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Vempati Ravi Shankar: Following his Father’s Footsteps

(Part 2 of the article)

Ravi Shankar the Teacher

While it is often thought that any good performer cannot also be a good teacher, and any good teacher cannot also be a good performer, Vempati Ravi Shankar’s capabilities in both performance and teaching undermine such a sentiment. Ravi Shankar has taught students at the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai for over the last fifteen years, despite his uncertain health conditions. His love for teaching is also apparent in his commitment towards his students from the United States, spanning from New Jersey to Washington DC to San Francisco, who he teaches either through workshops while in America or over Skype while in India. Ravi Shankar has trained several hundred students over the last two decades, and he repeatedly indicates teaching as one of his primary passions.

Ravi Shankar the Choreographer

Perhaps above and beyond his talent in performance and teaching, Ravi Shankar’s skill as an artist is most apparent in his choreography. His first endeavors in choreography were over twenty years ago in the same hut that his father used when choreographing his own items. Ravi Shankar states: “Even when I was in the old Academy, I was choreographing…in that same hut. When my father was out of station for programs, or when he was out of country itself, I had full freedom…I used to choreograph jatis. I would also come up with some new fundamental steps for dance. I feel that way I am very proud that I have done something in that divine place.” [1]

Ravi Shankar’s skills in choreography have blossomed particularly in the last ten years, during which time he has choreographed approximately eighty solo items, and two major dance drama productions—Sri Nava Durga and Sri Leela Ganapathi. Alongside these major dance dramas, Ravi Shankar has composed other smaller productions, including Visweswara Vijayam, a dance drama dedicated to the legendary engineer Sir Mokshagundam Visweswaraiah in Vishakapatnam in 2005; Sri Ramana Katha, a ballet featuring the South Indian saint Ramana Maharshi in Bangalore in 2006; a ballet on the origins of Kuchipudi at the International Kuchipudi Dance Convention in Cupertino, California in 2008; and “Nritya Neerajanam”, a program showcasing Kuchipudi in nine different languages in Washington, DC in 2009.

Smt. Prabha Ramesh as the Goddess in Sri Nava Durga
In the case of Sri Nava Durga, Ravi Shankar has staged this particular ballet five times, beginning in the village of Kuchipudi, as well as in Bangalore, Warangal, Vijayawada, and Vishakapatnam. The dance drama opens with the demon Mahisasura deep in penance to Brahma, unable to be disturbed despite the efforts of the gods Agni, Vayu, and Varuna, as well as the celestial dancing Apsaras. After amassing power due to his intense tapas, Mahisasura, along with his rakshasa companions, proceed to wreak havoc and trouble the gods. At a loss as to what to do, the gods turn to the Goddess for help, and she pledges to fight the demon king. The Goddess manifests nine incarnations of her strength, or nine Durgas, who aid in battle against Mahisasura. Ultimately, the Goddess defeats the buffalo demon and the dance drama concludes as the gods laud her strength and power.

In most of the productions of Nava Durga, the role of the Goddess was played by Smt. Prabha Ramesh, a senior disciple of the Kuchipudi Art Academy, and the role of Mahisasura was played by Sri Hari Rama Murthy, the senior teacher at the branch of the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Vishakapatnam. When describing the choreography for Nava Durga, Ravi Shankar states that he attempted to mix traditional elements with more innovative techniques:
For me, whether it is the Nava Durga ballet or the items that I have composed, I put in some traditional jatis. I do not want to come out of the tradition. I want to be stuck to the tradition. But at the same time, there should be a novelty in what you do. If it’s like that, there is a beauty in Kuchipudi.[2]

Ravi Shankar goes on to describe that Nava Durga also remains within the boundaries of tradition by incorporating the most number of patra pravesa daruvus, or character introductions, of any Kuchipudi dance drama to date, including those of Mahisasura, the Goddess, as well as her nine incarnations.

When choreographing the pravesa daruvus for the nine Durgas that appear at the end of the ballet, Ravi Shankar approaches each of the incarnations with attentiveness to their specific nature. The first Durga, Shailaputri, for example, enters onstage with mudras indicating that she is the daughter of the mountain, while the third Durga, Chandraganta, enters with gestures referencing the bell-shaped moon that rests on her bun. In the case of the second Durga, Brahmacharini, Ravi Shankar incorporates softer movements into the jati of the pravesa daruvu to reflect the meditative nature of her character. Thus, he states: “If you see that jati, it appears very soft to you. The movements also appear soft. The Goddess who is there is not one who does a tandavam for Shiva, right? Because she is trying to do tapas, because she has the name Brahmacharini, the movement looks good if it is graceful like that.”[3] Ravi Shankar is careful to point out that focusing on the nature of any given character must not totally eclipse the presentation of pure dance, or nrtta; therefore, when choreographing for Brahmacharini, he attempts to strike a balance between showing pure dance and expressing the meditative and more graceful aspects of her character.

