My first love for dance was through Kuchipudi. The dance form was taught to me by the one and only guru who brought it to life, Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, who is synonymous with Kuchipudi.
I still remember the evening when my father seated me, all of 10 years old tall and lanky, on his Vespa and drive me to T. Nagar, Panagal Park, and we walked into a humungous hall that smelled of camphor and the floor felt cool to the touch. Hatched roofs and the bustle and the warmth of Telugu words that floated among random uncle kind of people standing around.
I felt like it was summer vacation and I was back in Machilipatnam or Tenali.
Inside various girls of different sizes, shapes and varyong braid lengths stood in perfect lines and a kind angelic lady was seated in front, hitting the small wooden log in front with another wooden stick. I was a quiet introverted girl and the whole atmosphere made me shrink even more into my insides.
Dad spoke and was answered and within a few short minutes, a young boy, my height and age walked out of a door to the far left, behind the large Nataraja idol that stood imposingly, watching all of us.
Ravi, as I later came to know, came to us, and said “Nannagaru is outside, in the room behind” And so we followed him to the larger thatched room behind the main building.
We waited in the sidelines, as Mastergaru finished speaking with a beautiful lady in a sari that was tied higher up, and then smiled at my dad and motioned for me to come forward.
I nodded. I wasn’t much of a talker and I was petrified. His voice. His demeanor. His large eyes that could look deep within you and pick up the answers that you never knew existed. He looked up at my dad and they spoke. This part is a blur, it was after all 37 years ago, but what I do remember is him holding my small shoulders, gently pushing me down, slowly and firmly, touching my knees to a V and teaching me the very first step.
I think we did a small prayer before this, at the smaller idol inside this room.
I also think he mentioned something about dress rules and timings, but all that is a blur.
What I do remember is that I will spend two evenings a week at this incredible place of arts among people who loved the dance for the next 5 years.
They say smells trigger memories, and even now, when we perform any prayer in front of Nataraja, a flash of memory takes me back many years to Mastergaru’s home. I remember Durgakka, benevolent and strict, Tulsi (of Sankarabharanam fame), Manju akka, Ravi, Phani, Sailaja, the sweaty floors and hall, the circles, the tube lights, uncles (parents) sitting outside while occasionally smoking a cigarette, the quiet that the courtyard between the road and the house started, the sounds of all 30-40 kids’ footsteps hitting the floors, the discipline, the devotion and the joy of learning.
That is how I know of Kuchipudi.
That was my introduction and that is why Kuchipudi is so important to me. It’s a childhood joy, and I will ever be indebted to Mastergaru (and my dad) to welcome me into its arms and in the way he did.