It was 12 hours since we began our trip from Hyderabad and had driven across most part of the Krishna District, crossed the River Krishna twice, visited three historical places and we had not even arrived at the main part of the trip – the Kuchipudi Yakshagana Mahotsavam. There was some more to explore before that.
Kalamkari print textiles
In the Indian textile world, Kalamkari natural dye prints are very famous but not many know that the art of Kalamkari originated in a village called Pedana, 15 kms from Machilipatnam. Earlier in the day, we had read about Pedana and since we had about 2 hours before the event at Kuchipudi began, we wanted to visit the place.
If you look at the map, the route from Bhattiprolu to Kuchipudi has nothing to do with Machilipatnam and to visit Kuchipudi, later, we would have to travel back half the route ! Yet, with just a weekend and so many wonderful places to visit in the region, we thought the detour was worth it.
Coming back to Kalamkari, the textile art originated during the Qutub Shahi rule. Kalamkari work involves block printing on textiles using natural dyes. The prints are usually very complex. In earlier times, the designs were made by a special kind of pen (kalam), hence the name Kalamkari. These days the base designs are all computerised only the dyes on the designs are applied using wooden blocks.
If you visit Pedana, you can see how the prints are made. By the time we visited the place, most workshops were closed. We saw a few wood blocks that are used for the prints.
You can also do some shopping in the outlets attached to the workshops. We would have loved to click pictures of the textiles but we weren’t sure if the people would allow us to, so we clicked just one picture of the shop where we bought some bedsheets and dress materials.
The lady managing the shop told us that the preparation work for the prints involves soaking good quality cotton material in a mixture of inkfruit and milk, allowing it to dry and then using the wood blocks to print. The dyes used for the prints are vegetable dyes.
With computerised base printing, it has become easy to make very complex designs in quick time. Kalamkari prints have been going strong for over 400 years. You will find these prints in Hyderabad and other cities too but buying them where they originate is a different experience.
Done with our shopping, it was time to head to Kuchipudi, it was past 6 PM and Kuchipudi was atleast one hour drive from Pedana. The lady at the shop was almost shocked when we told her where we were headed, she could’t understand what we were doing in Pedana when Kuchipudi was our destination !
Kuchipudi, the classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh, originated in the village of Kuchipudi. The village was called “Kuchelapuram” in ancient times which evolved into Kuchipudi. The dance form of Kuchipudi was developed by Siddendra Yogi, a mystic dance guru. Not much is known about Siddendra Yogi’s life, historians place him anywhere between the 13th and 15th Century A.D.
The dance form is originally believed to have begun as street plays by Siddendra Yogi and his students which was called Yakshaganam. Over the centuries, the dance slowly lost its popularity. It was again revived in the 1800s by Chinta Venkata Ramayya, who lived in Kuchipudi. He gave a proper structure to the dance ballets and propagated it. After the death of Venkata Ramayya in 1949, Kuchipudi was almost forgotten until Vempati China Satyam gave it a new lease of life in the 1960s. By then, Kuchipudi Yakshaganam was no longer the main dance form Kuchipudi. It had evolved into solo dance performances and dance ballets with the drama toned down.
Once again, some fifty years later, in February this year, to promote and immortalise the waning art form, the Kuchipudi Yakshagana Mahotsavam at Kuchipudi was organised jointly by the Culture Department of AP, Sangeet Natak Academy and Nartanam, a dance journal. The idea was to make a documentary on the dance form and record it into the National Archives so that it is not lost to future generations. The week long festival included panel discussions and performance of the traditional Kuchipudi Yakshaganam by renowned artists who hail from Kuchipudi.
Enroute, we passed by Movva, a few kilometres from Kuchipudi and the birthplace of the famous composer of the 17th Century, Kshetrayya. A lot of Kshetrayya’s compositions are part of Kuchipudi ballets.
As we reached Kuchipudi, an arched gateway greeted us.
Kuchipudi may technically be a village but has all the signs of a bustling town. We drove through the village and came across a procession of students from a nearby school, some kids were all dressed as scientists and waving to the crowd, some were carrying placards with information on science. Then it dawned on us that the following day was National Science Day and the kids were celebrating. It was heartening to know that a small school in Kuchipudi was highlighting the importance of scientific temper.
By the time we reached the Siddendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kalapeetam, the centre built for Kuchipudi festivals in the village, the event had already begun. It was an open air stage and we found some seats for ourselves and watched the drama unfold.
The event was also supported by NRIs who hailed from Kuchipudi, one should really be thankful to them for supporting the waning art forms.
The first dance drama for the evening was the story of Mohini and Bhasmasura, the popular story of Lord Vishnu’s Mohini avatar. By the time we sat down to watch, Bhasmasura was seeking his boons from Lord Shiva.
A Kuchipudi Yakshaganam piece begins with introduction by a sutradhari or narrator and each character is introduced through a dance performance where the key characteristics are highlighted. Then the story is depicted in the form of a dance, sometimes interlaced with dialogues and interactions between the characters. Each dance drama runs for about 2 hours.
Initially, we were a little apprehensive because for all our enthusiasm to be a part of the dance festival, we were not sure if we would really sit through the long dance performances but all doubts were gone within minutes, we were totally hooked ! The music, beats, dances and the performances had stunned us.
