Malayali dancer's pilgrimage to Kuchipudi

  • She is the first Kerala dancer to learn Kuchipudi by staying in the eponymous village
  • She joins her guru in reviving the theatrical Yakshaganam tradition of Kuchipudi

Looking back at her life as a Kuchipudi performer, Sreelakshmy Govardhanan stumbles upon a big irony. “The toughest part of my career has been to unlearn than to learn,” she reveals with seriousness. By saying so, the 38-year-old from Kerala seeks to sum up the struggles she continues to wage to shed almost all of what she had learned till 2008 as classical dance.

Malayali dancer's pilgrimage to Kuchipudi
Sreelakshmy Govardhanan. Photos: Sreekumar Muriyad, Santu Brahma, SN Photography

For, that was the year she met her guru in Kuchipudi — the village that is the birthplace of an art by the same name. Pasumarthi Rattaiah Sarma, an exponent of a theatrical stream of the classical form, was 67 then and not going through a good phase in life. Outside his modest house, the plains fed by the Krishna river had people speaking Telugu that sounded alien to Sreelakshmy. At best, the palmyra trees around remotely reminded the student of her father’s village in Palakkad district known for its fan palms.

Yet, tenacity led the pursuer to win the affection of the master and train under old-school Rattaiah. The mission was to explore the deeper roots of Kuchipudi that had undergone massive metamorphosis in general stage presentation. From what used to be predominantly Yakshaganam with its characters delivering dialogues in mythological story-plays till the last century, Kuchipudi today has largely ceased to be a theatre. Instead, it is generally a solo dance.

That transformation is perhaps a finer part of the story. As Rattaiah’s disciple for the past one decade, Sreelakshmy is keen to enable the veteran’s long-time dream of a resurgent Yakshaganam culture in Kuchipudi. Her initial task under him, though, was to get the body language aligned to Rattaiah’s quaint style that stands a class apart.

“I had been dancing as a child, learning southern classical forms such as Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam besides Kuchipudi,” notes Sreelakshmy, who was raised in Thrissur district. “I had to evict each of their elements when I became a pupil at Kuchipudi.”

The days in that remote Andhra hamlet bordering Guntur district were riddled with difficulties initially. They stood in complete contrast to Sreelakshmy’s early childhood in the Gulf, where her father was employed.

The girl’s interest in Indian dances did play a role in the family’s return to Kerala when she was six years old. The father had long left his Tarur village off Alathur for Bangalore before moving on to Ajman in the UAE; so the family chose to settle in Irinjalakuda not far from Sreelakshmy’s mother’s place in Kodungallur.

There, teachers of local repute began giving dance classes to Sreelakshmy. That ushered her into a world of simple choreography that was charming too. Initially, during school vacations, she received training under Muriyad Muraleedaran and Madhavi Jyothilakshmi. It led her to debut. The arangettam was at Trippayya Trimurti temple in nearby Nadavaramba.

Into high school, Sunil Nellayi taught her Bharatanatyam, but the student found that dance not going well with her body kinetics. Thus came the next set of classes: in Kuchipudi by Chengamanad Vasudevan Namboodiri, who was trained under Vempati Chinna Satyam (1929-2012) who had a major role in refining the dance based on Natya Shastra, the performing-art treatise compiled two millennia ago.

Yet it wasn’t a serious study starting from the fundamentals that Sreelakshmy took from Namboodiri. “I would ask him to choreograph certain popular dance items such as Swagatam Krishna or similar kritis of Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer (18th century),” Sreelakshmy says. “He will do it, spontaneously…impulsively, aptly.”

Then, while doing graduation, the artist happened to attend a dance workshop led by frontline artiste Vyjayanthi Kashi. “That was where I got to realise that Kuchipudi actually has its set of adavus (basic steps),” she says. That drove Sreelakshmy to learn under Vyjayanthi in her city of Bangalore.

