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Vempati Ravi Shankar: Following his Father’s Footsteps

(Part 3 of the article)

Vempati Ravi Shankar, the consummate Kuchipudi dancer and son of the legendary Kuchipudi guru Padma Bhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam, expresses a flair for choreography that mirrors his father’s. In addition to composing several dance dramas, Ravi Shankar has also choreographed over eighty solo items, including fourteen Annamacharya kirtanas, fourteen Tyagaraja kirtanas, eighteen Swathi Thirunal compositions, and a handful of Ramdas kirtanas.

When describing his choreography technique for these solo pieces, Ravi Shankar emphasizes the importance of music, as well as dance:
I imagine everything that the poet has given. As the nayika, as the nayaka, as the sakhi, as well as the poet. Above all of these things, I feel the movement of the melody. I bring about a movement from how the melody is formed from the lyrics. From that, the movement arises. You cannot separate choreography from the song itself. It should be the case that the song is for the dance and the dance is for the song. [1]

Ravi Shankar goes on to underscore dance and music as inextricably linked in his choreography:
My choreography is very dependent upon music. From music, my dance arises. This is because I am more influenced by music also. If there is a musical influence, then choreography comes out nicely. That’s why my movements appear different.[2]

As evident in this quote, Ravi Shankar is also adept in Carnatic music, having learned from the legendary vocalist Sri M. Balamuralikrishna from the years 1993 to 1995. Prior to his formal training, Ravi Shankar had an intense interest in classical music beginning in his youth, and used to teach himself Tyagaraja keertanas by listening to recordings of Balamurali. In fact, he used to be so inspired by Tyagaraja’s compositions that he would dress himself in the garb of the saint and sing to a painting of Rama in his room with a tanpura in hand. As part of his interest in classical music, Ravi Shankar also composes his own songs, and he still keeps an old yellowing notebook with compositions dating back to as early as 1985. Ravi Shankar has composed over 500 songs in the last twenty-five years, including tillanas, javalis, padams, and keertanas. More recently, he released an album of his compilations dedicated to Ramalingeswara Swami, the patron deity of the Kuchipudi village.

Vande Umasutam & Nalam Va

Illustrative of Ravi Shankar’s techniques of dance and music composition, the following clip contains two items “Vande Umasutam” and “Nalam Va”, which were choreographed Ravi Shankar, and performed by Smt. Kalapana Srinivas and Smt. Prabha Ramesh, with vocal support from Sri D.S.V. Sastry in 2008:

“Vande Umasutam” was written by Ravi Shankar in 1994 and choreographed into a dance piece many years later in 2007. The item, which praises Ganesha as the son of goddess Parvati, weaves together poetic lyrics with jatis in the time measures of caturasram, tisram, misram, sankirnam, and finally, khandam. Ravi Shankar states that when he was choreographing this piece, he was inspired by fast-paced items such as “Natesa Kavutvam,” “Ganesha Kavutvam,” and “Gajavadana,” which are staples of his father’s repertoire[3]. Although drawing from Chinna Satyam’s choreography, Ravi Shankar clearly departs from his father’s technique by combining pure dance movements in distinctly different ways, such as switching combinations of the right and left side or utilizing a range of akasiki charis. Ravi Shankar’s playfulness when choreographing nrtta, or pure dance sequences is evident in this clip, in which the dancer, Smt. Kalapana Srinivas, embodies the image of a dancing Ganesha through her entrance and first jati.

While “Vande Umasutam” illustrates Ravi Shankar’s experiments with nrtta, the second item in this clip, “Nalam Va”, demonstrates his techniques of choreographing natya, or pure dance. One of Annamacharya’s few kirtanas written in Sanskrit, “Nalam Va,” features Alamelumanga’s anger at lord Venkateswara’s absence. In Ravi Shankar’s rendition, the item begins with the seated figure of Alamelumanga awaiting the return of her beloved husband. The dancer then transforms into Venkateswara, who enters Alamelumanga’s abode, only to find his wife angered at his prolonged absence. The dancer transforms back into Alamelumanga, who refuses to listen to her husband’s new words, certain of his unfaithful activities. Despite her accusations, the item concludes as Alamelumanga finally surrenders to her lord, stating that he is the remover of all fear. This item, which was performed by Smt. Prabha Ramesh in this clip, demonstrates the range of Ravi Shankar’s choreography, which includes both pure and expressive aspects of Kuchipudi dance.

When discussing in more detail how he approaches choreography in general, Ravi Shankar repeatedly expresses his view that choreography is not an exercise that can be learned, or taught, but is something that is partially inherent, and partially grasped through observation. Thus, “the skill of choreography is by birth. It doesn’t come by learning or by observation. By observation, maybe yes, but not by learning.”[4] Although Ravi Shankar’s choreography is clearly influenced from the many days he spent observing his father, he clearly departs from Chinna Satyam in certain respects. For example, while Chinna Satyam choreographs by composing five or six movements and then choosing the best one, Ravi Shankar usually composes a single movement and utilizes that one. In addition, Ravi Shankar experiments with right and left directions in a way that differs from Chinna Satyam’s technique, as evident in the clip above. Regarding this subject, Ravi Shankar states:
If you watch my father’s choreography, he is very particular about when you do the right side, you must do the left side also. And you will definitely see that kinds of movement in his dance. I also follow that. But sometimes I do things differently. When I do the right side or left side it will be equal. But if I don’t want to do the same thing on the left side, I will at least see that it follows the same method [as the right] but in a different angle. I cross the rule that what you do on the right side, you must do the exact same thing on the left side. [5]

Ravi Shankar’s proclivity to “cross the rule” by combining directions of movements in different ways clearly marks the innovativeness of his style.

