In addition to performing and touring, Yamini teaches Kuchipudi at the Natyatarangini Dance School at its Hyderabad branch, which she started in 2007. Yamini is also a budding choreographer and has authored a research thesis titled – “Audience Development for the Performing Arts in India.” She is also actively involved in organising the ‘Parampara Series’ music and dance festivals in Delhi and Hyderabad.
An established Kuchipudi dancer, Yamini’s half-sibling Bhavana Reddy is the younger daughter and disciple of celebrated dancing couple Raja Reddy and Kaushalya Reddy. She began performing with her parents at the age of five for prestigious festivals, events organized for ministers and diplomats around the world as well as on international tours. Bhavana continues to play lead characters in various Kuchipudi Yakshaganams. She is well versed with the traditional Kuchipudi Natyam and Yakshaganam styles, and is praised for her style of abhinaya, her ability in rhythm and arresting stage presence.
With two and a half decades of experience to her credit, Bhavana is recognised as one of India’s leading young Kuchipudi performers, a youth symbol and is a teacher at New Delhi’s premiere performing arts institute Natya Tarangini. Interestingly, Bhavana is also an acclaimed singer, and has had the chance to sing for a Hollywood film and also perform at a Grammys after-party.
Neha Kirpal spoke to these two talented sisters recently on a host of subjects: what it was like to grow up around their parents who are legendary dancers, their current roles as dance teachers, choreographers and singers; and their words of advice for aspiring Kuchipudi dancers all over the world.
Your parents are award-winning Kuchipudi dancers. Tell us about your earliest influences having grown up around them.
Yamini: My earliest memories of my parents and my environment are of dancing. I used to watch them dance when I left for school and they would be rehearsing even when I came back. Sometimes, they would be so involved in their rehearsals that they would even forget to pick me up from school. That’s how dedicated they were and that is the environment in which I was raised.
I was always very passionate about dancing and knew that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I loved dancing so I used to love everything associated with dance: watching my parents dance, attending dance classes, watching others dance in their classes and I enjoyed waking up to the sound of the mridangam in the morning. I think a lot of my dance training happened informally, through an immersive experience rather than formal training.
In class, I was the least important student to my parents. I would usually stand at the back. Until my Rangapravesham, I didn’t even get any one-on-one time with my parents who were my gurus. At home, we were a normal family that indulged in regular activities. But in the dance studio, the same parents who were so loving and doting would transform into these strict no-nonsense teachers, who wouldn’t stop until I reached perfection. In fact, my father allowed me to do my Rangapravesham only when he thought I was ready, which was when I was 20 years old.
Their dedication and hard work rubbed off on me. I learnt the value of regular practice and sincerity from them, which I practice in my own career today. They have never let me feel the pressure of their achievements or fame and have allowed me to grow in my own time.
Bhavana: Many, but the things I recall in particular are:
- Always coming home to my parents dancing in the practice room where we would join them for rehearsals after lunch.
- The constant tours, practicing and learning on the way and the wonderful memories we had while practicing and performing.
- The very important lesson I learnt as an eight year old before a show in the US that despite a high fever, – “the show must go on.” At the time, I played the part of Prahlada in the Kuchipudi Yakshaganam, Prahlada Charitam.
- We would work hard in school. We had dance, vocal music, violin and art classes. I would play sports too. Despite such a packed schedule, we would tour, perform, rehearse and do well in academics. We learnt how to manage time well, how to be productive and hard working, teaching us to enjoy the process and its fruits. It was a very fulfilling childhood.
- I learnt that nothing good comes easy in life; everything must be earned.
- I also learnt showmanship, watching my parents’ shows from behind the stage wings.
- I can never forget my father’s Shiva dance, Radha Amma’s Tarangam and Kaushalya Amma’s Ashtapadi Kuruyadunandana. All of this left deep impressions within me.
Yamini: I opened my dance school, a branch of my parents’ NatyaTarangini, in 2007 in Hyderabad. I started initially with about four students. Since then, it has grown into a larger school with over 100 students at present. Personal teaching is a motto we believe in, so I teach all the classes personally at my centre. I feel that a child requires my attention at the beginner level as much as one of my senior students. Other than just training them in Kuchipudi, I try to put a lot of the traditional teaching in a more relevant context so that young children today understand and appreciate the art form deeply.