The balance between drama and dance is also apparent in the pravesa daruvu of Chandraganta. The song opens describing Chandraganta as riding on a swan (“andaja pravara arudha”). In the jati immediately following these lyrics, Ravi Shankar utilizes the vidyutbranta chari as the first movement in order to make Chandraganta appear as if she is flying in the wind while riding on her swan. As the next movement, Ravi Shankar incorporates the second fundamental step in Kuchipudi repertoire—tam digi digi tai—in order to introduce pure dance into the jati. When describing this shift from drama to dance, Ravi Shankar states: “If I add dance, then the mixture of [dance and drama] comes out nicely. There should be a sudden change. Suddenly, it should shift into dance. Then, suddenly it should shift into drama. If it is like that, and if you do it with the proper proportions, then there is a beauty in the item.”[3] Ravi Shankar goes on to explain that he has a tendency of incorporating fundamental steps into his choreography in order to bring out traditional aspects of Kuchipudi. Thus, he states:
We should introduce the fundamentals now and then like a flash. Then it adds more flavor of Kuchipudi. You should not just do something new and go…You have to stick to the traditional movements. If you put in a movement from regular practice in a new way, you always have an innovative means of presenting the same Kuchipudi style, although it’s a new item.[3]

Ultimately, Ravi Shankar’s Nava Durga reflects a traditional framework, particularly through his incorporation of several pravesa daruvus and fundamental movements, while also striking a balance between aspects of drama and dance.

Similar to his approach in Nava Durga, Ravi Shankar also upholds traditional aspects of the Kuchipudi art form in his other major production, Sri Leela Ganapathi. Staged in Chennai at the Music Academy in January 2009, the first act of this ballet describes the beheading of Parvati’s young son and doorkeeper by Shiva, and his subsequent return to life as the elephant headed Ganesha. The traditional feel of Kuchipudi is very apparent in the opening “Amba Paraku,” which is Ravi Shankar’s own composition, and praises the residing goddess of the Kuchipudi village as “Amba,” rather than “Vani,” or the epithet used in Vempati Chinna Satyam’s version of this song. The ballet also opens with a sutradhara, along with two accompanying bhagavatulus musicians, whose presence hearkens back to the traditional kalapas and yakshaganas of the Kuchipudi village. Finally, the pravesa daruvu of the adult Ganesha, enacted by Sri Jagannad Rao of Vishakapatnam, clearly reflects the traditional Kuchipudi purva rangam, in which a masked Ganesha blesses the stage prior to the beginning of the program. In this item, Ravi Shankar utilizes the lyrics “Tandava nritya kari Gajanana,” which mirror its traditional Kuchipudi counterpart, while incorporating more innovative movements that mark his own choreography technique.

While Ravi Shankar does adhere to the traditional framework of Kuchipudi in his dance dramas and solo items, his choreography is probably best known for its creativity. Drawing from the nrtta hastas, akasa and bhaumi charis of Bharata’s Natyasastra, Ravi Shankar creates movements that are innovative in flavor, while still grounded in tradition. "In the invocatory item that opens the Leela Ganapathi ballet, for example, Ravi Shankar’s choreography combines combinations of akasiki charis, bhaumi charis, pada bedhas and nrtta hastas. For example, if we examine a single nrtta sequence in this invocatory item that follows the stanza, “Namo namah Ganesaya, Vignesaya namo namah,” the sequence utilizes the dandapaksha nrtta hasta in combination with harinaputha akasiki chari. Next, the karkata samyuta hasta is combined with the agrathalasanchara paada bheda. Then, the next movement is the mathali bhaumi chari, followed by the uttanavanchita nrtta hasta, as well as the swastika and viprakirna nrtta hastas in combination with the sthithivartha bhaumi charis. The quick succession of these movements demonstrates the skillfulness of the choreographer, who combines traditional sequences in unique ways. Such nrtta sequences and jatis, which are not only found in the Leela Ganapathi ballet, but also in Nava Durga and Ravi Shankar’s solo items, which create an overall aesthetic effect in the mind of the viewer that unites both tradition and innovation.

(To be continued..)

[1] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview, March 26, 2010
[2] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview, March 30, 2010
[3] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview, June 17, 2010