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Master of the language

ARUNA CHANDARAJU

Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, the Kuchupudi maestro who had choreographed his first ballet when he was 13, believes that every innovation must first respect the classical boundaries

Photo: Murali Kumar K.

ROAD TO SUCCESS Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry: ‘Discipline and commitment are a must'

Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry cannot recall when he took his first steps in dance. So my question on when he was initiated into the art cannot be answered by this Kuchipudi guru, performer, choreographer and theorist. His earliest memory, he says, is only of his first performance. Like most artistes born into the tradition and surrounded by performers and teachers, he began learning even before he could talk or walk.

A respected teacher and performer, Ramalinga Sastry was born in Kuchipudi, the village in Andhra Pradesh after which this classical-dance form is named. His father was dancer-teacher Vedantam Suryanarayana, and his uncle was Nritya Vachaspati Vedantam Parvatheesham, who wrote treatises on dance. Another uncle was the great dancer, Vedantam Sathyanarayana Sharma, famed for his superb female-impersonation. Sastry learnt abhinaya from him.

By the age of 13, Sastry had composed his own ballet, “Bhookailasam” –– lyrics, music, choreography and all. After 10th standard, he left Kuchipudi and did a five-year Bhasha Praveena course in Telugu as he had realised that command of the language and knowledge of its literature was essential to good scripting of ballets and for effective teaching.

The legendary Vempatti Chinna Sathyam had a deep influence on their family, reveals Sastry. “He was a role model for my siblings and family elders. For three years in a row, I attended the summer classes that Vempati organised in Kuchipudi. I imbibed from him the grammar of dance and how to create the flow of scenes in a ballet, something for which Vempati is widely renowned.” Vempati's elder brother Vempati Pedda Satyam had choreographed many a beautiful classical dance sequence in Telugu films, including padams and javalis. “I would watch each such film several times over for these dances,” reveals Sastry.

Sastry began teaching dance from the age of 20, and set up a dance school in Vijayawada. Later, he relocated to Hyderabad, accepting a job in Indian Railways, and did his M.A. and Ph.d. in Telugu at Osmania University. He continued composing ballets, writing, teaching and performing.

Today, he has a record number of over 60 ballets to his credit, covering all Kuchipudi elements, as also theme-songs for many cultural organisations in India and abroad. “I also take on one role in each of my ballets. But only that which suits my face and physique, even if it's a minor one or a negative character. I don't grab the main role just because it's my ballet.”

The great strength and beauty of Indian classical arts have been that they retain tradition while embracing the new. So it has been with Kuchipudi. And Sastry, especially, believes that every innovation must first respect the classical boundaries.

Sastry spearheaded the Guinness-World-Record creating ‘Largest Kuchipudi Dance' event of 2008 organised by Silicon Andhra in USA which featured over 300 dancers spanning five generations. This scholar regularly gives lecture-demonstrations and conducts workshops across India and abroad. He has also helped formulate dance-related syllabi. His first book (doctoral thesis) was “Telugulo Kuchipudi Nataka Vikasam”, while the second one “Kuchipudi Vyaasa Manjari” examines the grammar of this art-form, its evolution, social elements, relation with Yakshagana, etc. He has also part-authored “Brahmana Sarvasvam” on dance.

He returned to his native place when he was invited by Potti Sriramulu Telugu University to be guest faculty at Siddhendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kala Peetham, in Kuchipudi village. Today, he is involved in teaching, performing, choreographing and composing, while also guiding research scholars including students who come to this institution from within India and prestigious universities abroad.

Sastry finds the growing appeal of Kuchipudi heartening. He also notes with satisfaction its increasing presence at cultural festivals in India and abroad. “But this proliferation must go hand in hand with adherence to classical purity. Students must have rigorous and comprehensive grounding in the practical and theoretical aspects before they take to the stage. Moreover, the student must be able to mouth his own dialogues and sing his own padyams (poems). Also, Kuchipudi or for that matter, any classical art, must be learnt and taught for its own sake rather than for fame and money. Finally, every student and teacher must have discipline and commitment which are the twin qualities that help any art to flourish,” he concludes.

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