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Through the Lens

Back to Issue | October 2020

Through the Lens

Conversation between Raja & Radha Reddy and Tanya Saxena

Drs. Raja and Radha Reddy are legends of Kuchipudi – their names synonymous with the dance form. For many dancers, especially those growing up in Delhi in the 70’s and 80’s, they represent an ideal of success. Their long list of accolades as a dancing couple include India’s highest civilian awards – the Padma Shree and the Padma Bhushan – as well as the  Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Nritya Choodamani. Invited at one time to teach at the prestigious Julliard School of Arts in New York, together with Kaushalya Reddy (Raja Reddy’s second wife as well as Radha’s younger sister), they teach Kuchipudi to pupils around the world through their institute Natya Tarangini – with centers at New Delhi, Hyderabad and Los Angeles. 

In conversation with Bharatanatyam dancer Tanya Saxena…

Formative Years

What was it that initially nurtured in both of you the desire to learn dance? Could you share your dance story?

(Raja and Radha Reddy): Teluguland is the land of Yakshaganam, Bhagavatam and Natakam – a way of storytelling that is a combination of Natyam, Nrittam & Nrityum. Radha and I have been together since childhood as ours was a child marriage. As children we would watch these Bhagavatams together. Whenever our fathers organized these Natakams we used to call the other person over to the house and watch them together. We belong to a Reddy family, which was part of the landlord community, and the Bhagavatams were performed by low class people. However we were fascinated by dance and drama. 

(Raja Reddy): My fascination for the Bhagavatams was so much that sometimes I used to run away to nearby places to catch them. Whenever I could I also took up the chance to perform small roles in them without my family’s knowledge. One day my father saw me performing in some other village and he got very angry. I was beaten up by a hunter that day and was sent to Nirmala district for studies. However those performances used to give me happiness and my madness for dance & drama gradually increased. Hence I pushed myself to learn & perform further.

(Raja and Radha Reddy): This exposure to the dance and drama is what sparked in us the desire to learn this art form.

You both trained under Shri Vedantam Prahlada Sharma in Elluru, and for a time stayed there as well. What was your relationship with your Guru like?

When we approached our Guru, Shri Vedantam Prahlada Sharma, he asked us to come to Elluru to learn under him. He arranged for our accommodation near his own house so that we could observe, follow and learn from his daily routine of dance. That was the beauty of Gurukulam – his every movement was a learning for us. His walk, his talk and actions were a lesson to us.

What was a typical class like?

Our classes started at 6 am in the morning and went on till 8 am – wherein we did Adavus before breakfast. After 10 am till lunch we learnt small items with rhythm like Teermanams, Jathis and Shabdams as well as expressions like Hastha mudras. Then around 4 pm to 6 pm, or some days till 7 pm, we practised what we learnt earlier in the day. This was also when Guruji taught us Shlokas, Hastha mudras, Nethrabhinaya, Shiro bhedas, Greeva bhedas and other fundamentals. Gradually he started teaching us small items like Ganapati Vandana, small Shabdams; Jathiswarams, Tillanas, Devistuti, Dashavataram, and Tarangam.

What prompted you to shift to Delhi? Were your teachers apprehensive about the move? Were you?

We came to Delhi on a scholarship from the Govt. of Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) to learn choreography from Smt. Maya Rao. Smt. Maya Rao had learnt choreography from Russia and was keen on sharing her learnings. She requested the different states to send representatives to learn from her.

My earlier gurus were not in favor of my shifting to Delhi. They felt I should stay in Andhra to perform and spread the art. But we were very keen on learning choreography and moreover we were selected for a scholarship from the Govt. of A.P. We were very happy to come to Delhi to learn new ways to spread our divine dance art to Northern India and other parts of our country, and bring the culture of Teluguland to the capital of India.  

We also learnt a lot as a result. After learning from Smt. Maya Rao we re-worked each item keeping in mind the modern stage; structuring each piece with a beginning, development and climax. In the same way we worked about small episodes from traditional dance dramas. We learnt strict discipline of presentation.

Making a Career in Dance

What would you describe as some of the highlights of your careers?

After we learnt choreography we gave our first live performance at AIFACS Hall, near Shastri Bhawan in January 1970. It was the first full length Kuchipudi dance performance in the capital of our Country. The next day all the main national newspapers had the headlines “Andhra dancers stormed Delhi audience with their Kuchipudi dance recital”.  This was the turning point of our career. 

After this recital we were invited by other eminent dignitaries for live performances. One such performance was at the convention hall of the Ashoka Hotel. Among other dignitaries the Director of the Avignon International Dance Festival was also present. He liked our performance very much and invited us to perform at the festival to be held in France. We travelled to France and one of the items we presented was Dashavataram. We got a standing ovation and applause from the audience continuously for half an hour. We had to come back to the stage nine times to acknowledge the applause. The 10th time we finally did Sashtanga Namaskaram on the stage and only then did the audience stop clapping. Our dance was adjudged the best performance of the festival and it was telecast through all of France.

