Wedded to dance
Famed Kuchipudi dancer Raja Reddy talks about the gurukul system and the tradition of dance with Asmita Sarkar
Youngsters may like Bollywood music but it lacks anandam or pure joy of the soul,” says Raja Reddy, the veteran and celebrated Kuchipudi dancer. Which is why he, along with wife Radha Reddy, patiently tutors generations of youngsters to align themselves with the universality of rhythms. And when they are ready, the two present their students with all their love through the Parampara series of performances.
Raja and Radha Reddy can be attributed for single-handedly bringing Kuchipudi to the world stage. The dancer couple, who began their journey at least five decades ago, are still going strong in their field. Kuchipudi is a combination of temple dance and theatre. It links ancient heritage to modern concepts and ideologies by bringing together the grammar of classical dance and theatre elements. In this form, it is important to build a rapport with the audience while dancers come onto the stage as characters from mythologies.
But that is not all they are famous for. The dancer couple is actually a trio. Radha and her younger sister Kaushalya, who came to live with the couple when she was five-six years old, never left. Instead, she also grew interested in the dance form and married Raja. While Radha and Raja’s marriage was the result of a child marriage, Kaushalya chose to not leave her bawa (brother-in-law) after years living with them. The parents of the sisters had been against Raja and Radha taking up dance so much so that they wanted her to divorce him but the first wife said that she couldn’t marry anyone else. By the time Kaushalya chose the same man to get married to, the couple was successful and performing in multiple countries.
“Many people asked me why I married for a second time and my response was always that was for dance’s sake. When we went to perform in South East Asia, our natwara, the man who conducts the performance, ditched us. Instead, the ICCR secretary Usha Malik said let Kaushalya be the natwara, she has good rhythm. She spent a month touring with us and decided after that she wanted to marry me,” said Raja. “I don’t hide it from anyone because she’s not my girlfriend or something like some MPs have.”
Kaushalya had been the first shishya but many followed including his two daughters, Yamini Reddy and Bhavana Reddy, who will keep his legacy alive along with his students. Yamini, the elder daughter, an MBA, refused a marriage proposal from the US just so she could keep on dancing while Bhavana went to Los Angeles to study further.
“I said Vasudevam Kutumbakam, the world is one. They should learn about our art and we theirs,” he said.
But, the tradition is suffering because the gurukul system is no longer present. It is important to have students live with gurus because of how minute the teachings are. From hand gestures, expressions to movement, they have to learn everything but academic pressure on children these days makes it difficult. “Still, we have students who bring their homework and do it between practice or even after moving abroad they come in the summers to practice with us,” he said.
“When we were learning, we went to Eluru to live with our guru. We practised eight hours a day just in front of the guru and then more later by ourselves. We dedicated ourselves to the art. When Indira Gandhi saw us perform she told us to stay in Delhi and spread Kuchipudi to the rest of the world,” he said.
While the paraphernelia of a performance has become modern, the tradition itself borrows heavily from the Vedas and Puranas and lores of yesteryears. More often than not the couple has played the characters of Rama-Sita, Shiva-Parvathi and Krishna-Gopi. “We used to have high tables, curtains and petromas to perform now the stages are much better,” he said.
However, whether an artist can hold the attention of an audience is entirely up to the performer alone. He narrates that once, for the Parampara series, they invited Vyjayanthimala and Kishori Amonkar. The former for dance and the latter for her vocal prowess. The actress, who performed first, told Amonkar to wait until she changed and came out. The audience waited an hour because Amonkar was that good.
“The gurukul system is a good system. For dance, the students have to stick together and observe the dedication of the guru. They have to learn movement, expression and rhythm personally. Having said that despite the system not being present anymore dance will remain in India. The younger generation don’t have much time but they are still dedicated,” he said.
The Parampara festival was started in 1996 and is still ongoing despite logistical hiccups. “Even if we’re in debt, the festival can’t stop,” he said.
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