Cutting across conventions

Aesthetic pursuit

Expressive Padmashree Vedantam Sathyanarayana Sarma, an exponent of Kuchipudi dance, transforms himself into a  female dancer and enthralls his audience.

For nearly seven decades now, the legendary Kuchipudi dancer has won accolades for the stree-veshams or female roles he specialises in. As Sathyabhama in ‘Bhama Kalapam’, Usha in ‘Usha Parinayam’, Sasirekha in ‘Sasirekha Parinayam’, and Gollabhama in ‘Gollakalapam’, he has swept audiences off their feet with his perfect impersonation of a woman and all her feminine grace and womanly wiles, and in all her moods and temperaments. He performs the vain Sathyabhama with greatest aplomb, say dance critics. Awards like Padmashree, Kalidas Samman and honorary doctorate from Telugu University are among the various honours that have come his way.

Kuchipudi has had a long tradition of female impersonation. For centuries, since men alone performed this dance, all roles, including that of female characters, were played by males. It is only in the past few decades that women have begun performing Kuchipudi. Today, they outnumber men among practitioners of this art!

Sarma was born in the Kuchipudi village of Andhra Pradesh into a family of Kuchipudi dancers. As his dancer-teacher-father died when he was just one, Sarma’s initial tutelage was under his elder brother Vedantam Prahlada Sarma who taught him solo items (padams, javalis, tharangams, sabdams, keerthanas). This was followed by training under Chinta Krishnamurthy in Kuchipudi Yakshaganam including female roles.

His initial performances were as a sakhi (young female-companion) of princess Usha. This role, despite being a minor one, began earning so much notice and praise from audiences that Sarma and his gurus decided that he must specialise in female roles.
Unlike many other male Kuchipudi dancers who do stree-veshams but also dance as males in solos and group items, Sarma does female roles alone. And he has nearly 10,000 performances to his credit.

From presidents, dance-critics, audiences, and fellow dancers including iconic ones, he has earned much praise for his brilliant portrayals of female characters. Also, he sings for himself with only minimal support from the sutradhaar. Sarma studied Carnatik music for four years and earned a diploma too. He recalls with amusement the incident when a woman stormed out of the audience after she saw her husband (a temple dharmakartha) get on stage and garland him.

At home, she demanded to know from her husband how he could garland another woman –– tantamount to accepting her as wife –– while she was still alive! Once, then president Dr B Rajendra Prasad came onstage after Sarma’s performance and lavished praise on him saying this — “Amma’s performance transcended the physical and aesthetic and was sheer spirituality”. Amused bystanders including Rukmini Devi Arundale had to tell the president that this Amma was a man!

Sarma enacted a male role only once in his life, that of ‘Manmadha’, but only on celluloid –– in the Telugu film Rahasyam — on the persuasion of his brother and film-director Vedantam Raghavaiah. The film’s heroine, B Saroja Devi, was incredulous when she learnt that he was a young boy and not a girl who had been cast in this role. In those days, young girls frequently enacted male roles in dance-episodes in films! Besides the above-mentioned female roles, Sarma has also played Vishwamohini, the celestial seductress in ‘Ksheerasagaramadhanam’, and the temple-dancer Devadevi in ‘Vipranarayana Kuchipudi Yakshaganam’ which he got specially written by Devulapalli Krishna Sastry.

Sarma, who now spends most of his time grooming students at his Venkatarama Natya Mandali, feels dedication to the art and chaste classicism should be ideals for aspiring dancers. “There are many talented and brilliant dancers around. But I feel pained when I meet youngsters who take this art casually –– they can’t sing their own songs; some can’t even name the ragas of songs being rendered to them; they are unsure of the differences between the respective bhangimas and mukthayis of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi and mix them up; and they don’t care for authenticity in costumes.”

Sarma believes that classical dance in India is not receiving the encouragement it deserves from the government. “The central and state governments must support dancers throughout their career, beginning with scholarships for students; followed by subsidies and monetary support for performances; and a chain of good art centres which organises dance events regularly and provides quality platforms. Moreover, government recognition and awards should go to a deserving artiste when he/she is at his/her peak instead of the current trend of giving it when the performer has reached his 60s or 70s,” he adds.

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