We also performed at the Non-Aligned Meet which was attended by 110 heads of state from all over the world. The then Prime Minister organized a performance of 6 Classical dance styles – Kathak, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri & Mohiniattam. After seeing our performance the Cuban President Mr. Fidel Castro requested that Kuchipudi dance be presented in Cuba. We performed in Cuba in 1983 for 3 days – from 30th September to 2nd October – and the Cuban President was present for all our performances. He recorded our performance with our permission and gave us a grand reception. From there, we went to America to perform.

After our return we were informed by the Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi ji that Mr. Fidel Castro had personally written a letter to her saying that he saw all of India in our performance. This was one of the things that was instrumental in our receiving the Padmashri. In the history of the Padma awards this was the first time a couple was awarded the Padmashri – together, individually and simultaneously for Kuchipudi dance. 

We also performed for the President of the USA – Mr. Ford – on the Mississippi Ship in the year 1976 in New Orleans.

In our 50 years of career we have travelled to more than 104 countries and showcased our rich culture and talent to numerous Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses, Presidents and other dignitaries all across the world.

In an interview with the Times of India, your daughter Yamini mentioned that you would only allow her to pursue dance after she handed you her MBA. Radha mam, you especially, were reluctant to let her pursue dance because of how much one struggles in the profession. Would you be open to sharing your struggles over the years – in between the awards and recognition –  and how you over came them?

We were both very clear that our daughters must complete their educational qualifications before pursuing classical dance as their profession. 

We struggled a lot in the initial days of our career. Our livelihood depended on performing and teaching as dance was all we had. Radha used to manage all the household work herself and practice with me for performances. Many a times performances would be cancelled at the last minute. We also had a team of musicians for practice and for performances. We had to pay their remunerations, transportation charges, etc. as well. Our families too were treated as outcasts and socially boycotted by our Reddy community. After coming to Delhi we also faced competition from other dance styles.

Despite this we kept on dancing. Dance for us was not just a career; it was our passion, and an integral part of our life. We both shared this passion which helped us overcome every hindrance and focus on practise, performance and teaching. We wanted to establish Kuchipudi and showcase the culture of Teleguland. We never learnt dance for materialistic benefits at all. We always danced for our self-satisfaction and to give anandam to the audience by touching their souls with our dance.

Do you feel you’ve reached a place where you no longer have to struggle? If yes, at what point did you feel your struggle stopped?

As the saying goes practice makes one perfect and practice of dance has to be continuous for giving performances. The appreciation we receive is not worthy if we ourselves are not satisfied with our own performance. Our struggle is never ending as we keep on practising to perform. After one of our performances the Times of India wrote: 

“… Radha and Raja’s recital should be an eye-opener to many other professional and self styled artistes in our country……”

Such encouraging words have always been a big source of motivation.

On Dance and Process

You’ve been dancing and teaching for decades now. How have you seen the dance evolve, and where is it today?

Dance is like a river where the old water rushes to merge into the ocean and the new water flows into the river. However the banks of the river remain intact. We have to change the presentation of our dance according to the current times keeping the grammar of the dance style intact. We learnt Kuchipudi in the traditional way. Earlier we were performing only for South Indians who understand Telugu – the language of our Kuchipudi dance. After coming to Delhi we realized that to connect with the audience of North India – Hindi speaking audiences – we have to adapt to a language according to them. We were advised by Dr. Shiv Ram Murty, founder of The National Museum and writer of The Art of India, “You are in North India and you should choreograph and present dance items in this region’s language by strictly keeping the grammar of Kuchipudi dance intact.” It has also been mentioned in one of the Vruttis of the Natya Shastra that when you move from your region to another region you have to choreograph according to the regional language and music while keeping the dance style intact. We decided that Kuchipudi dance should adapt itself to the aesthetics and sensibilities of the changing times. Hence, we choreographed our dance items based on Hindi, Urdu & even English languages. Thus, we managed to put Kuchipudi dance on the cultural map of the world.

We believe experiments in this form – without disturbing the grammar and technique of any style – can be done for the present times and current generation.

Dr Raja Reddy – you have spoken about how it was difficult for Gurus to accept you because you did not look feminine enough to play female roles. Now, there are far more female practitioners as opposed to male performers. Can you comment on this, and the role that gender plays in the dance now?