Here is Lord Shiva seeking Lord Vishnu’s help in getting rid of Bhasmasura who tries to use the boon granted by Lord Shiva against the Lord himself !
And then, Lord Vishnu transforms into Mohini, the most beautiful damsel in the universe. The dancer who performed as Mohini was the personification of grace, if Mohini had descended to earth, she would have looked like her, she really had the audience mesmerised !
As for the dancer who portrayed the character of Bhasmasura, he must have thought he was Bhasmasura himself ! Such was his perfection.
We literally wanted to prostrate before them as a tribute to their talent and dedication towards their art !
Check out how Mohini tricks Bhasmasura into killing himself by applying Lord Shiva’s boon onto himself.
With Bhasmasura reduced to ashes, Mohini merged into Lord Vishnu !
As we watched the ballet, we had some kind of a “this is life” feeling ! We were at the birthplace of Kuchipudi, watching stalwarts of the art performing the ancient dance form and in the midst of people who really appreciated art !
The ballet was performed by Sri Hari Ramamurthy and his group, the performance ended with a felicitation of all the dancers.
The next ballet was Usha Parinayam, the story of the demon Banasura’s daughter and her love for Lord Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha. This ballet by Sri Pasumarthy Rathaiah Sarma, followed the traditional Kuchipudi Yakshaganam style, as it was originally performed in the days of yore. The main of feature of the ballet was that all characters were performed only by males, even female characters were donned by men. Traditionally, Kuchipudi Yakshaganam was performed only by males because at the time when the dance form evolved, women would not give performances in public, especially street plays.
The Usha Parinayam ballet began with an invocation to Goddess Sarada. You could call this traditional prayer song “peppy”, the beats were lively and almost had you foot tapping and to imagine the two men singing the song were in their 60s, rock stars of Kuchipudi, you could say !
Once the invocation ended, the first character, the narrator was introduced. Each character takes about 5 minutes of introduction through a dance.
In between, the leaders of the group who also provide the vocals, indulge in light banter which will have you in splits. One needs to understand the local language to get the humour. These gentlemen in the traditional Yakshagana attire took us back to the time when Kuchipudi was still a street play !
Soon, the powerful Banasura was introduced, the performer looked very much the part, the arrogance of Banasura portrayed to perfection !
Being a dance drama, this performance included dialogues too. Listen to Banasura speak to praising himself and telling his ministers to take care of the kingdom while he set off to do penance in the name of Lord Shiva.
After a severe penance, Lord Shiva appears before Banasura along with Goddess Parvathi.
This is when we were totally taken aback, the dancer portraying the role of Parvathi was a male ! If you weren’t told before hand, you wouldn’t know. It is unbelievable how the male dancers have mastered the feminine grace !
We were then introduced to Princess Usha, Banasura’s daughter, the heroine of the drama and her friends.
All three dancers were men portraying the role of women characters to the ‘T’ ! One needs to salute these artists, may be they are the real artists who should to be hero worshipped !
The story goes, Princess Usha dreams of a handsome young man and falls in love, she is deeply troubled by her feelings when another friend of her’s draws an image based on her description and he turns out to be Lord Krishna’s grandson, Aniruddha. The rest of the story is about their love, Banasura finding out, arresting Aniruddha and his war with Lord Krishna.
The Usha Parinayam dance drama was supposed to extend for more than 3 hours since it was being recorded for National Archives. It was past 9 PM and Usha and Aniruddha hadn’t met yet, we had just been introduced to Chitralekha, the princess’ best friend who was trying to understand her friend’s love sickness.
We were totally drawn into the ballet as the performances which got interesting with every scene but we had to drive back to Machilipatnam which was atleast an hour’s drive away and were worried about our hotel booking if we did not turn up till late in the night. Not wanted to leave half way, we checked it there were any hotel in nearby town but looked like Machilipatnam or Vijayawada were the nearest places where we could find decent accommodation.
We were tempted to take a chance and watch it till the end but we decided to be wise and forced ourselves to leave the Kuchipudi Kalapeetam, turning back every now and then to see what was happening on stage. As we reached our car, Princess Usha had fainted unable to bear the longing for the man of her dreams !
As we drove to Machilipatnam, we were quiet for sometime, being a part of such events takes time to sink in, until we attended the event, we hardly new that such arts existed, that there are such talented artists whom we have never heard about and who should be the actual super stars !
We hoped the Kuchipudi Yakshaganam would not become a part of National Archives as a dance form that once existed in India but would be revived to become a celebrated art at the international stage !
We reached Machilipatnam at around 10 PM, we had booked a reservation at Vani Boutique hotel. We had quick dinner and we were done for the day, a day that took us back 2000 years in history, showed us India’s finest textile art and ended with a flourish to the beats of Kuchipudi Yakshaganam. Travel is truly enriching !
- Kuchipudi is an hour’s drive from Vijayawada and Machilipatnam, closer to Machilipatnam at 27 odd kms.
- You will find bus connectivity to Kuchipudi from both these cities which also work as the nearest places where you can find accommodation.
- There is nothing specific to “see”, it is all about the “feel” of being at the birthplace of one of India’s classical arts.
- It is a good idea to visit Kuchipudi if there are any dance festivals. Otherwise, if you are travelling from Vijayawada to Machilipatnam, you make a quick visit.
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