Swapna Sundari, a Kuchipudi Dancer from Delhi

In conversation with Swapna Sundari, a Kuchipudi dancer

Dance style: Koochipoodi, Vilasini Natyam and Bharatanatyam.
Gurus: Guru Pasumarthy Seetharamiah Yeleswarapu Surya Prakasa Sarma and Vempati Chinna Satyam. Bharatanatyam training was under Gurus K.Govindarajan, K.N.Dakshinamoorthy, B.Kalyana Sundaram Pillai and Adyar.K.Laxman. Abhinaya from Padma Bhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan. She also received intensive training in the dance techniques and unique Abhinaya system directly from Andhra Devadasis, notably Smt. MaddulaLaxmi Narayana and several others. Is currently involved in the propagation of this style, now known as Vilasini Natyam.

Brief us about Kuchipudi

The correct pronunciation of thisword is with a long vowel for the letter ‘u’ both the times that it isused. Having failed to make people pronounce it this way in spite of mybest efforts over two and a half decades, I have resorted to spelling itas Koochipoodi, which leaves people with no alternative but topronounce it correctly! This move has been formalized further as thetitle of my book – The World of Koochipoodi Dance. I intend to change the spelling of the name of my dance institution accordingly.About Kuchipudi

Koochipoodi is a classical dance from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It has its origins as a dance-operatic form, called the yakshagana, in which dance troupes woul dtravel from village to village rendering legends and episodes mythology through dance, music and dialogue. The tradition evolved as part of the Bhakti movement, which popularised the worship of Krishna. These operas would be performed through the night; and each opera could last several nights. One of Koochipoodi’s distinguishing characteristics was that the dance troupes consisted only of Brahmin men, with an extremely well developed art of female impersonation
Legend attributes the creation of this dance form to Siddhendra Yogi, an ascetic who probably lived in the 17th century although his dates are not clearly established in written history. The legend similarly states that in a local Muslim King, Abdul Hasan Tani Shah gifted a village known as Koochipoodi to a band of itinerant performers. It is this name that the present dance form has adopted.

Over the years, the dance form has undergone many changes. By theearly 20th century, a solo repertoire, drawing on many of the componentsof the dance operatic tradition, began to be developed. By the 1930’s,women began to participate as well, especially in solo performances.And as Koochipoodi’s appeal extended beyond the geographical andlinguistic boundaries of its home in Andhra Pradesh, the music anddialogue components were sacrificed in favour of the dance technique tomake it accessible to a wider range of audiences. Today, Koochipoodischools can be found in every state in India, as well as in manycountries outside India.

Q Koochipoodi was not accepted as a form for a very long time, was always sidelined by Bharatanatyam. Comment.

Most dance forms, which are recognized as ‘classical’ today, are derived out of older sources. Of these, Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Manipuri gained from the efforts of the early dance revivalists around the 1950’s. Similar forms such as Odissi and Koochipoodi did not receive the same degree of attention at that time. This may have occurred because of neglect. It may also be a reflection of the regional affiliations of experts and advisers who served on important committees which were vested with the responsibility of identifying existing dance traditions and projecting these as ‘classical’ forms on national and international fora.

As a result, the Telugu people had to struggle long and hard to obtain an ‘official’ status for one of their dance forms, i.e. Koochipoodi.

The other important traditional dance form of the Telugus that of the consecrated female temple dancers and female court dancers, is yet to receive its due recognition from the official machinery dealing with the arts. It is anybody’s guess how long this might take. For my part, for the past ten years, I have been popularizing this form by performing and propagating this dance as Vilasini Natyam, teaching and producing students proficient in this form.

Q How important a role does research work play in dance ??

Research assumes varied significance depending upon the stage of development the dancer has reached. Normally, one would expect that an experienced dancer would not continue merely as a seasoned performer but would add meaningful dimension to his/her work, which would reflect artistic and intellectual growth. However, not every dancer is temperamentally inclined to take this approach. This is the reason why there are very few veteran dancers who have done serious research work.

