Author: vasanth Kiran(PhD), Bengaluru
“Lord Nataraja was once dancing with his bells strewn around his feet and one of the bells fell off onto the earth with the intention of spreading this divine art of dance on Earth and that sacred bell was none other than the legendary Padmabhushan Dr. Vempatti Chinna Satyam.”
Born in the non-descript tiny village of Kuchipudi(Krishna .Dt) in Andhra that gave its very name to the divine dance form, Dr. Vempatti Chinna Satyam was a man with a mission. A noble mission to spread this divine art form from his tiny village to the different levels altogether. This remarkable journey for Madras began at the age of 18 with a mere sum of Rs.2 in his pocket and a wife’s promise to be with him in every mode of life. His wife Smt. Swarajyalakshmi fondly known by his disciples as ‘Amma’ was a major pillar throughout his life.
Madras then considered being “The Cultural Mecca for fine arts” had strong presence of Bharatanatyam and had well renowned gurus teaching this art form. It was a herculean task for Dr Chinna Satyam to establish Kuchipudi in Madras. His conviction to revive and popularize the art form all over the world laid the foundation for the Kuchipudi Art Academy in 1963. He composed his first dance drama Sri Krishna Parijatham in the same period followed by another hit Ksheera Sagara Madanam and played the lead role. His portrayal of Lord Shiva and his brilliant choreography was received with thunderous applause. With his very first attempt passing in flying colors, his long cherished desire to establish Kuchipudi among the prominent classical styles, got a shot in the arm.
Vempatti began dancing from a very early age. It was Vedantam Laxminarayana Shastri who initiated Vempati into this art form. He refined his art by learning from Tadepalli Perayya Shastri and later undertook vigorous training from his elder cousin Vempatti Pedda Satyam. Kuchipudi was traditionally considered as folk art. It was never accorded the status of a classical dance form. It would be disrespectful on my part if I would fail to acknowledge the relentless efforts of Master garu which led the Central Government to accord Kuchipudi with the classical status and also took it to the world over and won over the hearts of millions of connoisseurs.
As a guru, he was a traditionalist and adopted age-old practice of chastising the pupils till they ‘got it right’ and the end product is perfection. “Pratha Smarami” shloka that marks the start of the session everyday early morning is an entry to freshness and also a call for a tough day ahead. One had no shortcuts in the “Kuchipudi Art Academy”. It is because of this strict and strong foundation which has made students of the academy stand apart. The shloka, hastas, pada bheda, charis were compulsory before the beginning of steps, jathis and so on in a structured format, one can’t skip it. The mere presence of master garu used to give the disciples a different level of energy to perform, such was the effect of the presence of this godly man. One should note that, this probably is the only Gurukulam where for his entire life since inception of academy hasn’t taken any fee from students, living upto the promise made to his Guru. The only return he expected for his world class quality in teaching was utmost sincerity, dedication and promise of sustaining purity in this art form from every disciple. “He lived for art, while we live on art”. It is recorded that over 10000 students have now studied in this academy and are now settled in over 60 countries spreading this divine art.
Vempatti’s charismatic choreography and scintillating style were witnessed and applauded in almost all parts of the world. He sublimated and systematized Kuchipudi without sacrificing its pristine purity and gave it a more classical and sophisticated look. He refined and redefined Kuchipudi bringing it completely within the boundaries of Natya Sastra and gave it a wholly new perspective. One can’t forget the furore that his ballet’s like Srikishna Parijatham, Chandalika, Kalyana Sakunthalam, Srinivasa Kalyanam, Annamayya, Hara Vilasam, Ksheera Sagara Mathanam and many more which numbered to 18. It should be interesting to note that he has choreographed more than 150 solo items out of which only around 80 items are preserved and performed. His portrayal of Lord Shiva and his brilliant choreography was received with thunderous applause. He is a symbol of dedication and a source of inspiration to the world of dance.
His richness in approaching every item with freshness and the thought process behind art of handling the song while understanding the intention of the composer, suitability of raga for the mood were the secrets behind the unmatched compositions that he has made. He was an expert in music and has penned several items including Padams and Thillanas.
If Lakshminarayana Sastry broke the tradition of only men playing female roles, by introducing women and creating solo presentations; Chinna Satyam made women take up even male roles in his ballets. In one way he was an extension Lakshinarayana Sastry. Vempatti even broke tradition even in costume. He argued that “Tradition changes with times. We have to re-interpret it to suit the social changes”. If Sidhendra Yogi was the architect of Kuchipudi, Dr Vempatti Chinna Satyam was the executor of this architecture.
Name any proficient dancer who practises Kuchipudi and you will find the influence or the training of master garu. In short, it would be appropriate to say that Mastergaru touched the lives of every Kuchipudi Dancer in some way or the other. It was his mere perfection in execution, captivating choreography and his divine style, which enthralled a number of students from all over the world to come and learn under him and today some have made great impact in the field of Kuchipudi. May it be Balasaraswati, Vyjayanti Mala, Shoba Naidu, Manju Bhargavi, Hema Malini, Jayalalitha, Rekha, Prabha, Ratna Papa and the list goes on who are the house hold names in the field of dance today. Guru Vempatti Ravi Shankar, the younger son is taking ahead this tradition and has already made mark for himself in Kuchipudi following the footsteps of his father.
People looked at him with awe. One didn’t have the courage to look into the eyes of master garu while he spoke; this was the kind of Guru bhakti that every shishya followed throughout. His majestic personality was like a walk of lion in the class. The classes ran both in the morning and evening everyday and the kind of practice that each one got gave them a tremendous stamina, making them performers sans compromise on quality.
Awards and Accolades
Dr. Vempatti was conferred with many titles and awards such as “Sangeet Peeth of Bombay”, “Asthana Natyacharya of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam”, T.T.K. Memorial Award by Madras Music Academy, “Natya Kalasaagara of Waltair”, “Kalaprapoorna” from Andhra University, “Bharatha Kalaprapoorna of Hyderabad”, D. Litt. from Sri Venkateswara University, “Asthana Natyacharya of Pittsburgh”, and “National Award from Central Sangeet Naatak Akademi, New Delhi”. He was awarded by many state governments of India such as Kalidas Puraskar by the Government of Madhya Pradesh and Kalaimamani by the Government of Tamil Nadu. He was honored with a Doctorate degree by Andhra University and was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. In honour of the dancing guru, the African State of Ghana declared September 25 as Vempati Chinna Satyam day in 1994. The Mayor of Atlanta declared November 3, 1994 as Kuchipudi Dance Drama Day. The Mayor of Cleveland conferred honorary citizenship on Dr. Vempati. The Mayor of Memphis declared September 24, 1994 as ‘Ramayana Day’ and the Golden Key to the city was awarded to him.
He reached the abode of Lord Nataraja at the age of 83. It is an irreplaceable loss to the field of dance in general and Kuchipudi in particular. His only wish always was to dance, dance and dance. He is a ‘Yuga Purusha, Na Bhooto Na Bhavishyati’.
Dr Vasanth Kiran, is a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi performer and teacher and is fortunate to have learnt from this great man in Kuchipudi Art Academy, Madras and Guru Manju Barggavee. He is PhD in Management, Professor, Researcher and is Director, Natyanidhi Institute of Performing Arts, Bangalore. www.vasantnrithyam.in