Bhama Kalapam – The Essence of Kuchipudi

By Dr. Maha Gingrich

When I was 6 years old, I saw the great dancer Padmashri Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma perform the most popular dance-drama in Kuchipudi repertoire, Bhama Kalapam. I did not know that he was a man dressed as the woman character, “Satya Bhama," the beloved wife of Lord Krishna. He sang on the stage like a woman, he danced with vitality and grace, projecting the pride of Satya Bhama, the queen. I was very mesmerized. I aspired to be half as good as Sri Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarmaji. I used to perform this dance quite often when I was a kid and received a lot of recognition. Due to him, today, Bhama Kalapam is synonymous with Kuchipudi. Before I explain in depth, let me share a little bit of history on Kuchipudi dance style.

As a classical form of dance, drama, and music, Kuchipudi enjoys a unique place among Indian classical dance styles and it was originated in the 17th century with the creation by Sidhyendra Yogi. Kuchipudi Natyam is one of the oldest performing arts from the Andhra region of South India. It was also known as Kuchipudi Bhagavatam, Kuchipudi Yakshgaanam, and Kuchipudi Bharatam. It differs from the other classical styles by the inclusion of singing.

It is fast and energetic, indicating the quest for conquering space and time. With its vigorous and vibrating leaps and turns, it is not cast in the mold of impressionism. It is lively and scintillating and yet has the capacity to be intensely lyrical. It is bold and sensuous in the movements of the eyes, gently swinging body movements and its unique body posture. Today, Kuchipudi is an international art form, with many teachers and students spreading this tradition from America to Australia and every place in between.

The essence of this dance style is the dance-drama Bhama Kalapam, a story of Satyabhama, the charming but jealous wife of Lord Krishna. The dance performance begins with the sprinkling of holy water and the burning of incense. Other rituals are also performed to invoke the goddesses of learning, wealth, and energy. Each character in the dance-drama is introduced, together with songs concerning their function in the performance.

During the dance, Satyabhama brags about being the daughter of a very rich king, Satrajit. She was a very beautiful, proud, commanding and above all a warrior queen. While Krishna commanded the whole universe, Satyabhama commanded him. All these qualities of Satyabhama are portrayed during this dance-drama. Bhama Kalapam is a dynamic dance-drama, filled with Bhava (expressions), quick rhythmic movements, grand costumes, and most melodic music. The original dance-drama was performed for nine nights, depicting the complete story of sweet quarrel between Lord Krishna and arrogant Satya Bhama. In recent years, only small parts of this dance-drama are being performed by solo dancers.

In the past, all roles were traditionally played by men. As an offering to Lord Krishna, every Brahmin or priest, of the village of Kuchipudi is expected to perform the role of Satyabhama at least once in his life. Even though this dance has been performed by many well-known dancers, in my opinion, no one even comes close to being as good as the legend, Sri Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarmaji. He does not allow the woman's identity to slip as he sings beautifully before commencing the famous lekha (love letter) scene in Bhama Kalapam. The scene portrays Satyabhama as she writes a love letter to her consort Krishna in the most poetic language. The role of the actor in Kuchipudi included spoken bits of dialogue and even sung passages.

However, this comprehensive singing, acting, and dancing prowess of the performer have now been changed to a largely dance-oriented expertise. The vocalist in the team of musicians accompanying the performance has taken over all the singing. As for the dialogue passages in Telugu, they have become rare among the urban dancers coming from a variety of backgrounds. Only in the traditional Yakshagana presentation by the village troupes does one get to hear the spoken passages.

Because of the Vachika Abhinaya, that is speaking and singing while dancing, it will be beneficial to know the Telugu language. It is not just that they will be able to deliver dialogues well or lip sync well. Part of the joy of dancing comes from knowing the intricacies of the Sahithyam or the deeper meaning of the dance. Telugu is a sweet language, and Kuchipudi Sahithyam is an important component of Telugu literature.

From the beginning of the history of life, humans have sought expression of their inner self through dance, first in the worship of the incomprehensible forces of nature and then in their deitification. I am hoping to see more dancers and dance teachers continue to propagate this beautiful dance form.


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