Shantala Shivalingappa

Shantala Shivalingappa will perform the self-choreographed dance, “Swayambhu,” at Spoleto Festival USA.

A child growing up in a Hindu family in India is taught the names of his ancestral gods, goddesses and demons just as passionately as the basic alphabet. Bedtime stories often be will tales of the mythological prince Rama, who vanquished the demon Ravana to rescue his wife, Sita, and brought prosperity to the land, or any other well-meaning divine figure triumphing over evil for that matter.

The concepts of religion and mythology in the Hindu culture are much like the eternal question of the chicken and the egg: No one can point out which came first. They are intricately entwined and deeply embedded in the cultural skin and all aspects of life. It begins with the art of storytelling, which has established various schools of morals, beliefs, rituals and even aesthetics in Indian civilization.

One of those schools is the classical dance of Kuchipudi, and dancer Shantala Shivalingappa returns to Spoleto Festival USA to regale audiences once again with a self-choreographed and directed performance, beginning tonight, called “Swayambhu.”

Kuchipudi has its roots in “Natya Shashtra,” one of the oldest treatises on performing arts, rumored to have been written by a sage named Bharata and dating to 300 B.C. Using its three main components, natya (drama), nritta (pure dance) and nritya (expressional dancing), Kuchipudi originated as a dance-drama in the village of Kuchelapuram (now known as Kuchipudi) in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh around the seventh century.

According to legend, this dance was founded by Siddhendra Yogi, a devotee of Lord Krishna, who eschewed the comforts of his family life to propagate his faith. He presented the stories of Krishna using a combination of technical dance and dramatic composition by training young Brahmin men from the village, who then ensured its legacy by passing it down for generations.

The complex repertoire of this dance employs the entire human body to execute various hand, torso, leg and head movements, each serving a narrative function. A well-known piece in Kuchipudi is the “Tarangam,” where the dancer balances the rhythmic stamping of the feet on the edges of a brass plate while exercising deliberate control over the remainder of her bodily actions, according to Anuradha Murali, a Kuchipudi performer and teacher from Orangeburg.

“It is strong and grounded in the legs using quick and intricate footwork, but the torso movements are fluid, graceful and swaying,” Murali said. “This opposition between the two is what sets Kuchipudi apart from other classical Indian dances.”

A careful arrangement of facial expressions, glances and hasta mudras (hand gestures) can successfully convey multiple emotions, sentiments and ideas. Through this abhinaya (the art of expression through bodily, speech, apparel and emotive variants), the dancer evokes any of the nine rasas (essences) of sringara (love), hasya (laughter), raudra (fury), karunya (compassion), bhibhitsa (disgust), bhayanaka (horror), vira (heroism), adbhuta (wonder) and santa (peace) on the stage and in the audience.

“It’s a shared experience of energy that flows through you and onto the audience,” Shivalingappa said, “You become a vehicle for something that is much greater and ancient than yourself.”

For centuries, the dancers in Kuchipudi were only men performing both male and female roles. It wasn’t until the 20th century that its tradition evolved to incorporate women, thanks to the efforts of guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Shastri. He also introduced the solo exposition of this dance, which has been continued and perfected by many of its practitioners since.

One of the most prominent figures of this dance is the late Padmabhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam, who started the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai in 1963 and began choreographing and composing dance numbers for solo presentations. He transformed the dance, making various changes. In the last few decades, Chinna Satyam’s disciples, such as Shivalingappa, Murali and many others before them, have promoted his technique all over the world.

“He was one of the giants of Kuchipudi and paved the way for the next generation and dancers like me,” Shivalingappa said.

As Shivalingappa takes this ancient dance form to the international stage, she also adds her own touch to it, like any true artist. Experimenting with various contemporary dance forms and collaborating with artists like Pina Bausch who established the German expressionist Tanztheater dance, Shivalingappa continues to evolve her own talent and bring something new to Kuchipudi.

“Contemporary dance and Kuchipudi definitely have very different movements, techniques and approaches,” Shivalingappa said. “But Kuchipudi is part of who I am, and it shows in whatever I do.”

Eesha Patkar is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.