder of Kuchipudi—students practise their afternoon class. The Venkateswara Bhavan is bare. The hibiscus plants outside its windows look dusty and the government-issued chairs set out for the audience look bleak. The numbers of students are declining too. "Nobody supports us. Only god," says one of the masters.

"Kuchipudi is a male-oriented dance because it's dance drama, festival theatre, street theatre," Ramanadham says. "Yet more classical than Bharatanatyam. But Bharatanatyam has been patronised by sponsors and by Tamil Nadu. Kuchipudi is neglected."

The masters nod resignedly. They are scions of the 100 families, proud macho Brahmin men. Vedanta Radhey Shyam, sharp-faced and mercurial. P. Srinivasulu, stocky and energetic and the jeans-clad Vedanta Venkatachalapati, athletic and young, the confident star. J. Rama is one of the women teachers and she's Radhey Shyam's niece. Venkatachalapati is Radhey Shyam's nephew, Srinivasulu and Radhey Shyam are cousins, Ramanadham's grandfather founded the Kuchipudi Yakshagana style in the 19th century and Radhey Shyam's grandfather is considered one of the legends of the dance. "We are strict vegetarians who do physical exercises and are pure Brahmins," says Srinivasulu proudly.

The gurus are either Vedantas or Vempattys. "The politics among these 100 families is so intense," says a renowned dancer, "that some of the gurus don't teach at the school but have opened their own schools in their homes." Padma Bhushan Vempatty Chanasatyam lives in Chennai and teaches Kuchipudi there. Padma Shri Vedantam Satyanarayan Sharma also teaches Kuchipudi, not at the Kalakshetram but in his own blue-and-pink candybox home in the village.

But the people of Kuchipudi are more concerned about drainage than dance. Only a few yards down from the temple is the pink and brown panchayat building. Panchayat executive officer P. Gopalakrishnamurthy says that unless Kuchipudi gets a better drainage system, the lives of its citizens will continue to be most uncomfortable. "There are hardly any job opportunities here," he says, "Even the dance gives little income. If you want income you have to get out of here." But this is Andhra, I exclaim. There must be a computer centre! "There's no computer centre in Kuchipudi," he replies.

At the clamorous centre of the village, a lone Hyundai Santro edges around an ornamental traffic platform. An Ambedkar statue stands draped in purple: "It has still not been inaugurated," chuckles Lazar, a daily wager, "because no minister has the time to come to Kuchipudi." Opposite, a grungy green and orange State Bank of India building looks as if it's bursting from within. 'School Uniform Fabrics from Bombay Dyeing' flaps tatteredly in the breeze. Huge palm and nidraganeru trees hang down over the black-clad Sabarimala pilgrims sitting between scuttling pigs and buffalos. A mud-splattered Om Sai Travels bus grumbles by, squeezing a path between the cycles and the rows of stalls heaped with bananas, coconuts and long lines of Eenadu and Varta. "At the dance school, they only teach Brahmins' children," says Pandu Ranga Rao, a paddy farmer, "or their own kids. We have nothing to do with the dance. We want a bus stop." Sita Rama Rao, shop-owner and insurance agent, says the development of Andhra is a myth. "All the money gets eaten up by the mlas. We get nothing." Tdp man and Gram CommITTee president T. Prabhakar Rao says everyone gets disappointed in Kuchipudi. "They all come here expecting a beautiful dance village and all they get is this filthy mess."

But Ramanadham says the government has sanctioned Rs 50 lakh for a hostel. That applicants write in from the US, Germany and Japan. "The Kalakshetram is about to begin a new era." But Radhey Shyam is sceptical. "I'll believe it when I see it."

On the east of Kuchipudi, fish-scented gusts off the Bay of Bengal blow over the fishing town of Machilipatnam. On the beach, crowds of fisherfolk leap from buses into motorised boats to skim out for the early morning catch. Heading west to Hyderabad, the earth throbs with the industrial power of the Andhra coast. New construction, a spanking highway, tractors, jackhammers, electrical cables, std boOTHs and huge haulage and construction equipment are crowding out the sylvan green. In this no-nonsense landscape, a dance village seems sadly incongruous.

Kuchipudi dance has left Kuchipudi village behind. The exponents are famous. But the village crisscrossed by buffalos and slowly pedalling cyclists. The stars bow under arclights. But the Kalakshetram masters sit in bare stone rooms hung with cobwebs and a single naked bulb. In the village, people tune in to the soaps on Eenadu TV, rather than send their children to the dance school.

At the end of the class, the mridangam fades into the twilight and the veena signs off mournfully. The students pack up their things and set off for home. "Madam," a young girl grabs my sleeve, "you'll tell us, no, if there are any opportunities for us in Delhi?" nAt the end of the class, the mridangam fades into the twilight and the veena signs off mournfully. The students pack up their things and set off for home. "Madam," a young girl grabs my sleeve, "you'll tell us, no, if there are any opportunities for us in Delhi?"
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