The Kuchipudi form doesn’t need to change, it’s a classic, like ketchup and fries. You can experiment with the condiments: Reddy daughter duo on tradition and innovation

Pic: Anoop Arora
Once upon a time, it was natural for children to follow their parents into their profession. But today, when children are given the choice to choose their own professions and often choose to do something ‘modern’ in their careers, it’s interesting to hear from youngsters who have followed their parents’ footsteps in an ancient classical tradition. When I sat down to speak to illustrious Kuchipudi guru Raja Reddy and his daughters Yamini and Bhavana Reddy, I was surprised by how both the girls had adapted their modern upbringing to further the Kuchipudi tradition. Below are excerpts from a chat conducted during the Reddys’ Parampara dance festival in Delhi recently:

Yamini, Bhavana, what has it been like having illustrious parents, and Rajaji, how did you think you could initiate both your daughters into this tradition? What was the pressure as a parent and as the children of such illustrious parents?
Raja Reddy: Being in the Reddy family, we are not supposed to learn dance. But since childhood, I was very interested. Same way Radha also – we married, and her parents and my parents were not happy (about it) but we were mad about dance. Then we came to Hyderabad, and both Radha’s parents and grandparents said (to her) take divorce from him, he is going to become a beggar! See, in our region, dance was dismissed as a profession for the lower classes. They (those who looked down upon dance) don’t even know that Shiva is the creator of dance. Since Radha was interested in dance… Otherwise without Radha, my dance would have been incomplete. Nobody would have seen my performance, (it was possible only) because Radha was there to handle…
We are dedicated to dance, and my elder daughter and my younger daughter, they are from Modern School. While going to school, they saw us in the classroom (as well, where we taught them dance). They are going to school – rhythm. Then after coming from school - rhythm. Unke nas nas mein rhythm baith gaya hai (that is why rhythm runs in their veins now). Luckily, they are also very gifted dancers, both of them. Though my elder one got offers from America, she said I want to stay in my country and popularise this dance form here, I don’t want to stay in America. My younger one also, very interested in dance. Though she wanted to learn western music and she did learn it, since childhood, they were travelling with us – dance became their life, practically. We are very fortunate like that. The person who married Yamini, he married her after seeing her dance – he’s a Reddy and from Hyderabad. And he encourages her – if she doesn’t practice, he tells her, why are you not practising? They were born and brought up in the dance atmosphere and now she’s doing very well, she’s teaching in Hyderabad, and next month she’s going to America to give performances. She is very happy with dance only.

Pic: Anoop Arora

Did you ever feel that when teaching her that she’s my daughter, she should be given an extra push?
Yamini: Actually no, they didn’t care (that we were their children). In all our classes, we used to stand at the back. They didn’t even look at us or give us any special attention. It was only when I decided to do my rangapravesham that I actually learnt one-on-one with my father. Till that time, I hadn’t learnt one-on-one with him. That’s when his entire strictness came out. I was surprised that my father, who was so gentle, could be so strict and so angry, and that he could shout at me! I’d never seen that side of his. But that was the only time that we started training one-on-one – which was much later, I was about 19. Till then, we only had group classes, we only danced in groups, they never gave us any pointers. So we also went with the flow. Then once we started, we trained quite a bit with him, after the rangapravesham. We have a very good rapport, both of us – like when I present my choreography ideas, he’s very accommodating. He doesn’t dismiss it, he’ll listen and say yes, we should do this. We’ve managed to do all that well together. I think even as father and daughter, work-wise, we gel well, Dad and I. Mom is quite strict actually.
Raja Reddy: We are a family dedicated to dance. In other families, they only teach the boys, not the girls. But we are a complete family into dance – me, Radha, Kaushalya, Bhavana and Yamini. And Bhavana went to Los Angeles to learn western music and do her graduation, but her roots are here. 

Bhavana, did you ever feel that push, having illustrious parents?
Bhavana: I guess not. We kind of grew up with it, we were already on stage before we knew the seriousness of it. For us, it was like giving exams, that we have to perform well, we have to do our best. I never felt that pressure (of being the child of famous parents) ever. I’ve felt the pressure to do my best. For instance, when I came back from the US, everybody was thinking oh, can Bhavana dance the way she used to? Those kind of pressures I’ve felt, but not the pressure of being their daughters.
Yamini: We’ve felt our personal pressures to perform well. Like she said, when she came back from the US, when I gave birth to my son, I wasn’t sure whether I’d come back in the same form or not, having a child. But not because of being their daughter, because they never put any pressure on us, they always told us enjoy your dance, that’s all that matters. And that’s what I think we do, we just enjoy our dance.