Thus, disappointing her parents who wanted the youngster to do MBA, Sreelakshmy moved to the Karnataka capital. She began taking classes under Vyajayanthi while post-graduating in psychology. “It was in Bangalore I first learned that you needn’t sport a smile all the time you dance,” she says. “In Kerala, we are used to it — surely at the initial level. Chirichu kalikkoo (smile as you perform) is a constant refrain among us Malayalis.”

Long journeys within the city amid MSc studies began straining her schedule, following which Sreelakshmy chose to go to a guru closer to her residence. Hence, the equally acclaimed Manju Bhargavi began teaching her Kuchipudi. “She came across as a hard taskmaster,” Sreelakshmy says in a praising tone. “She has definite ideas about movements, their measurements and angles.”

All of that impressed Sreelakshmy, yet she found herself primarily blank about the exact roots of Kuchipudi as a practitioner’s aesthetic experience. More so, given the massive changes the dance had undergone of late. In any case, she was trained under teachers who had no immediate link with the village of its origin.

Malayali dancer's pilgrimage to Kuchipudi
Sreelakshmy Govardhanan's pivotal guru Pasumarthi Rattaiah Sarma trains students at a Kuchipudi workshop in Kerala this summer. Photos: Sreekumar Muriyad, Santu Brahma, SN Photography

That thought became an obsession within Sreelakshmy even as she returned from “soulless” Bangalore to Kerala. Amid practising as a psychologist in Thrissur and enjoying it as well, the idea of going to Kuchipudi and staying there to learn the form began growing inside her.

Thus in end-2008, Sreelakshmy boarded a train to Vijayawada after contacting senior dancer Keshav Prasad who lives in Kuchipudi. Not far from the Siddendra Yogi Kala Pitham (named after the medieval-era Bhakti movement scholar who systematised Kuchipudi), she met her future guru. “I will never forget that sight. A dog to his one side and by the other his son, who I soon learned suffered from acute schizophrenia,” recalls Sreelakshmy. “Shortly, I met his wife, who too had a serious mental problem.”

Despite all these, Rattaiah had always retained his good spirits. He wasn’t, however, particularly enthused to see Sreelakshmy. For, she wasn’t the first such student coming to Kuchipudi to learn the dance under him. Only that not many of them would stay on for long. Reason: the acute infrastructural shortcomings that makes overall life tough.

Sreelakshmy too found it so, but she was thoroughly bowled over by the unique grace in the movements of her new guru. She also found the sudden transformation of the villager into a complete dance master once the classes would begin. Boarding facility came as a room atop the ancestral house of top master Vempati Chinna Satyam in the neighbourhood. (He (1929-2012) lived in Chennai.) She would live there for weeks together and then take breaks in native Kerala.

“A third time I returned to Kuchipudi, the master was convinced that I was serious about my mission,” says Sreelakshmy. That surplus trust triggered a new chapter in their classroom equations. The guru sent out tacit signals of him having found an ideal pupil like never before. “Around 7 in the morning, I would start practice. By 9, the guru will arrive. That will go on close to noon,” says Sreelakshmy. “Then after lunch and rest, the class would resume around 4.30 pm. That will last well up to the dusk hour.” Such a system also meant Sreelakshmy was cut off from the world outside.

The transmission of signature Kuchipudi movements to an “outsider” did invite displeasure from fellow practitioners in the village. “But the guru proceeded, unperturbed. He would never scold me,” says Sreelakshmy about the master under whom she continues to learn intermittently. “Of late, he is keen to revive the Yakshaganam tradition, and won’t mind casting women in the roles (as against convention). He believes I must locate fellow artistes and groom them. It’s very tough, though not entirely impossible.”

In between Rattaiah got his thatched house rebuilt with a concrete roof. That was after his wife and son happened to burn down the old structure in a moment of inexplicable frenzy. In 2016, the guru lost his son. Four years before that tragedy, the wife had died.

Rattaiah eats lunch from a modest restaurant near his house, wears a pair of slippers that is “totally worn out yet irreplaceable” and spends afterhours watching vintage Telugu movies on TV. This summer, he did make a cultural visit to Kerala. And got introduced to Malayalis in a greater way.

The interstate bridge works both ways.

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