I prefer my disciples to develop an analytical approach to whatever they learn from me. By understanding all aspects of their dance, they would add depth to their work. This approach would also enhance the value to their visual presentations.

Q Role of Government patronage? Do you think dance is getting politicised ??

If and when dance and music become self-sustaining and are able to survive in an economy of profit and loss just like all other marketable activities like sports etc, then we can discuss this question in retrospect. Until that happens, the existing situation is likely to continue.

Q Audiences for classical dance have increased/decreased. Comment.

In a way, this is related to my reply to the previous question. I would say, today there is greater curiosity but this does not necessarily translate into audience numbers.

Q Future of dance, in particular Koochipoodi.

In reply to this, I am quoting from my book “The World of Koochipoodi dance”.

Q Youth and the future of Koochipoodi

Today, Koochipoodi is an acknowledged ‘classical dance form’. The collective efforts made by the Gurus, exponents and scholars to bring to it this recognition have been supplemented by those of the official establishments dealing with culture. This synergy is the biggest factor,which has contributed to its success story.

The question that now arises is whether similar synergies can be obtained for meeting new challenges that Koochipoodi and other traditional dance forms face today. These challenges pose a serious threat to the very survival of traditional performing arts.

India’s economic development is manifesting itself in many ways.Today, the country is perceived as a major economic power of South Asia.The societies of economically developed countries across the world have created provisions for defining themselves culturally. It is an irony that in India today, traditional dance is seen less and less in the concert format or in full-length programmes on the stage. Even on television, traditional performing arts are hardly seen.

Meanwhile, Koochipoodi like other classical dance forms is seeking renewed vitality in the context of a changed society. Traditional dancers are naturally seeking methods for harmonizing the energies of their art with those outside.

Conservative sections of audience reject the attempts made by traditional dancers to evolve commercially viable formulae for sustenance. On the other hand, there are many who argue that tradition survives by adaptation and therefore it cannot be viewed as a point of finality. Practitioners of classical dance are caught in the cross fire of this debate.

It would be important for Koochipoodi exponents and its future aspirants to find meaningful performance space in this scenario. It will be interesting to see how the official support systems for traditional arts propose to meet new demands.

For Koochipoodi dance to overcome fresh challenges and develop in evenmore exciting ways, much will depend upon all these factors. A lot willalso rest upon the motivation of youngsters to persist with theirefforts to carve careers in classical dance.

If future generations of Koochipoodi dancers can, with intelligent and sensitive application of their art, meet the demands continuously thrown up by changing societal factors, they would be able to keep alive forever the richness of Koochipoodi tradition.

Q What qualities do your students need to have to be a good Koochipoodi dancer according to you ??

Qualities such as capacity for hard work, sense of commitment, regard for tradition as well as enthusiasm and willingness to add extensions to tradition must exist in or be developed by any individual who wishes to pursue dancing as a lifetime vocation.

Certain other list of requirements for an ideal dancer are mentioned in the dance texts such as Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana and these have been quoted ad nauseum. However, these need to be interpreted in the present day context.

Q Any suggestions you would like to give as to how to take it up as a career. Dos n don’ts or advise for young artists ??

Carving a career in the performing arts is an exciting but arduous task.Don’t give up your main goal .At the same time; acquire additional qualifications which would be necessary for supporting yourself. Do not set a time frame for success as a performing artist as there is no easy formula for it. Be patient and realistic in your expectations. Respect your seniors and your contemporaries. Be helpful to those who are junior to you. Importantly, don’t throw attitude or it’ll bounce back in your face! Above all, enjoy what you are doing…

Swapna Sundari is the director of her institute Kuchipudi Dance theatre. She has been the youngest dancer to have been awarded with the prestigious ‘Padma Bhushan’ title.

Kuchipudi Dance Theatre
D1/93 Satya Marg, Chanakya Puri
Phone: (011) 24670442 / 26889166
Email: kuchipudi@vsnl.net