Tell me a little more about your form, mode of choreography and storytelling.
Yamini: Someone commented on our form of dancing - they said Yamini’s dance is like a dhrupad, while Bhavana’s style is like a thumri. So when we’re dancing together, we never feel like we’re in each other’s space, because our styles are totally different. But when we’re dancing together on stage, like now, we complement each other very well. That kind of defines our dance. Choreographically, we do our own thing – I don’t think we’ve done anything much together as sisters.
Bhavana: We’ve done one production, Advitiyam, and that also was choreographed by Dad, so together we haven’t choreographed, we do our own separate things. I think we both want to establish ourselves as solo performers.
Yamini: Someone told us that you two should perform together on stage more often because both of you have a very good understanding, it’s very rare to have two people with such a nice understanding and synchronisation. It’s (due to) growing up together, after all – we understand each other so well. I was telling her in today’s performance, the part where Shiva and Arjuna fight and they are arguing – this is what we’ve been doing since childhood!
Bhavana: It came so naturally to us!
Yamini: Having grown up together, it shows in our dance. But we’re very keen on establishing ourselves individually also.
Bhavana: I feel that if I look at your question from another angle, I feel it’s really fun, actually – the style that we do. It’s fun because you do so many different characters and so many different… like your sthayi abhinaya can be completely different in one character and completely different in another. You have to become that person. So it’s a challenge and it’s really fun.
Yamini: You’re constantly assuming different roles, and that I think is very challenging as a dancer, to be able to do justice to every character. Even in my performance in July this year, which was based on vachika, I was changing so many roles, and when I did that, I thought that that’s a new aspect of dance – that dancers have to change into each character and pretty quickly also; you can’t take your time. It’s quite a challenge and I think it shows your skills as well, because very good, mature dancers are able to do that. If you’re not well-practised, you’ll be lost.
Bhavana: Either way it’s tough – it can be tough to play the same character throughout the whole item. Then you have to show consistency and you have to be that character, you have to be annoyed in the way that character would be. For instance, when I did Satyabhama, I have to feel the viraha like she felt it with the same pride that I had – it couldn’t be someone who didn’t have pride. Those different things it’s very interesting to do. So it’s hard to hold one character’s feeling throughout. The other thing is the switch between characters – suddenly a timid person, suddenly someone else – that’s also tough. But it’s very fun.
Yamini: As we’re aging, we’re learning, we’re progressing, all these things. And this is the accumulation of our experience as we grow, from programme to programme it keeps showing. It’s the sum total of what all we learn and do eventually in the course of our dance – good or bad, they’re all experiences. Even if it’s a bad performance, I’ve learnt something from this today, that I’m not supposed to do this. Maybe it’s that I’m not supposed to wear this costume because it doesn’t allow me to lift my leg! That’s also an experience. I’m not supposed to wear this earring because it’s disturbing me while dancing – even simple things like that.
Raja: What we learn from our gurus, the traditional art, that cannot be changed.

Pic: Anoop Arora

You have been a sort of pioneer in Kuchipudi...
Raja: Yes, and we cannot change the tradition, but the presentation can be altered with the times. We now have the lights and the music. The dance is intact, but at that time, we had just a mridangam player behind the stage. Today, we have modern lighting and sound systems. We learnt just dance, but how to present a piece, we are learning now. Like Yamini did the ‘Bhaja mana ram charan sukhadayi’ and Bhavana did the ‘Bhamakalapam’. She studied the Yakshagana for it. She said that Yakshagana and Kuchipudi have a beautiful tradition of nati nataka. They do a comic role and introduce the artist also. They introduce other aspects also, so I want to use nati nataka in Bhamakalapam, but the language will be English because Telugu will not be understood. And she did a wonderful job of it. So we learn a lot from our daughters when it comes to the presentation. And it connects with the audience well.
Yamini: The introduction of the characters was through shadows. What I feel is that the content of our dance and the heritage is very beautiful. But the audience needs a little background to understand what is going to happen or is happening. Every classical dance has a different language. To break that barrier, we introduce a little bit in English or in Hindi or the local language so people can understand. So when we actually do it, you’re able to understand and connect. If we go directly on stage and start dancing, a few people understand and some people don’t. Then it doesn’t have that kind of impact. Every time I go on stage I think of myself – what if I was sitting in the audience and it was a Bharatnatyam performance? I don’t know Tamil, so how will I understand? I have to get involved in that dancer’s dance. But if I get a little bit of background, I will not wonder what the nayika is doing – all those things put it a little bit in perspective for the audience. We look for new ways to do it.

