Kuchipudi: Origin & History

History tells us that South India was ruled by many powerful dynasties Kuchipudi village (then a barren piece of land with no name, now Kuchipudi, near Srikakulam) and the area around it – the region was founded and ruled over by a king named Andhra Vishnu in the 2nd century BC with Srikakulam as the capital. Over the centuries, the temple in Srikakulam was named the Andhra Vishnu temple, after the king.

During the reign of the Satavahanas, one of the greatest dynasties of South India, Vedic religion was at its peak and temple and idol worship became popular. The Andhra Vishnu temple became a great centre of pilgrimage.

When the Satavahana capital was shifted from Srikakulam to Dhanyakataka, the Vedic religion lost its power and Buddhism gained populariy. A famous port named Ghantasala became the centre of worship and was the main centre for trade and business. Seeing a chance to prosper amidst the merchants and foreign traders, the devadasis shifted to Ghantasala and a moral deterioration set in devadasis and also in the dance form.

By the 5th century AD, with the rise of the Chalukyas, Buddhism witnessed a fall. The Chalukyas were followers of Jain religion and were keen to spread their religion. So they encouraged dance and music using these arts to propagate Jainism.

The Vengi dynasty of the Chalukyas declined with the rising power of the Kakatiyas of Warangal. The Kakatiyas were worshippers of Shiva. In the early part of the 13th century, Kakati Ganapathi Deva,  a powerful king, ruled a large part of Andhra by defeating the smaller kings of the area. One of the kings to be defeated by Ganapathi Deva was Jayappa of the Ayya dynasty. Deeply impressed by the personality of Jayappa, Ganapathi Deva made peace with him by marrying his sister and appointed Jayappa as the commander of the elephant force of his kingdom.

Since his childhood, Jayappa had a keen interest in dance. He had studied under a Brahmin scholar, learning the theoretical and practical aspects of classical and folk dance styles. Jayappa wrote a treatise called the Nritta Ratnavali on various dance forms. He also built a temple at Chabrob and installed 300 devadasis there. Soon the art form began to be used for the spread of Shaivism.

Constant wars for domination were fought between the Kakatiyas and the rulers of their neighbouring state, the Kalingas. In 1263, the ruler of Kalinga, Virnarsimha III, defeated the Kakatiyas, and Srikakulam and its surrounding areas came under his power. He converted the whole region into his own religion, Viashnavism.

The Kalinga rulers, being the followers of the Vaishnava cult, used the local dance forms to spread their own religion. Palakuriki Somanatha, an eminent poet of the Kakatiya court, listed all these dance forms in his book Pandittarathyacharitra in Telugu.

In the 13th and 14th centuries AD, the worship of god Krishna held sway in the minds of people and dancers related this feeling of total devotion to Krishna. In the prevailing atmosphere of Krishna Bhakti, a boy named Siddappa was born. Nothing much was known about that boy except that he was a Brahmin orphan and dance and dancers were his obsession.

Narhari Tirtha, regent of the Kalinga ruler, who had moved to Srikakulam to propagate their faith, was the head of the Udipi Math. He established a branch at Srikakulam. Siddappa used to rest there after watching a whole night’s dance performance. One night, in his sleep he dreamt that Lord Krishna was dancing on his body. He awoke screaming and started searching for Krishna. The Mathadish realized that he was not an ordinary boy. He sent the boy to Udipi for religious study.

After two decades, Siddappa, renamed as Siddhendra, became a scholar of the Vedas and Shastras, a composer of music, and returned to Srikakulam. The elders of his village reminded him of his marriage vows and urged him to bring home his wife. Siddhendra’s in-laws were staying on the other side of the River Krisha. Selecting an auspicious day, Siddhendra set out in a boat to cross the river to bring back his wife.

Suddenly the sky was clouded over and there was a violent thunderstorm. The boat overturned. Young Siddhendra was tossed into the mighty river. Siddhendra prayed to Lord Krishna. As he prayed to Krishna, he had a vision of Krishna who appeared to bless him. The storm calmed down. Reaching the other bank, Siddhendra again prayed to god. His whole being was filled with his love for Krishna.

Siddhendra propagated the Bhama cult, also known as Madhura Bhakti. Every devotee of Krishna worshipped him as Satyabhama and imagined him as a Supreme lover. Siddhendra wrote song after song expressing his love for Krishna. He even sang and danced those songs in a form of dance drama. The dance drama came to be called Bhamakalapam.