My first Guru refused to teach me because of my dark complexion saying my features were not suitable for female roles. Those days Kuchipudi dance was performed only by men and men used to take both male and female roles. They used to perform by traveling from village to village. But when I approached my Guru Shri Vedantam Prahlada Sharma garu I took Radha along with me. He was very surprised and happy to see both of us together as he felt that he could teach us complete dance – Purusha & Prakriti – both male & female roles. He invited us to Elluru Kalashatram to learn from him. 

Nowadays females are learning the dance with equal passion and have truly outnumbered the male dancers. And with devotion and practice they are even performing male roles with perfection and are now performing on the world stage. Sidhendra Yogi ji combined the temple dance and theatre and created this unique style of Kuchipudi Dance of storytelling. With practice and dedication anyone can learn and perform with perfection irrespective of gender and anyone can play male and female roles equally well.

How do you structure an evening’s performance today – keeping in mind that the dance has evolved from a drama to a solo performance?

Kuchipudi is a combination of theatre and dance and it tells a complete story.  But in 1 hour we cannot present a complete story so we show a glimpse or a certain part of the story like Bhamakalapam, Ushaparinayam, Prahaladacharitam etc. We start the performance with an invocation to the Lord, then we perform a Nritta item like Jathiswaram. We then move on to perform one Shabdam – like in Dashavataram we alternate between the two of us performing one avatar at a time and coming together as Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi Devi at the end. The concluding performance is the Tarangam. It’s a saying that while dancing on the brass plate the dancer loses all connection with the earthly world and connects to the God directly. In the Varahaapuranam also Varaha Swamy has compared the yogi to the dancer performing on the brass plate rather than dancer being compared to the yogi. 

We perform solo, duet and group performances following a similar pattern.

You have been teaching Kuchipudi for years now, first in Delhi and now in branches of Natya Tarangini in Hyderabad and Los Angeles. How do you adapt your teaching process for students who have never seen Bhagavata Mela – who have little context or connection with the roots of the dance?

We don’t find it compulsory to know or watch Bhagavatam to learn the beautiful dance of Kuchipudi. 

We train the students by beginning from Adavus – Alphabets; then Teermanams – Words and then Jathis – Sentences.

We gradually teach them rhythmic syllables, complete stories like Shabdams (Gajendra Moksham and Rajashrishabdam for example). We teach them stories with expressions, hand gestures, bhavams followed by rhythmic patterns. Students learning from us understand and appreciate the uniqueness of Kuchipudi dance.

We have our main center in Delhi wherein we personally teach. Our elder daughter, Yamini Reddy, and younger daughter, Bhavana Reddy, have set up centers in Hyderabad and Los Angeles respectively, where they are currently teaching.

Quick 5 – One line answers

What is your go to method to keep fit (apart from dance)?  

Practising Yoga (which is also a creation of Lord Shiva), walking and a balanced healthy diet keep us fit.

What do you like to do in your free time (any hobbies apart from dance?) 

(Raja Reddy): Watching the Birds, enjoying their spirit of freedom

(Radha Reddy): Cooking and experimenting with new cuisines 

Any favorite composition/composer?

Annamcharya Kirtanas:

  • Brahmma mokkatey parabrahmma mokkatey parabrahmma mokkatey 
  • Sirutha Navvula Vaadey Sinnakka

Other artists whose work you enjoy?

Late Shri M. Balamurlikrishna Garu and Dr. Vyjanthimala Bali

An aspect of dance – abhinaya, nritta, sahitya, etc. – that you particularly enjoy?

Both Abhinaya and Nritta. In Abhinayam we find the combination of facial expressions, hand gestures (mudras) & body movements (angaa abhinayam). In Nritta we find the varieties of rhythmic footwork patterns & body movements

Words of Advice

What does success – in dance or otherwise – mean to you?

Success is self-satisfaction; our consciousness should be happy. 

Appreciation from the audience it is like a pat on our back. It gives us a boost to work harder so that we can put up better performances.

What would be your advice to young dancers today – specifically those looking to pursue dance professionally?

We advise dancers to approach the dance with devotion & sadhna. You should aim for perfection so that you yourself are self-satisfied, only then you will you get appreciation. You should always dance for yourself. You should not forget the greatness of our Bharat – which is known as Prachisudha or nectar of the east. Whenever you perform in other countries you should present items which will show the greatness of our Bharat. At a UNESCO conference in Stockholm after seeing our performance the Chairman Bengt Hagar came on the stage and said, “What a beautiful dance! Whatever dances are there in the world are copies of Indian dance!” Young dancers should feel privileged to represent this heritage.

Tanya Saxena

Tanya Saxena is a Delhi based Bharatanatyam dancer trained under Guru Padmabhushan Saroja Vaidyanathan. An empanelled artist with Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Government of India and with Doordarshan, she holds a masters degree in Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu University and a BSC in Mathematics from Delhi University (Hindu College). Follow on Instagram @delhidancer

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