Living out a dream
Swapna Sundari has not only put Kuchipudi on the national map, she has strived hard to keep the tradition alive at the same time. Awarded the Padma Bhushan, she's charged more than ever to promote this dance form.
SHE IS the only dancer to get a direct Padma Bhushan for her contribution to dance, from the Government of India without having a Padma Shri earlier as seems to be the convention in national awards. Her recently released album (CD) Janmabhoomi Meri Pyaari by HMV Saregama has established her credentials as a musician also.
What strikes one at the very outset in Swapna Sundari, the Kuchipudi exponent is her large luminous eyes (true to her name) offset by a small mouth, which is very articulate. Hailing from an ancestry of scholars and musicians this is not very surprising. "Music was in my blood, I guess, for the entire family on my maternal side was into music while my paternal grandparents were scholars and patrons of art. I belong to the then illustrious Brahmin families of Andhra. My mother Vakkalanka Sarala was devoted to music and was assistant music director with Gemini Studios in the 40s. My initiation into dance was in Chennai, under Neela Balasubramaniam, but I had a very chequered training all through as my father, an army doctor hopped from one city to another on transfers. I shifted to Kuchipudi under Pasumarthi Seetaramaiah. When finally my father was posted to New Delhi, I think my dance classes stabilised and I was able to chart a career in dance much to the initial misgivings of my family,'' she gave a brief on her early days.
Swapna Sundari found her interest in academics slipping as she forged ahead with dance performances under the able guidance of Maya Rao, a Kathak choreographer friend of her mother, Sarala. By mid-Seventies, she was able to form her own troupe and give solo expositions both in India and abroad. These put her in the limelight and she came to be recognised as a dancer of repute.
Did her stay in Delhi contribute to her quick rise as an artiste to be followed by a national award? "It was no instant rise. I've been in the field for the past 25 years and that is no mean achievement. And during these years I have not just been a performing artiste but a creative one too. I had diversified into music too and composed for my own choreographic productions. My development as a dancer involved lots of research so that my presentations had novelty and relevance. National integration appealed to me especially in these turbulent times just as bravery awards inspired me to do a ballet on brave hearts of today born out of courageous souls of our mythology. Some of my themes were entirely traditional. I had a right mix of everything to suit a modern day audience,'' she explained.
Kuchipudi is her forte and she considers herself as a spokeswoman of this dance form, which has often been dubbed as tinged with crude folk elements. "Our great masters of Kuchipudi struggled to secure a classical dance status to their art and here we are frittering away their endless efforts by diluting the dance to suit our abilities. It is my life's purpose to keep this tradition alive. My dance centre (Kuchipudi Dance Centre) takes up master classes, research and production. We have three categories of annual festivals - `Tarangam' (held in January) which is dedicated to a personality (living or dead) who has contributed to Kuchipudi dance, `Abhinaya Sudha', a quality `abhinaya' forum (held in October) where the best `abhinaya' (expression) artistes conjoin to display their talents and Swaralahari (in August on my mother's birthday) where an assorted music composers are invited and my mother's compositions are presented to them to be tuned and performed by their artistes,'' she lists out her contributions to the medium.
Her penchant to put devadaasi (temple dancers of yesteryears) art on the national pedestal brought her both bouquets and brickbats. While she was patted by the old classicists for undertaking an onerous task, she came in for a lot of censure for trying to revive what was not considered a very respectful tradition. "I am not ashamed to say that I did offer hospitality to the aged devadaasis in my own home and learnt the nuances of fine expression (abhinaya). That tradition is extinct today. What little remains is with the older generation whom we might lose any time. I coined a dance form called Vilasini Nrityam and I will teach only those who are as devoted as me to learn and perform it. I cannot brook disregard for any element in dance,'' Swapna Sundari's strong responses show the grit and courage an artiste needs to surge ahead. That she has been successful in her mission is evident with Padma Bhushan her crowning glory. She has accomplished her artistic ambition -- of putting Andhra Pradesh and Kuchipudi on the national map.
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