Navigating traditions

A student’s quest to learn about Indian myths leads him to explore two art forms, including Kuchipudi, a classical dance form coming to Harvard.

By Gregory Schaefer ‘17

Growing up in the Western tradition, especially studying Greek and Roman cultures, I have been exposed to all kinds of mythology, yet I know virtually none of the Indian gods or myths. To begin my education, I attended a screening of the Pixar short film Sanjay’s Super Team at the Museum of Fine Arts. The film, based on the life of writer and director Sanjay Patel, centers on Little Sanjay navigating two cultural traditions as a first generation American. The film begins with the boy’s fixation on Western culture and TV and shunning of his father’s religious rituals. After emerging from a meditative trance, in which he fights against evil forces

A scene from "Sanjay’s Super Team"
with the aid of Vishnu, Durga and Hanuman (the three central Hindu deities), he gains a deep connection to and appreciation for his father’s culture and religion. Though most of us in the audience were not familiar with the Hindu religious tradition, we found a strong empathy and appreciation for our parents and the unique traditions they have imparted, no matter how “foreign” they may seem to an outsider.

Enriched by Sanjay’s Super Team, I moved on to speak with Shantala Shivalingappa, an eminent Kuchipudi dancer, about her art form and the ways in which Kuchipudi, South India’s classical dance form, tells underrepresented myths. Shivalingappa will be teaching a master class on Kuchipudi from 7-9 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Harvard Dance Center. The class will have live musical accompaniment by percussionist Haribabu Balan Puttamamma and vocalist Ramesh Jetty, and is open to all dancers of intermediate and advanced experience in any form. An edited version of my conversation with Shivalingappa follows. 

What is Kuchipudi?
Kuchipudi is a classical dance form that developed in a small village in south India. All the styles of Indian

Shantala Shivalingappa
dance developed in different regions and drew from the very characteristic forms depending on the local language, literature, musical traditions and folkloric tradition. Each dance form has an element of pure dance – both pure form and the beauty of the form itself – and a very strong element of narrative. All the stories we dance about are the Hindu myths, the stories, the gods, the demons and all the great episodes that we have. Another thing about Kuchipudi, is that it’s inseparable from music and live performance of the music, so dance and music are so closely and intimately interwoven, and the dancer and the musicians have to work very closely together.

What are some historical background details in understanding Kuchipudi?
Indian art is, at its core intention, one of devotion. All classical Indian dances have their shared roots in the Nāṭya Śāstra, a treaty on music, dance and dramatics. The text is more than 2,000 years old and is written in Sanskrit. It provides codification of hand gestures, feet position and movement of eyes and neck. The Natya Shastra was written by the sage Bharata as a way for every man, performers and spectators alike, to access the divine, express his or her own devotion and celebrate in the most immediate way, without requiring education, literacy in Sanskrit, or reliance on priests.

What are some of Kuchipudi’s unique central goals or underlying themes?
Kuchipudi is based on two things. One is pure devotion, and that’s a very strong element of the form, and the other is an extremely sensual and graceful form.

Who are your favorite characters to perform as?
My top favorite is Shiva, the lord of dance; that is my favorite character since he’s the best dancer ever. His

Kuchipudi is South India's classical dance form.
energy is just so pure and intense, and so strong and powerful, and at the same time he masters all the little subtleties of dance, from the most graceful to the most fierce. He’s the destroyer of evil, and he’s just such an awesome god, he’s the best ever. I also love the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, since he’s so graceful with his elephant body and elephant head. He’s quite heavy yet he’s so graceful and playful, so I love finding a beautiful way to portray him with the grace and weight at the same time.

How is Kuchipudi, a form that is so highly structured and defined, relatable to someone totally ignorant in the features of Indian dance or Hindu mythology as a whole?
I’m based in Paris, and I usually perform for non-Indian audiences, people who do not know much of Indian culture or Hindu mythology and who do not have any of the keys of the code to understand the form. What I find so beautiful about a strong, classical art like Kuchipudi is that it really speaks every language, in the sense that the energy and emotion that is generated by movement and music is really universal. And even if you don’t know who Shiva is, or that he’s a terrible god, you can sense the difference in the music and the difference in the dancer when she moves from something graceful, to something very fierce, to something very, very angry. You don’t need someone to explain them to you. You just have to open your heart and open your eyes, and receive what’s given.