Dance connects us all and we become one when we dance, says eminent Kuchipudi dance Kaushalya Reddy as she opens up on the subject.
One can barely miss the mammoth red hard cover compilation of the Vedas on the desk of danseuse and guru Kaushalya Reddy.
The room is filled with books of literature on Indian classical dance, mostly in Telugu. Different versions of Natyashastra, the oldest treatise on Indian music, among others adorn the shelf.
Beaming with a smile she welcomes you to her world of Kuchipudi at Natya Tarangini school of dance, which is close to her heart. She has been one of the first students as her guru and husband and her sister Raja and Radha Reddy started the initiative in Delhi way back in 1976.
As Natya Tarangini celebrates its 43rd birth anniversary, she fondly recalls, “When he moved to Delhi 1966, he began learning choreography from Guru Maya Rao at Natya Ballet Centre, who had herself learnt choreography at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. Ever since, he’s been doing his own choreography. He is always open to new suggestions from students. He sits and researches on the subject before enacting any choreography.”
Choreography in classical Kuchipudi, using Hindi, English or Sufiana songs is no easy task, without compromising the grammar of the art.
To connect with the audience Raja Reddy has always tried out new things. Tarana from Hindustani classical or a verse from the Bible or even Sufiana Kalam like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Sansoon ki mala have been beautifully enacted in his classical choreography without disturbing the the art.
For Kaushalya what her guru Rajaji says is, “Art is like a river and with time, as fresh water keeps flowing in the old water flows out merging into the ocean. However, your banks, or the grammar should remain intact. Do allow fresh ideas to come in. He feels with time even art has to go through change to remain viable.”
The childre would often criticise the traditional style and Rajaji would listen to all and keep an eye on what the next generation wants to see. “To keep art alive you have to have a fresh approach to things. You cannot be rigid. Art will only survive when you move on with time,” she says.
She recalls how Shiva Ramamurthy had once told Rajaji how one of the Vrittis of Natyashastra says that one can adopt new languages but keep the grammar intact.
She remembers how sitar maestro Pt. Ravishankar, once gave a Tarana to be choreographed. “Now that’s blending Hindustani classical with Kuchipudi. You are not fiddling with your art yet using the music Delhiites can connect to. Same thing goes with Chhap Tilak or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan saab’s Sasoon Ki Mala. When we go down south we do the typical Telugu Margam,” she explains.
Compariing lightings of sets, she argues how we never had LEDs or spotlights before, which are now a quintessential part of stage to make it colourful and appealing.
“When our little girl Bhavna was five, she once requested if he could do a choreography on English numbers as her friends would love it. He did. From the Bible he got – My heart is a temple, happy happy dance. There it also says maybe Rama, maybe Krishna, maybe Allah, maybe Jesus. And it was a success,” she recalls.
In fact a few years ago President Abdul Kalam is known to have given his poems Vision of Life and The Life Tree to Raja Reddy to be choreographed in Kuchipudi.
“Rajaji was sitting on it for a long time. Kartikeyan, the then CBI director and a very close friend made a special request. My husband could not see the angle to work on it.
Our elder daughter suggested him to visualise everything English. And it worked. The President who was to come for the inauguration, sat through the whole performance and admired Rajaji’s work for connecting his verses with Bhawat Geeta,” she recalls.
It was set to music by Gussyrikh and Sawan, and presented by Raja Reddy accompanied by his wives Radha and Kaushalya Reddy.
Raja Reddy's interest in Kuchipudi began in childhood as he would often watch performances of Kuchipudi Bhagavatam by touring folk troupes in his home district Adilabad. Coming from a rich Reddy family it was nothing less than impossible for him to pursue the art for a living.
So he left home in search of dance. He was initially turned down by all Kuchipudi teachers.
“He stayed in Hyderabad after running away from home. He initially got enrolled to Kathak as none of the Kuchipudi dancers would teach him. For Kuchipudi you need to be slender with a fair complexion and be able to enact feminine roles. He, on the contrary, was dark and fat and would not fit in that category. He was rejected. He pursued diploma in Kathak instead. Then he met guru Pranashiva Master. He was smart enough to take his wife along and say they both wanted to learn. He got the male part,” remembers Kaushalya.
He had a child marriage with Kaushalya’s elder sister Radha when was 11 and she was just six. In 1966, on a Government of Andhra Pradesh scholarship, they came to Delhi to study choreography and other stage arts. Since he defied the Reddy community, it was not easy. They had no godfather to support. Raja Reddy, says Kaushalya, would blindly follow his gut and passion for dance.
Growing up and dancing with her guardians and falling in love with her guru has been a colourful yet blissful experience, recalls Kaushalya.
“I grew up watching them and that’s what keeps us together. We are one in dance,” she promptly says, adding, “Personally my husband is not at all a family man. He loves to read. He goes partying with his friends and is quite jovial but is a simpleton at heart. I, on the other hand, am a go-getter. In fact, Didi and I are on the same page. I have accepted him the way he is.
He only dances with didi. When I married didi told me ‘you can marry him but he would always be my dancing partner’. Everything is fine so far he is with me as a lover. Ours is a very colourful but a very beautiful life. We are great critics of our own work. Before outsiders can criticise we criticise on work issues,” she says.
The children, she says, although pursued other subjects, are passionate about dance.
In 1972, she became their first disciple at Natya Tarangini. “Pratima Iyengar and Leela Kunhiraman were the other two. Every weekend didi would have a class whenever they were around in Delhi. Until 1976, they never thought of establishing an institute. I think the reason was they were only busy practicing for shows.”
Natya Tarangini, was set up amid much debate if running a school would affect practice. Initially even the land was rejected.
Students wanted to learn. His friends came forward and suggested him to start this faculty which they promised to manage.
“I ended up managing things. When he was initially given the land he rejected it as he knew of two artists who complained how difficult it was to manage things. I was sitting there and took the initiative. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Today I teach more and get involved in administration. I donot actively perform but am actively teaching.”
She sweetly remembers, how carefree life she led, till she took up the responsibilities of life. “Till 27, I was only accompanying them to shows and doing shows. I made them connect to local Delhiites and took them to parties, inaugurated exhibitions. I love being in the thickest of things. However, I don’t like being in the limelight. I give credit to my sister and my husband for making me a level-headed individual,” she says.
Her only regret is she is not able to devote much time to her own practice. “I didn’t realize administration could be so demanding.”