What are the innovations you would like to bring?
Yamini: I’ve already done some – like in my program on vachika, with the English dialogues, you could automatically understand that Bharat is asking for Ram’s charan paduka, and Bhavana used nata-nati, and in Bhagawadajukeeyam, we used shadows to introduce the characters. Today, we used silhouettes to put the story in perspective. We read about what we are doing and what is the lineage and where it comes from – when she did the Bhamakalapam, she followed the Yakshagana. So she read about it and she knew that nata nati comes in it. When I did my storytelling, it’s all about vachika, and vachika is very much a part of Kuchipudi. So I felt, why not include it when it is such an integral part of it? So like this, based on what the theme is, whatever introduction we can do, we do it. We try to give our own freshness to the presentations.
Bhavana: I really like the style by itself, the Kuchipudi dance style by itself is really good. And I think to make people understand the beauty of it, I would not rather compromise the pure form.
Yamini: She’s a purist. She loves to retain the purity of the dance and singing that’s accompanying it.
Bhavana: It’s like this – I was trying to explain it to my friend the other day. Let’s say if you have ketchup with fries, it’s great, old classic. But if you have ketchup with chocolate, the whole taste is different and you’re diluting the whole fun of it. The whole tradition is gone. Instead, if you add something to it, mayo or something, the fries’ taste will still be intact. You know what I mean? I feel like the actual form should be intact. The things that you use for your presentation – the condiments, or whatever you want to call it – they can be experimented with. And I think that there are so many things that people feel when they watch classical dance. Either we can go the route that we inspire them – they’re in awe and they feel this person is like God and we can’t watch them, they’re so beautiful. The other thing is when we’re very relatable. Those things also we work on. These days, people like to be not only in awe, but they also like to understand what they’re watching - I don’t know about this, ok I’ll google it. There are so many ways you can present it. You can either inspire awe or you can be relatable. But I feel like if the style is diluted, then there’s no fun in it, then it’s no point. Then you can’t say oh, Kuchipudi belongs to India, that it’s a characteristic, something inherent (to India).
Yamini: I think also younger generation of dancers are like us – they (our gurus) have passed on the tradition from their gurus to us, so they’ve kept it intact without compromising the quality. And if we are able to keep it intact and pass it on with the same quality, then we’re passing it on safe and sound to the next generation. We need to, otherwise every generation will dilute it and it’ll lose the essence of the dance. The effort should be to never meddle with the grammar. English is also a language, right? We don’t meddle with the grammar - we can write as many stories as we want, but the grammar stays intact. It’s the same way with dance – we need to keep the grammar intact. Within the grammar, we can do whatever we want to do. When I talk about the grammar, it’s the adavus, movements, traditional things – the thattu muttu should be done in a thattu muttu only. You cannot start dragging your feet around in a thattu muttu and say I’ve experimented. Now that doesn’t work.
Also, the teachers need to persist that you have to do this well – you have to do your adavus properly, you have to do  your ‘dith dith thai’. Even today, my Dad, if he sees my mudra like that instead of like this, he will tell me. As teachers, we have to persist. Otherwise it’s easy to be easygoing. To actually do it properly is very difficult and puts a lot of strain on the body. And a lot of people I feel don’t want to take that strain. And then that process - it looks so flimsy and bad, why don’t you practice and work hard? Don’t compromise with footwork. If teachers are training their students properly, our art will be saved.
Bhavana: It’s beautiful, it doesn’t need to change. Anyone can argue - and there were so many discussions within our family only - that ‘Bhamakalapam’ is such a traditional item , how will it work, this is Delhi, you want to do the whole thing? Will people enjoy it? Then Daddy was like don’t put anything in the middle of it… because he was like it will lose the essence. But the audience loved it – full-length, 1.5 hours, nothing in the middle. It was very well appreciated in Delhi, in today’s generation. And there was no need to change it. It was just like adding a presentation, for people to understand what it is. And then it was running for an hour and 15 mins, nobody budged, everybody loved it. The dance by itself is beautiful, it’s just the presentation that can be changed.
Yamini: There is one thing they’ve taught us since childhood – there is no shortcut to practice. You have to practice. They would keep on asking did you practice, did you practice. You have to keep on practicing, keep your form. Once you lose that, you lose your power in performance. Your body is your instrument – like people maintain their flute or violin, your body is your instrument of expression. So you need to practice and keep in shape. That is something they’ve instilled in us – hard work and practice.

Rajaji, what has been your experience as a guru with this generation?
Raja Reddy: They work hard and are sincere, and when they perform on stage, that is the bliss, the anand, which no money can bring.
But it must be a lot of hard work.
Raja Reddy: No, it is not hard work, it is complete devotion. You are in it all the time.
Yamini: For him it’s not hard work, he loves it so much, he never needs a break!
Bhavana: It’s beyond our understanding. He’s always into it, he never needs a break, and actually, his break is dance only!
Yamini: Yes, dance is his break. If you’re not doing it, he goes crazy. If you’re doing it, he’s very happy.

Raja Reddy: And what we want is perfection. My guru Vedantam Prahalada Sarma always asked for perfection, whether in a bhangima or a mudra in abhinaya. When I went to him for training in Hyderabad, he refused because in those days, boys would not learn dance. And those who did were good-looking, and I was not like that. He told me to go back and look at myself in the mirror. I felt bad. My friend took me to another guru who would teach other dance forms, but not Kuchipudi. Then I was accompanied by Radha on a visit and my guru was impressed. He asked us to train under him. There we practised all the time and when I got my scholarship (from the Andhra Pradesh government, to go and learn in Delhi, in 1966), he came to congratulate me. He was very happy that his shishyas were getting appreciation.

Note: This article first appeared in