Concert Report: Dances of India (Kuchipudi)
Kuchipudi is a southern Indian dance style originating from the state of Andhra Pradesh (Kalyandurg 2017a). The dance was traditionally performed only by men, who would dress up as women to sing, dance, and portray stories and literature. This theatre style was known as yakshagan (Kalyandurg 2017b). However, Kuchipudi was modernized by Gurus Vedanta Lakshminarayana Sastry and Vempati Chinnasatyam in the 20th century, and grew to include women (Kalyandurg 2017a). Kuchipudi is one of eight styles of Indian classical dance, an art form that is exceptionally different than Western art forms. In performance, dancers must attempt to portray bhava (emotion) and rasa, a type of sentiment or mood evoked by the dancer’s bhava (Kalyandurg 2017b). Upon seeing Chitra Kalyandurg’s performance, I was captivated by these concepts. The abinaya (expression) in the performance gave a deeper understanding of dance and its relation to an audience.
The concert took place in a large, high ceilinged room with very little echo. About 100 audience members were in attendance, consisting of students, parents, and children. Because I was sitting in the back row of seats, my view of the performance was somewhat hindered. I could not see the orchestra (a small group consisting of professional Indian and American musicians who were sitting on the ground) for the duration of the concert, but noticed that their outfits were colors similar to that of Chitra’s: a mix of beige, brown, and a bronze-like orange. These earthy tones, along with the soothing sounds of the instruments and vocals, gave an aura of warmth throughout the room. Chitra’s first dance, Saraswati Vandanam, “invokes the blessings of Saraswati, the goddess of the arts and literature” (Kalyandurg 2017a). It began with the vocalist sustaining notes while Chitra danced with slow movements. Then, the speed of the music picked up, as did the dance movements. The violin matched the melody of the singer while Chitra’s feet often matched the drum rhythm (as did the reciting of the solkattu in Adi tāla). The music sounded uplifting and happy. After this performance Chitra came to address the audience, saying that the dance, “takes away evil thoughts and bestows you with knowledge” (ibid.). She then goes on to describe her next performance, Bhama Pravesham, and uses this format of explanation followed by dance for the rest of the concert.
I found Chitra’s description of the last dance to be the most intriguing. She explained how the dancer usually portrays one character, the narrator in the story, as seen in the first three performances. In this performance of Kamakshi Stuti, however, she would switch between three characters to tell the story of a goddess, her love interest, and the god of love. (Kalyandurg 2017a). I wasn’t able to hear the word she used to described this concept of portraying multiple characters, but found it interesting nonetheless.
"The dancer and the actor use their movements, actions, and expressions (facial, verbal, and nonverbal) to accomplish the same goal: tell the audience a story."
Chitra’s skill in expressing the different types of rasa (of which there are nine) was remarkable. Most notable were those in the last performance. Through her movements and abinaya, I was able to see the sringaram (love), karuna (sorrow), and bhayanaka (fear) of the main character, the goddess Kamakshi. (Kalyandurg 2017b). Interestingly enough, I noticed a parallel between Kuchipudi performance, and acting. The dancer and the actor use their movements, actions, and expressions (facial, verbal, and nonverbal) to accomplish the same goal: tell the audience a story. Titon claims, “...people mark performances, musical or otherwise, as separate from the flow of ordinary life…” (Titon 2015:16). This statement is particularly true in the context of this concert. Everyone in the audience, including myself, was taking a break from their normal activities to come see a unique performance, one which we may never have encountered in our “ordinary lives.”
While Chitra’s dancing was very well done and amazing to watch, I think the most engaging moments of the concert were between dances, when she would address the audience. In her explanations of the performances, she told the story using movements and hasta mudras (hand gestures) (Kalyandurg 2017b) that clearly portrayed the bhava of the characters. This was extremely helpful in interpreting the dance’s story when she performed it. Giving the audience a better understanding of the performance bridged the gap between audience and performer, between etic and emic perspectives.
[Concert report for an ethnomusicology course I took called Intro to Musics of the World]
Image from Boston College Music Department
Kalyandurg, Chitra. 2017a. "On Devi: A Kuchipudi Dance Performance." Program Notes. Boston College, Gasson 100, March 26, 2017.
Kalyandurg, Chitra. 2017b. "Kuchipudi." (Lecture, Boston College, March 23, 2017).
Titon, Jeff T., ed. 2015. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. 6th ed. Cengage Brain.