Kuchipudi calling: The 'Black Shiva'

Raja Reddy, with his innovative choreography and undeniable stage chemistry with his wife Radha, has infused new life and weaved in stirring inventions into the art form’s classical structure

The Reddys

When a young Raja Reddy approached his guru seeking to learn kuchipudi, his guru was first aghast. “What are you doing here, black man?! You should be ideally farming back in your village,” was what he said to Reddy, who was to become, arguably, his most famous disciple ever.

But Raja Reddy had not come to go back, and such reactions only spurred him further. Back in his village near Adilabad, his entire community had protested against his decision to pursue dance as a career. His mother was ‘boycotted’ for supporting her son. “It did not stop my mother from being my biggest cheerleader, and it was her encouragement and unstinting support that gave me the strength to face the world,” recalls Raja Reddy.

Years later, after a scintillating performance in London’s Elizabeth Hall, Raja Reddy was honored with the title of ‘Black Shiva’ — a sort of reverse-racist vindication, if you will.

Here comes the name

Years later, after a scintillating performance in London’s Elizabeth Hall, Raja Reddy was honored with the title of ‘Black Shiva’ — a sort of reverse-racist vindication, if you will.

The Reddys – Raja, his two wives Radha and Kaushalya (sisters for those who do not know), along with his two daughters Yamini and Bhavana (one from each wife) — are today a one-of-a-kind family virtually synonymous with kuchipudi. Even their harshest detractors cannot deny their immense contribution to lifting kuchipudi out of the abyss it was in danger of falling into. Raja Reddy, with his innovative choreography and undeniable stage chemistry with his first wife Radha, has infused new life and weaved in stirring inventions into the art form’s classical structure. In 2000, the couple was awarded the Padma Bhushan for their services. This year, Natya Tarangini, the Delhi-based dance institution established by the family, is organising an Ode to Nataraja, the lord of dance, to celebrate Raja Reddy’s 50 years of performing and teaching under the annual ‘Parampara Festival of Music and Dance’ conducted every year by the school. For the Reddys' nothing has come easy though. When his guru, the iconic Vedantam Prahalada Sarma accepted him despite his reservations, his child bride Radha also came along.

Eventually, she got interested in dancing as well. “We did sadhana day and night… nothing else mattered to us. Our guru would sometimes make me stand in a single position for half an hour just to get the posture right,” recalls the maestro.

In 1966, after a few years of learning under Guru Sarma, the couple went to Delhi on a scholarship to train under Guru Maya Rao in choreography. Once the scholarship period was over, they were ready to leave Delhi but scholar-politician Dr Karan Singh, who had seen them perform, persuaded them to stay back. “But Delhi was an expensive city even in those days and employment opportunities were very few,” says Mr Reddy.

When they were ready to leave again, there came another performance, this time for Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary. “Indira Gandhi was the prime minister then. She saw us perform, came up to us and said Dr Karan Singh told me you are leaving. Please don’t.” When the couple told her they had nowhere to live, they were allotted a house. For Raja Radha Reddy, as they came to be known, there was never any looking back after that. The Reddys have performed all over the world and were the first dancing couple from India to perform in international festivals of dance in countries such as France and Austria.

They went on to perform in several other festivals including at New York, London and Washington. “Funnily enough, once the late president Ford wanted to see our production, and we ended up performing on a boat bobbing on the Mississippi river!” chuckles Reddy.

Raja Reddy is one of those rare male classical dancers who does not take himself too seriously

Funny bone

Raja Reddy is one of those rare male classical dancers who does not take himself too seriously. His laugh is infectious, and even the famously severe Karan Thapar has mentioned in his recent book that his interview with the Reddys was one of his most memorable; mostly because of the couple’s disarming humour.

“We fight, we have our differences, but we know how to resolve them; be it on the stage or in life, we are partners,” he says, talking at length about his unique relationship with his first wife. Raja refutes recent media reports of kuchipudi being on the decline. “Certainly, times have changed. Youngsters today do not have the time for a ‘gurukul’, but this does not mean classical dances are losing ground. In fact, I find youngsters more keen than ever to learn,” says Reddy, who also believes that male dancers today do not face as much discrimination and difficulty as he did.

His advice to young male dancers of today? “Go for it, and if anyone discourages you, go for it with more passion.” Evidently, that is exactly what Raja Reddy himself did!

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Kuchipudi calling: The 'Black Shiva'

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