No obstacles to dance
Dancing was infra dig for his parents but he began a tradition of dance in his family. Meet Kuchipudi exponent Raja Reddy.
Dancing together: The Reddy family on stage. Courtesy: Raja Reddy
IT is rare to find five members of a family pursuing dance as a way of life. Rarer still is a dancer with two wives and their respective daughters living in perfect harmony. Meet the Reddys of Natya Tarangini in Delhi Raja, Radha and Kausalya, Yamini and Bhavana. Padmabhushan Raja Reddy is indeed unique. "Mine was a child marriage. I was 11 and Radha was five. From an early age, we were interested in Kuchipudi Bhagavatam. Our fathers sponsored programmes for the villagers, and we would invariably be at these," he recalls.
The Reddys are a land-owning caste and it was infra dig for them to perform in these shows and dances. Raja's passion made him travel and perform bit roles like Abhimanyu and Lohita on the sly. Once his furious father learnt about this, he threw Raja out of the house. "Mother cried and convinced father to bring me back. He did, but on one condition. He put me in a taluk school away from dance and drama. But, dance would not close its doors on me. The taluk village had just one cinema hall. `Nagin' was playing full of dances by Vyjayantimala. I saw it 17 times. I used to dance those numbers in school," he reminisces.
His father died while in his final year at school. "At last, I was master of my own fate." He went to Hyderabad for college and finished his pre-degree classes. Yet, his inner passion was dance. A friend took him to a Kuchipudi dance teacher. The teacher looked him up and down, ridiculed his complexion and features and dealt him a verbal blow "better go back to your village and farm. You are only fit for that." The distraught dancer was inconsolable for two days. Once again, his friend stood by him and took him to the Music College where dance was also taught. Thus Raja Reddy found himself in Kathak classes, forsaking his regular degree course.
"My first love, Kuchipudi, was not taught. Yet, for two years I learnt Kathak. Meanwhile, Radha came to join me. She was only 14. We started living as man and wife. One more year passed. I would come back from college and practice my Kathak at home. Radha watched me and soon joined me in practice step for step"
The young couple's ambition was fulfilled when Vedantam Prahallad Sharma agreed to teach them Kuchipudi provided they moved to his town, Eluru. Raja moved with his wife to Eluru. The Guru taught only Tandava to Raja and only Laasya to his wife conditions he imposed before taking them on as students. Those were hard days. "Radha used to cook in the small tenement we hired, wash my clothes and also do the household chores besides learning and practicing dance."
The big chance came in 1967. An officer in Delhi remembered the Kuchipudi dance number he had seen in Hyderabad and suggested Reddy's name for the only scholarship available for Andhra Pradesh. When Raja expressed hesitation, well-meaning elders advised him not to throw away this opportunity. His guru could also go and spend some time with him. The couple moved to Delhi and learnt choreography in the school set up by Maya Rao. Raja was the scholarship-holder but Radha also joined as a student. "I used to get the scholarship of Rs. 100 a month once in six months as lump sums" recalls Raja Reddy today.
Ups and downs
The veteran narrates two incidents with visible pain. One, the social boycott of his mother by their community, since they felt dancing by one of their clan was an insult to the community. "Mother did not tell me about this. When I went to the village after a year, someone told me that she was being denied the services of even the dhobi and potter. When I asked her, she told me to forget it. But how could I? I had no money. My elder sister, who was alive then, gave me her gold ring. I sold it, went to the taluk HQ, filed a case against the boycotters and won."
The other incident was the time he was refused a paltry Rs. 50 for a performance. "I wanted to give a performance for the Andhra Association. I am ashamed to narrate this incident. I asked them for Rs. 50 Rs. 15 each for the accompanists, and the balance five rupees for my transportation. They refused, saying that we were unknown artistes and that they couldn't afford it."
Yet, from then on, it was an upward ride for the Reddys. The Secretary of the Tamil Theatre, Mr. Raman, offered him a public performance where his guru could come at the organisers' expense and where he would also be paid the princely sum of Rs. 1,116. The legendary Indrani Rehman was there, and invited him and Radha to accompany her troupe as guest artistes wherever she went. The grateful Raja says, "For two years, we danced with her troupe. She was an extremely nice lady. If we are popular today, it is only because of her."
Raja Reddy, today at 60, never forgets to mention his debt of gratitude to Mr. Raman who gave him his first break. He recalls the kindness of Dr. Karan Singh who helped him get a house in Delhi. At a public function, Dr. Karan Singh mentioned that the young couple didn't have a house and Mrs. Gandhi asked the Housing Minister to allot them a house in Pandara Road.
The dancer narrates another incident of Mrs. Gandhi's human touch: "We were asked to perform at Teen Murti on November 14. As a male dancer, I had to perform with a bare torso. Mrs. Gandhi noticed this and said, `Kya Raja? Kya tum pagal hogaye ho? You haven't even brought a shawl in this cold?' She took out her shawl and gave it to me. I still have it with me."
Raja Reddy is always ready to experiment and innovate, always looking for new dimensions of creativity. One challenge was teaching dance to visually impaired students. The students in the Blind Relief Association asked him to teach them. At first, the request perplexed and worried him. But he was overjoyed to realise that they learnt by sound and rhythmic beats and performed to perfection on a Republic Day tableau. The same thing happened with hearing and speech impaired students. Raja Reddy's latest work is a Kuchipudi composition for three poems of President Kalam set to western classical music and English lyrics!
Today, Raja Reddy can look back with satisfaction at his eventful life. He also looks forward to the future. This unconventional man, who married two sisters and has one daughter from each, is happy that his children have also taken to dancing. Together, the family performs "Panchajaathi" where each comes with a separate style and combines in a grand finale to give the message "We are One."
Hailing from a non-dancing family where dancing was considered infra dig, Raja Reddy has established a tradition of dance within his own unusual family. Here is what he has to say about parampara:
"Nobody in my family was a dancer. I started it. I am married to two sisters Radha and Kausalya. My daughters through each of them are Yamini and Bhavana. I didn't force my daughters to take up dancing but both were interested. I am happy they are keeping up my parampara. I also started a festival by this name and presented other families of India with a tradition of dance or music, like those of Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Shivkumar Sharma. Tradition should be kept up in families where there is talent."
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