The ugly communal fuss about the Amarnath Yatra makes you long for the lost spirit of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, of amicable Hindu-Muslim co-existence. Speaking of which, last Saturday, attention, of a kind, was drawn to the classical dance of the Andhra region, Kuchipudi. The world’s largest single gathering of Kuchipudi dancers performed a jatiswaram (a rhythmic piece) together in the US, to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, 2008. Every Delhi diva, from Yamini Krishnamurthi (who first brought the art to national notice in the Sixties) downwards, was there. “How cool is that, told you, you should have come,” messaged a young lady I know who took part.
Was the world impressed? Here’s what the local Mercury reported: “Dancers in Cupertino will be memorialized in a book that honors loud burps, long fingernails and large groups of breast-feeding mothers.” “We are in the history books,” Anand Kuchibhotla said on Monday. His group, Silicon Andhra, organised a dancing feat that earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. On Saturday, 380 Kuchipudi dancers set a world record for being the largest group of Kuchipudi dancers performing continually for more than five minutes on a flat stage. They danced for 8 1/2 minutes.
Guinness adjudicator Danny Girton oversaw the event and handed a certificate to Kuchibhotla, a 46-year-old Internet start-up vice president who grew up with Kuchipudi dancing in his home state of Andhra Pradesh, southern India and came up with the idea. “When he announced that we met all the standards, 2,000 people in the audience gave a standing ovation. They were screaming and saying ‘Wooooooooo.’ “It was unbelievable,” Kuchibhotla said.
“Pronounced Koo-chee-poo-dee, the dance was born in Andhra Pradesh and derives its name from a village there. Dancers often represent Hindu gods and act out stories for their audiences. Dancers flew in from Russia, India, Singapore, Germany, England, Canada and all over the United States. They flocked to Cupertino, not only to set a world record but for the world's first international three-day Kuchipudi convention, organised by Kuchibhotla.”
Where does Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb come in, you ask, for a dance born by the river Krishna in South India? It was created as a devotional genre focused on Sri Krishna, by a medieval bhakta, Siddhendra Yogi. Like Rambhakt Tulsidas, he too was stranded one stormy night on the far bank of a raging river, longing to go across to his bride. But during his night of torment, the bridegroom became a bhakta, focusing all his love on God instead. His compositions like the Bhamakalaapam about Princess Satyabhama, Sri Krishna’s beautiful, wilful queen, were devised as an operatic blending of song and story. Similar in movement to Bharata Natyam, ‘Kuchipudi’ had its own character that he taught to the young boys of his village (since Yamini Krishnamurti’s pioneering days, however, Kuchipudi is ruled by women).
In the 17th century, the villagers of Kuchipudi were crushed under the heel of a local tyrant, Guruvaraja. But one day, the king of the land, Sultan Abul Hasan Tanashah, came by on a royal tour. The villagers saw their opportunity. They staged an eloquent performance of Kuchipudi for the king in which they indirectly conveyed their plight. The Sultan got the message and took appropriate measures. He also granted them the village and lands of Kuchipudi in perpetuity, about 600 acres, it seems, with the condition that they kept this enchanting art form alive.
It’s a romance of modern India that one day in Madras, when the now legendary Yamini Krishnamurthi was a young girl learning Bharata Natyam, an agitated little man arrived unannounced at the door, demanding to see her father. His name was Lakshminarayana Sastri and he was a poor Kuchipudi teacher eking out a living in Madras, teaching ‘dance’ to Tamil and Telugu film stars. Was Yamini not of Andhra extraction, he demanded to know. Well, he had something to teach, just in time, too, because he was already old and frail. The Krishnamurthis were instantly responsive, for those were the days of great nationalist fervour when every effort was made “for India.” And so, next day, without preamble, Kuchipudi found its future.
A date with destiny? You bet. But think, too, of Abul Hasan’s crucial role in it. This is the forgotten beauty of India. Won’t the angry people in Kashmir think of these things instead? Or must our amazing multi-cultural identity be described as “history” only in a Guinness Book gimmick, however well-intentioned?