In The Service Of Kuchipudi

There are many dancing couples in the World of Dance today. The Dhananjayans in Chennai, the Reddys in Delhi, the Bhatts in Hyderabad to name a few. The Hyderabad city was fortunate to meet another dancing couple – Seetha Nagajothy and Veriandith Thevar Perumalswamy Nagajothy (popularly called P Nagajothy) at Shilparamam Madhapur and Uppal last weekend, when their students gave a beautiful and breath-taking Kuchipudi performance. The couple was fortunate to learn Kuchipudi dance under doyen Late Padma Bhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam garu at his Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai in the 1970s. Soon love blossomed and they decided to unite and start a dancing journey together. In an exclusive chat with Natyahasini, the Nagajothys recall their dreams, aspirations and journey of togetherness.  

Born and brought up in Kakinada, East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh, Seetha was a kid when she was enrolled into dance by her mother Kavali Seshasayi. “When I was five-years-old, I accompanied my mother to Samajam to see a program. There, we met Srinivasan garu, a Bharatanatyam guru, who told my mother to put me in dance. At that time, I did not know, what dance was. While growing up, I started liking it. In those days, my father Kavali Srirama Murthy was a practicing Advocate in Kakinada,” she says.

Career Decision: Her desire to make dance a career began after her S.S.L.C. exams, when she asked her mother to enrol her in a professional dance school. “That time Yamini Krishnamurthy garu was a top dancer in both Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam. When we approached Yamini ji, she suggested Master garu’s name. We had heard that Master Garu didn’t allow everyone to join his school,” Seetha says. But as luck would have it, they knew Ratnapapa (Ratna Kumar), who had learnt under Master Garu and was performing alongside him. “Ratnapapa’s mother and sister, famous folk singers Vinjamuri Sita and Anasuya, were my mother’s friends in Kakinada. With their recommendation, we approached Master garu,” she recalls.

The Delhi-based Kuchipudi dancer says the first look of Master garu was very scary. “I was scared of him because of his giant personality and sharp eyes. He asked me to perform any item that I had learnt from my previous guru Late Smt. Sumathy Kaushal garu. I didn’t know what is Kuchipudi. Later, I came to know how much part nritta is in it,” she says.

Unravelling the mystery behind the surname Nagajothy, Perumalswamy says that the name was selected even before his birth. “My mother was bitten by a snake a week before the delivery. To safeguard the child and mother, assuming a girl child, they worshiped Naga Devatha and a girl’s name Nagajothy was selected. Thus, the name,” he says. Perumalswamy says that Guru Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam garu was his fourth Guru. “First, I learnt Bharatanatyam from Mrs. Vijaya Subramaniam, wife of Sergeant Subramaniam, at the Air Force Station in Hindon Ghaziabad. Then she sent me to her Guru Kalaimamani Smt. Rajalakshmi of Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. Later, I was posted to Tambaram Air Force Station, Chennai. There, I learnt Bharatanatyam from Guru Kalaimamani Kunjitha Patham Pillai. Finally, I joined under Guru Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam garu,” he says.

At 19 in IAF: Perumalswamy joined the Indian Air Force when he was 19 years. “After joining the Air Force, I started learning Dance. Morning to afternoon, I would do my duty and evening, I would go to dance class,” he says. The ex-IAF employee agrees that after he started learning Kuchipudi dance, he felt Kuchipudi was his life. “I was totally mesmerised by the grace of Kuchipudi. One life, one art. Later, I never went back to Bharatanatyam or Odissi. I didn’t want to put one foot here and another there. How can one justify both,” he says and questions whether is it good to sail on two boats at the same time?

On learning dance at the Academy, Seetha says she learnt partly under senior teacher Kanaka Durga and steps and jathis under senior-most student Kottapalli Padma, which she quickly picked up within one week. “Later, I was trained by Master garu directly. That time our classes started at 8am and ended at 1 or 2 pm, and again started at 4pm and ended at 8 or 9pm. Master Garu used to call us at 4am for his dance dramas like Menaka Viswamitra, Chandalika and Rukmini Kalyanam to choreograph. I was very lucky to be part of his choreographies. When we were unable to bring out his thought while performing, he would be very angry with us,” she says.