One critique that has been leveled against Ravi Shankar’s choreography is that it resembles “folk” in its appearance. In response, Ravi Shankar insists that his movements are not folk, but rather classical in nature: “It is not folk. There are some curvy or bendy movements that you can see in folk. If you polish those very well, then it becomes classical…There is something different in that kind of movement.”[6] As part of the same discussion, Ravi Shankar goes on to describe that his innovative movements are actually a direct influence of his uncle, Vempati Pedda Satyam: “The experimentation that Vempati Pedda Satyam did, no one else did. No dancer in this world can do what he did. He created new types of movements…Because he was in to the cinema field, he didn’t get recognition in the classical side. But, he was a master in this world for Kuchipudi. I adopted those kinds of movements.” [7] Thus, it seems evident that Ravi Shankar’s choreography not only draws from his father, but Vempati Pedda Satyam as well.

A second critique that has been raised regarding Ravi Shankar’s choreography is the difficulty of the movements themselves. In a discussion about Ravi Shankar’s choreography, Professor Anuradha Jonnalagadda, chair of the Dance Department at the University of Hyderabad, states: “Ravi can do wonders, actually. His body can. It’s so well tuned that he can do very complicated movements. However, he is able to do those complicated movements while other people are not able to do them. That is one problem.” [8] Ravi Shankar admits that when dancing his choreography for the first time, students trained in his father’s style may find it a bit difficult to do. However, Ravi Shankar insists that his choreography, although deemed unique, can become normal for dancers whose bodies become used to his technique. Thus, he observes:
With my father’s movements, everyone has gotten used to them after doing them and doing them and doing them for so many years. So, that flow comes for everyone. I won’t say that doing my choreography is unique. The way I apply the movement, the first time when you see, it appears different. When you are used to that, it can also be a normal movement…I won’t say that my choreography is something unique. It is very common. But the applications of the movements are different, that’s all. [9]

Ravi Shankar also describes that in the days when Chinna Satyam used to choreograph, not everyone was able to enact his movements; thus, Chinna Satyam would select certain skilled dancers, such as Bala Kondala Rao, to compose on. After the choreography was complete, Bala would then instruct the remaining students as to how to render Chinna Satyam’s compositions properly. In the same way, Ravi Shankar insists that those dancers who practice his movements will also be able to express them with accuracy.

Ultimately, Ravi Shankar’s endeavors in choreography indicate a new direction for Kuchipudi dance, one that allows for creative innovations within a traditional framework. Dance and theater scholar Professor M. Nagabhushana Sarma has suggested that the time has come about that Kuchipudi needs to be considered as two distinct banis, or styles—the traditional style practiced in the Kuchipudi village, and the style developed by Vempati Chinna Satyam in Chennai. [10] If we examine Ravi Shankar’s choreography, which juxtaposes traditional aspects of Kuchipudi dance drawn from the Natyasastra, as well as kalapas and yakshaganas, alongside innovative movements that draw inspiration from Vempati Pedda Satyam as well as his father, Ravi Shankar’s style seems to function as a bridge between the traditional bani of Kuchipudi and the bani of Vempati Chinna Satyam.

As a result, Ravi Shankar’s innovative endeavors demonstrate that an artist need not abandon tradition for the sake of experimentation. Just as Vempati Chinna Satyam introduced new elements into the Kuchipudi art form while remaining grounded in traditional aspects of dance, namely the Natyasastra, so too does his son bring together innovation with tradition. Ravi Shankar also mirrors his father in having dedicated his life to promoting Kuchipudi dance, whether it is through the fluid movements of his body or the skill of his choreography. Therefore, it seems clear that in this next generation of upcoming artists, Vempati Ravi Shankar will bear the mantle of Kuchipudi dance instated by his father. Surprisingly, in one early interview, Ravi Shankar humbly described himself by stating: “For my whole life, I have always been in the shadow of my father.” [11] As evident in his endeavors in performance, teaching, singing, and choreography discussed in the three parts of this article, it is clear that Vempati Ravi Shankar is following in his father’s legendary footsteps, rather than lurking in his shadows.

[1] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, Jun 17, 2010
[2] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, Jun 17, 2010
[3] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Oral communication, Aug 18, 2011
[4] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, Mar 30, 2010
[5] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, May 26, 2010
[6] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, Mar 30, 2010
[7] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, Jun 17, 2010
[8] Anuradha Jonnalagadda, Oral communication, Apr 28, 2010
[9] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, May 26, 2010
[10] Modali Nagabhushana Sarma, Oral communication, Apr 12, 2010
[11] Vempati Ravi Shankar, Interview with Author, Mar 22, 2010