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  • Jahnavi Kirkire

A Classical Innovation: Dr. Aparna Sathe, Artistic Director, NrityaMala School of Dance

Dr. Aparna Sathe at History Editor Jahnavi Kirkire's Rangapravesham (solo performance)

November 6, 2022

Kuchipudi is one of the 10 classical dances that originate in India. History Editor Jahnavi Kirkire is an Indian classical dancer and has been learning Kuchipudi for 13 years with her Guru (teacher), Dr. Aparna Sathe, at NrityaMala School of Dance. She interviewed her to learn more about the origins of the dance style, its comparisons with other classical dances, and most importantly, to hear her thoughts on the innovation of classical dance in modern times. The conversation explores culture in classical dance and expands on the art from the perspective of a teacher, choreographer, and passionate dancer herself.

You chose to pursue Kuchipudi instead of the other Indian classical dances you were exposed to. Why dance, and why Kuchipudi?

Dancing is such a global term. It is a shared sense of expression and communication and knows no boundaries. The true learning of classical dance started in 1999 when I first went and saw three or four different dance styles of Indian classical origin. And then what appealed to me was the Kuchipudi dance style that I perform. And I just finished my Masters in it and absolutely love it.

What appealed to you in Kuchipudi, and where have you since taken the art as a choreographer, teacher, and performer?

Kuchipudi is a very fast-paced dance. I would say it has beautiful picturesque poses, rhythmic footwork, and also an element of abhineya, or what we call expression or sense of expression. It’s a good balance of all these things packed into one classical dance style. I’ve tried to, first of all, learn, to take an art somewhere. You need to know about the art, about what has been done already, and then, what you could contribute to it.

I have since contributed my Master’s thesis, where I have done research in the field of Hindustani classical music and its intersection with Kuchipudi. As far as the practical aspect of it, or the educational aspect as well, I have choreographed pieces to notable songs. Ganga Stotram [this dance piece was choreographed for Jahnavi Kirkire’s Rangapravesham or solo debut performance] was something I recently choreographed and I tried to bring out a lot of the salient features of Kuchipudi there. The biggest thing I have given back to the field is the training -- up until now, it’s easily been over a hundred students. Preparing dancers and sharing that joy is a big part of giving back to the field.

As you’ve observed, danced, and taught, what would you say are the hallmarks of Kuchipudi dance?

Definitely, the dancing on the brass plate, which is one of the features that gets presented in the Kuchipudi dance form. Because Kuchipudi is Natya, or drama oriented, we have noticeably more expression that comes out in the dance.

As you mentioned earlier, you choreographed Ganga Stotram recently. As you choreographed that piece, what was the process behind it?

Stage 1 was going through the entire composition and selecting particular verses to use for the choreography, alongside learning the meaning of it all. Stage 2 was introducing the characteristics of Kuchipudi into the choreography, which is complex because the tradition has evolved extensively since its origin.

One of the many things that the drama tradition has brought to Kuchipudi was the introduction of many characters. We had Lord Shiva and Bhagiratha on the stage, and it was a half an hour performance. Technically speaking, I crafted 10 new jathis, or rhythmic compositions, alongside a portion of the dance performed on the brass plate.

When you choreograph, is there a particular tradition it stems from?

My style of choreography is very similar to my recent gurus, Dr. Raja-Radha Reddy, and the clarity of choreography appeals to me a lot when they do it, so I try to imitate it when crafting my own pieces. Styles can be very different, with the technical bits and the expressive ones, and this is a more modern form that is concise in its appearance.

As a significant Kuchipudi exponent, what are your observations between Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam?

One big similarity: both are part of the 10 Indian classical dance styles. The status has come from following the Natya Shastra, or the Abhinaya Darpanam, which are the textual references. Both are classical in that way. One difference is one comes from Natya Dharmi, which is the drama tradition, and one is based on temple tradition. The origin is very different, and one is quite ancient compared to the other. When you come to the style of dancing, Bharatnatyam is probably more rigid, not in a bad way, but in a stricter body movement sense, whereas Kuchipudi is more "flowy."

What would you say are the hallmarks of a good Kuchipudi dancer versus of a good Bharatnatyam dancer?

Dance knows no boundaries, and art is defined by passion. The hallmarks are truly not different. I think practice, devotion, passion, and a lot of hard work in these art forms really make you a better dancer. It’s not one style over the other, it’s really the basic discipline of pursuing the passion that is required. As long as you inculcate these principles in your everyday life as a dancer, it’ll take you to another level.


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