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Maestro Vempati Chinna Satyam Visits New England

Ranjani Saigal

Padmabhushan Vempati Chinna Satyam has often been described as the maestro with a mission - to spread Kuchipudi, a tradition that he was born into. Born in a traditional family of dancers in the village, Kuchipudi, Andhra Pradesh, dance was intermingled in Vempati's blood and veins. Young Vempati was initiated into this great art by Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastry, a great master in the style. As he learnt the nuances of this style of dance, Vempati was avid to see this great heritage permeate all over the world.

With this burning desire he left his native village at the age of 18. Due to financial constraints he walked all the way to Madras ,the cultural Mecca of all fine arts. He underwent vigorous training under his cousin, Vempati Pedda Satyam who was a well established dance director in the film world. He also spent a year under various teachers, extending his knowledge of various styles.

The glitter and glamour of the tinsel world failed to impress him. With the desire to spread Kuchipudi, burning within, Vempati started teaching and started his Kuchipudi Art Academy at Madras in 1963. He composed his first dance drama Sri Krishna Parijatham in the same period followed by another hit Ksheera Sagara Madanam and played the lead role. His portrayal of Lord Shiva and his brilliant choreography was received with thunderous applause. With his very first attempt passing in flying colours, his long cherished desire, to establish Kuchipudi among the prominent classical styles, got a shot in the arm.

Vempati made his first trip overseas in 1971 to London and France, gaining, accoload and acclamations wherever he went. He then toured South America and the Caribbean Islands, with his troupe to participate in the Festival of India in 1973. From then on, followed an endless stream of trips. Vempati's charismatic choreography and scintillating style were witnessed and applauded in almost all parts of the world.

Notable amongthe numerous Awards, honors and citations conferred on him are :- Kalaprapurna by Andhra University,Kuchipudi nritya Pramukh by Sangeet Natak Academy (New Delhi), Honorary Doctorate(D.Litt.) by Sri Venkateswara University (Tirupati), Astana Vidwan by Sri Venkateswara Temple (Pittsburgh), T.T.K.Memorial Award by the Madras Music Academy, Kalidas Puraskar by Government of Madhya Pradesh, Kalai mamani by Govt. of Tamil Nadu. The Mayor of Miami presented the Golden Key award to him in 1984, the Mayor of Dayton, Ohio declared September 25,1994 as Vempati Chinna Satyam Day, the Mayor of Ghanna, Ohio declared April 27,1984 as classical Indian Kuchipudi Ballet dance Drama and the Mayor of Atlanta declared 3rd November 1994 as Kuchipudi Dance Drama Day. Honorary citizenship was conferred on Dr.Vempati by the Mayor of Cleveland. The Mayor of Memphis declared September 24, 1994 as 'Ramayana Day' and the Key to the city was awarded to him. Gold medal was presented to him by the President of Tunisia at the Cartage Festival. Citations and Honors conferred at the Avignon Festival, France in 1995.

Vempati Chinna Satyam and his troupe presented his latest creation Gopika Krishna at the Mindess Middle School in Ashland under the auspicies of TANE USA. The presentation succeeded in dazzling the audience with characteristic display of elaborate costumes chosen appropriately to suit each role. The story was the all-too familiar theme of the life Krishna as a child. The lifting of the Govardhana Mountain, Krishna with the Gopis , Kalinga Nartanam and the killing of Kamsa, chanura and Mushtikasur were highlighted in the presentation. Featuring over thirty dancers the presentation in the typical VCS style was a combination of excellent classical dance numbers and theatrical exaggeration that succeeded in transporting the viewer to Vrindavan. Kumari Sandya excelled as Krishna. The music for the drama included many catchy folk tunes.

Vempati Chinna Satyam consented to an interview with Lokvani. I have been an ardent fan of the master and was a little taken aback to see him in a frail condition having seen his energetic personality in the past. But the moment we started talking it was clear that his advanced years had not dimmed the passion for his art. We present here some excerpts from the interview.

Lokvani: You are considered as the father of modern Kuchipudi. You have given it a new shape and given it a pride of place amongst classical dances. What motivated you to do this?

VCS: I did not do anything new at all. My teacher was the one who felt that if Kuchipudi has to spread it must be taught to women and we must include solo performances. Whatever I have presented is solely what I have been taught by my teacher and presented authentic Kuchipudi to the world.

Lokvani: I am surprised to hear this since your version is more classical than versions seen earlier.

VCS: During the past century a lot of Yakhshagana influence came into Kuchipudi robbing it of some of its authenticity. With the inspiration of my guru I was able to bring back the original form which has gained such acceptance in the realm of classical dance.Everything I do is straight from the Natya Shastra.

Lokvani: You have created many dance dramas which have dazzled the audience. Could you describe the process of creating these master pieces? Is there one drama that is your favorite?

VCS: First we get an idea. Then I consult the books and pundits to get a complete understanding of the story. We then work with musicians to create the music. I like to pay a great deal of attention to costumes. Once the piece is created and presented, I listen to the voices of the audience and continuously try to improve the work.

Of all my dramas I think I have enjoyed Haravilasam the most.

Lokvani: What does it take to be good dancer? In today’s busy world do your students have time to give to dance?

VCS: One must have a passion for the art and a dedication. Time is there. People with the passion will find time. One must learn the technique and practice it well. One must read the Natya Shastra. Knowledge of music and languages is also very important. One must not do it for money.

Once we were invited to the reception at B.Nagi Reddy’s home. Kamala Lakshmanan (now Kamala Narayanan) was supposed to perform at 7:00 pm. It was 10:00 pm and she had not come and yet no one moved. They were waiting not for her but her art. That is the kind of impact a dancer needs to create.

Lokvani: Are you comfortable that the treasure you have created is safe?

VCS: Of course. Art never dies. Only people do.

Lokvani: I thank you for your time.

VCS: Thank you.

As I left I understood why this man was revered so much. When I apologized to the maestro for taking time away from his meals he immediately replied "I would rather talk about art to interested people than eat". The maestro’s charm, passion for the art and his dedication to his mission makes him a haloed personality.

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Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam with the TANEUSA team members

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