BHUBANESWAR: How often does one get to see a male dancer presenting a traditional temple dance performed for centuries by women? Not often.
But when Kala Krishna performed Andhra Natyam in the city last week during the 5th Debaprasad Samman cultural festival, he did set the stage on fire. Such grace and feminity marked the performance that not for a moment the audience felt the difference. And when they realised, they were so overpowered by the performance that they could only ask for more in approbation.
A line for the uninitiated, Andhra Natyam is a temple dance of Andhra Pradesh. The dance form has a beauty of its own which comes with some of the earthiness, the ruggedness of the traditional folk forms.
Kala Krishna began his performance with ‘pushpanjali’ in the style of temple rituals. This item was usually performed by Deva Nartakeeda or Devadasis in front of Gods. This was followed by ‘Kaivaram’ in praise of Lord Madhava. The dancer followed it with ‘Navajanardhana Parijatham’ in which he gave an insight into the feminine contradictions of Satyabhama, all melting love one moment for her beloved Lord Krishna and the next an avenging angel brandishing her plait as a whip to beat him with.
So spontaneous were the presentations of this 60-year-old artiste that the audience refused to believe that a man was staging the character of a woman. Andhra Pradesh-based Kala Krishna is one of the very few dancers in the Andhra Natyam tradition who specialises in stree vesham (female impersonation), particularly performing as Satyabhama.
A native of Kallepalli, a village in the district of Karimnagar, Kala Krishna was born to a simple farmer couple. While pursuing studies in Bejadanki, Kala Krishna also took part in cultural programmes and always showed a keen interest towards other art forms. An exposure to classical dance came when young Kala Krishna was taken to see Kuchipudi veteran Vedantam Satyanarayana (1967) while on a school trip. Following elder brother’s suggestion, he decided to support his family as a school teacher in Hyderabad where he also shaped the school’s cultural shows.
At the suggestion of a colleague, 22-year old Kala Krishna began to learn Kuchipudi from Vedantam Jagannatha Sharma, who soon left the city, but not before introducing the youngster to scholar and dance revivalist late Nataraj Ramakrishna who was instrumental in reviving the near-forgotten Andhra Natyam dance form. “My training in Andhra Natyam began at the age of 22. It was difficult for both me and my Guru who gave me intensive training of 12 to 15 hours every day to mould my body to the dance form,” he says.
Under Ramakrishna, he specialised in ‘Navajanardana Parijatam’, traditionally performed over nine nights in the temples of East Godavari district, based on the life of Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama. Made up as the young, beautiful Satyabhama, Kala Krishna began to enthral the audience by dancing the ‘Navajanardana Parijatam’ in 1979. “My debut performance was in the age of 24. The journey since then has been difficult yet amazing,” says Kala Krishna.
Today, Kala Krishna does perform in male attire as well but is best known for his female impersonation. Did he feel odd about donning a woman’s costume for Andhra Natyam? “Dance is beyond male and female. I simply followed my guru’s orders. Yes, I did feel uncomfortable in a sari. It took me sometime to respond, for my blood to support me in feeling like a woman. Today, I see it more like an acting,” he says.
With research grants from the Ministry of Culture and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Kala Krishna has also undertaken a comparative analysis of Andhra Natyam and Bharatanatyam, and studied Abhinaya techniques in female impersonation. The recipient of many awards, he teaches the dance form at the Telugu University and the University of Hyderabad.