Attracted by the beauty of Bhamakalapam, temple dancers and court dancers wanted to learn it. But Siddhendra feared that since the theme centered on the romantic love between Krishna and Satyabhama, and since the dancers already excelled in the art of portraying Sringara rasa, they may exaggerate the sentiments and destroy its spirituality. So, Siddhendra decided to initiate young Brahmin boys into the art. (There is no clear conclusive evidence available to show that women in the pre-Siddhendra era were forbidden to perform Kuchipudi.) Under Siddhendra’s leadership, they travelled from village to village performing Bhamakalapam. They came to be called Kuchila, an abbreviation of the Sanskrit word Kusilava, meaning traveling actors/dancers/storytellers, and the village where they settled down was called Kuchilapuri or Kuchipudi. To this day the village remains the home of the same nine families who originally settled here.

Siddhendra Yogi was not only a scholar and artist but he also had a creative vision. he had adapted the format of the existing Yakshagana, folk dance dramas. Siddhendra broad based Bhamakalapam by bringing some of the elements of Yakshagana. As a true pioneer, he integrated folk tradition into the classical format. He was truly the father of the Kuchipudi dance form.

From 1336 to 1646, the Vijayanagara empire ruled Andhra Pradesh and surrounding areas. The most famous of the kings Krishnadevaraya III, was a great scholar and a lover of arts and literature. He constructed many new temples and renovated old ones. He gave grants and donated land for the revival of all the arts and literature. He sent many dancers to learn from gurus. He even constructed a dance school.

Jealousy and infighting amongst the subordinates caused the decline of the Vijayanagara empire. After the downfall of the Vijayanagara empire, some of the Kuchipudi artists migrated to the royal court of Thanjavu in Tamil Nadu and received the patronage of Achyutappa Nayaka. He donated them a village, Achyutapuram; now known as Mellatur, where even today the descendants of those artists’ families perform their own Bhagavatamelas on the occasion of Narsimha Jayanti.

When some of the artistes migrated to Thanjavur, others remained behind in Kuchipudi. Some families turned to agriculture and cattle herding, while some continued to dance as Bhagvatars.

In 1678, the Nawab of Golconda, Abdul Hasan Tahnishah visited Masulipatnam. A Kuchipudi dance performance was arranged for him. Pleased with the performance, the Nawab issued a copper plate grant, donating the village of Kuchipudi to the dancers, the Bhagvatars, as an agraharam village, free of taxes and levies.

Bhagavatulu, Bokka, Chinta, Hari, Mahankali, Darbha, Timuluri, Josyula, Pasumarti, Tadepalli, Vedantam, Vempati, Vemu were some of the families who had received the village Kuchipudi as a grant to pursue the art of dance and music. Some of these families’ descendants are still continuing the art of Kuchipudi.

Even though the Kuchipudi dance form derives its name from the village, it should not be assumed that the Kuchipudi form originated only in the 14th or 15th centuries! The form is far more ancient. In Bharata’s Natya Shastra, there is a mention of the dance drama form. The dancers staged a dramatic performance called Amritamanthanam in the court of Indra. In an invocatory verse there is a mention of the four forms of dance prevalent in those days. Of these, the Dakshinatya form was apparently the early version of Kuchipudi.

In the first two chapters of Natya Shastra, Bharata describes Purva Ranga Pooja the hoisting of Indra’s flag, the Nandi Stuti, Pari Parsvakas and Kutilika, which are still in practice in Kuchipudi.

Unfortunately for a long time, Kuchipudi was not considered as a classical dance form. In the 1950s, the Sangeet Natak Academy recognized Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kathak and Manipuri as classical dance forms. Some misunderstanding prevailed that Kuchipudi was an art developed from the earlier folk drama called Yakshagana.

Kuchipudi satisfies all the requirement of a classical dance form, as per Natya Shastra. Due to pioneering efforts of the late Sri Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry, who passed away during the 1950s, Kuchipudi today enjoys respectability. It was Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry who initiated women also into this dance form, among whom was the eminent exponent of Bharatanatyam, Balasaraswathi. It was Vedantam who introduced the dance on the rim of a brass plate. He developed Kuchipudi as a solo style and created the repertoire of Kuchipudi as we know it today.

Many of Vedantam’s students are following in their guru’s footsteps and are doing their best to popularize Kuchipudi. Among them, Padma Bhushan Guru Sri Vempati Chinasatyam has played an important role in popularizing Kuchipudi. He gave Kuchipudi a sophisticated look and encouraged women to not only learn Kuchipudi but also play roles of men in his dance dramas!

Manju Bhargavi, Shobha Naidu, Raja and Radha Reddy, Swapna Sundari and Mallika Sarabhai, are some of the stars of Kuchipudi.