Seetha confirms that she taught dance to Master garu’s children. “Except Katyayani (Kachi), all the other children learnt from me in our guru’s absence and without his knowledge. I used to take classes sometimes separately. The eldest daughter Kameswari, youngest Bala Tripura Sundari (Bali), Ravi Shankar (Ravi), and Venkat (Nani). Though Nani learnt, he left it in between, while the other three learnt continuously,” says the Delhi dancer. The Vempati shishya agrees that it was completely different learning under Master garu than what she had imagined. “Indeed, he was strict,” she says. 

Teaching young Vempati Ravi and others

Praised For Her Dance: On working in his productions, while in Chennai, Seetha was given the role of Narada, in dance drama, Menaka Viswamitra. “Master garu appreciated my performance and said I justified the role. My mind was filled with joy and I was flying. That was my happiest mood,” she says. With child like enthusiasm, Seetha shares that famous actress of those days, Kanchana garu and she would jointly take class under Master garu, and in between she would teach the actress. “Manju Bhargavi (Manju), Balakondala Rao, Anupama Mohan are the others,” she remembers.

When Late Padma Shri Dr. Sobha Naidu garu established her dance school in Hyderabad, Master garu had sent Seetha to assist her. “Sobha Naidu was one- or two-years senior to me. But she never exhibited any traits of being senior and famous artist. Some of my old students remember my teaching, which brings me happiness,” she says. When her Guru told her to teach than perform, Seetha says: “As other girls, I too wanted to perform. But I knew my limitations. For a dancer, it’s very important to have good looks and stature. I know that it is less in me. I thank God for this much name and fame he blessed me in this glamorous field. I’m very much satisfied with this,” says the dance instructor.

Seetha was lucky to choose her Jeevan Sathi, Perumalswamy Nagajothy, in Chennai while teaching Dance at the Academy. “My parents are Aaruvela Niyogis and my husband belongs to another caste. Naturally, parents opposed. Somehow, I convinced them for my marriage. They didn’t want to conduct it in our hometown. So, it happened in Tirupati with the blessings of Lord Venkateswara Swamy,” she says. Perumalswamy says that Seetha used to take classes in the morning and he attended classes in the evening, where Durga garu taught. “All of us were good friends. In the holidays, all four of us, including my friend Kameshwar Rao met for an outing or Lunch/ Dinner. The friendship culminated in becoming life partners. My father was not in favour of the marriage, but my mother told me to marry as per my choice,” recalls the ex-IAF official.

Jugalbandi After Shaadi: The Nagajothy couple performed together only after entering into matrimony. Perumalswamy says that he has not performed female roles in Kuchipudi, but did so in Bharatanatyam. “I appeared as a female on stage in Bharatanatyam, yet to do so in Kuchipudi. That is called ‘Rupaana Rupamu’,” he explains. Learning multiple art forms, do they interfere with one another, Perumalswamy agrees that it is too difficult to maintain the individuality of different art forms. “The art form that you practice vigorously will penetrate the less practised one. When you get unlimited satisfaction and pleasure in Kuchipudi, why should one go for another,” he questions. 

After moving to Delhi in the 1990s, no Telugu association supported them. “It was only Delhi Tamil Sangam that offered us to take classes without paying any money. We struggled a lot to get students in the 90s. We used to have only one student for a long period. We concentrated only on teaching,” she says. Over the years things have changed, admits the dancer. Today, students from Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, the North and North East learn dance under us. “We have more students from the North East and North learning the art form from us. No matter, the art belongs to Andhra. Art has no bar or language. Dance is a communicative collective art. It speaks from dancer’s inch by inch body movements. Without words also it can be expressed through eyes, lips etc., in a better way. As Kuchipudi has the base of Natya Mela Sampradaya, it owns stories even in solo performances,” Seetha points out.

Patience Needed For Kuchipudi: Explaining why more girls than boys are interested in learning dance, Perumalswamy says: “Kuchipudi needs lot of patience to learn. Comparatively, girls have better patience than boys. And another thing to keep in mind is that people think dance is meant for girls only and they are the best attractive presenters. Audience require attraction in the Art and Artist, naturally girls are attractive.”

Seetha received Natya Visharada certificate from Master garu after her Rangapravesam (maiden performance). Also, she holds a BA in Dance from Andhra University. “Jayashree and I took Dance in BA. That time we approached and requested the Andhra University to introduce M.A. also. But they refused. I feel one must be well educated. After acquiring knowledge procure it and use it when and where it is necessary,” she says. She goes on to add that all our Puranas and Vedas are in Sanskrit and one must study to acquire knowledge as it will help in choreography.

Perumalswamy feels that with Dance becoming a subject of study in schools, colleges and Universities, things have changed a lot for the dancers. “Fifty to sixty years back, Dancers were not treated respectfully. When the education level of the public increased, they start respecting the Art and Artists,” he feels. Seetha states that earlier, they never had open applications to tour outside India. “Now it’s feasible for any artist. This is an advantage to the artist, which needs to be encouraged by the Government,” she says.

The ex-IAF official has many fond performance memories. “One is in Uganda, where 124 Israel hostages were rescued, and I had performed. Second is in Delhi, in the UK Embassy, when I was performing, an electric light cracked due to the heat and fell on the stage. The glass pieces were all over the stage and I was performing ‘Siva Stuti’ and while dancing on stage on the broken pieces my feet got cut and blood oozed out,” he reminiscences. 

Future Plans: Revealing future plans, Seetha says, she has written a Nritya Natakamu, titled ‘Viswambhara Vivahamu’ and is looking for funds to produce it. She has also received Fellowship from Ministry of Culture to study ‘Kuchipudi – Vritti Pravruttula Sammisrata’. “Like Kalakshetra, I too want to build a Kuchipudi Sadanam in which Kuchipudi dance, dance music, Yakshagana Natakamulu, Bhamakalapam from not only Kuchipudi, but banis like East Godavari banis, Srikakulam banis, instruments, should be taught. Also, academics in dance,” she says.

The Delhi couple who was touring the two Telugu states with their students are all in praise of the rasikas here. “They have aesthetic sense. Every smaller finishing, they showed their happiness by claps and laurels. Mainly, in Srisailam, we were fortunate to perform in front of Lord Mahadeva. It is our ‘Purva Janma Phalam’ I believe,” Seetha says. She adds that in Hyderabad, they were received well by the audience. “I thank everyone who witnessed our performance. Also, thank the Dept. of Language and Culture, Telangana Government, Sri Kishan Rao garu of Shilparamam and other officials,” she says.

On objections of using choreographies of Master garu, Seetha gives example of Adi Shankaracharya, who has written many devotional songs like Shivashtakam and so on. “All of us are using them freely without taking permission from him or his institution. This is also like that. If everyone follows Master garu’s numbers, his bani will spread worldwide. At the same time, they should not change his choreography according to one’s wish. Then it will be polluted. Definitely, Art is like a big ocean. All rivers join in, no matter big or small,” says Seetha.

On the other hand, Perumalswamy says that All Fine Arts, cultures and languages are the identity of our nation and its tradition. “Every citizen should be proud of all Arts, cultures, languages and traditions. Plurality is the real beauty of our Nation. Arts are many, but the heart of the nation is one,” he says. His better half adds that in this pandemic, she prays to God to give everyone good health and them a chance to serve the Kuchipudi Art form. 

1 thought on “In The Service Of Kuchipudi”

  1. Long live these couples and their services to the Art and Culture. There is a purpose in their life…one art ….one life . I am happy to say that I know him during his devoted practice days in Tambaram.

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