Other than teaching, I also conduct workshops regularly through which I try to give students exposure to many subjects surrounding Kuchipudi such as light design, yoga for dance, music for dance, etc. Ideas for workshops vary from year to year. This year, for example, I will be introducing students to ‘Gollakalapam’ through the Mangatayaru sisters.
I have also started a ‘support an artist’ initiative where I try to find ways to bring support to artists who need monetary assistance, especially in their old age. At the moment, it’s a small initiative but I hope to take it forward in a bigger way.
Tell our readers more about your role as a choreographer.
Yamini: As a choreographer, I am always trying to bring my own perspective to the traditional art without sacrificing its traditional grammar. I am searching for new subjects and refreshing ideas. For instance, in 2007 I partnered a production ‘Harmony’ along with modern dancer Leah Curtis from New York. In 2016, I conceptualised ‘Adviteeyam,’ a duet production with Bhavana. In 2017, I produced ‘An Evening of Storytelling,’ where I tried to showcase the storytelling aspect of Kuchipudi replete with characters, narrators, episodes and dialog. In 2018, I worked along with my father on a new production ‘Surya: The Sun God,” where we tried to showcase in parallel traditional and modern theories around the formation of the sun and the planetary system.
Apart from the Kuchipudi dance style, you have also mastered Western contemporary music. Tell us about how you got interested and pursued the study of this.
Bhavana: I was interested in Western contemporary music and pursued an education and tried to gain experience in that field. I am very thankful for all that I have learned. To say the least, it has exposed me to a whole new world that is uncharted in the Indian music scene—relating to voice and body anatomy, how to nurture it, music composition and how to work with a musical group. These are just some of the allied arts that help me day in and out as a dancer.
My interest in Western music started when I was young, since my sister and my peers would listen to the latest pop music, rock and other musical genres. The language and scenarios in the songs were very relatable given the academic and social environment that surrounded me in New Delhi.
You are an accomplished singer. Tell our readers about your first solo EP, Tangled in Emotions, the experience of performing at the Grammy after-party in 2013 and singing a song in the grunge rock style for the Hollywood movie ‘Joy Ride 3.’
Bhavana: It was an honor to work with the greats in the international music scene based in Hollywood, California. I worked with the music directors of Childish Gambino, Lorde; the mastering engineer of Snoop Dogg and Game of Thrones; Emmy and Grammy award winning recording engineers and producers who were true to their art, sincere, grounded and phenomenal to work with. The work culture, talent and professionalism that I was exposed to is unparalleled. Till date, my communication skills on stage/studio are at ease and my experience gives me clarity in practice and procedure.
Both of you often perform Kuchipudi dance presentations together. Give our readers an insight into how it goes.
Yamini: Since our maiden duet performance in ‘Adviteeyam’ in 2016, Bhavana and I have been performing duets frequently. We also perform the Shiva Leela, which is one of my parents’ hallmark presentations. Since Bhavana and I have grown up together and learnt dance together, both of us have a sound understanding of technique and abhinaya and are firmly rooted in my parents’ style of Kuchipudi. We share a very good understanding of each other’s dancing technique and have excellent chemistry on stage, which audience members enjoy. Both of us bring our own style to dancing, which elevates the visual experience of our duet performances.
Bhavana: It’s a unique experience now that we have both come in to our own. Although we were working professionals since childhood, we now exchange ideas at a different level of involvement and creativity. It’s wonderful to be able to evolve in our relationship and partnership as dancers. It’s wonderful to have someone so similar yet different from you when discussing a new performance or project.
What do you feel about the scope of Kuchipudi as a dance form? Any words of advice for students, and other aspiring young artists in the field?
Yamini: Arising from man’s need for storytelling is the art of Kuchipudi dance. The Kuchipudi dance tradition is a combination of theatre (Natya Mela) and temple dance (Nattuvamela), which makes it a unique form of dance. This very nature of Kuchipudi gives it the length and breadth necessary to explore creative ideas. It is fast-paced and sprightly, making it rhythmically lively, thus enabling it to conquer space and time. Kuchipudi also has immense depth and scope, which can be explored through its vast range in abhinaya that adapts conventional movements with ease. In its newest form, Kuchipudi is a modern link to its ancient heritage.
I would advise students and aspiring young artists to make sure they give equal emphasis to technique and abhinaya while training. There is generally a tendency to be casual about nritta (which is physically demanding) while training, which actually takes away from the authenticity of the dance. I also urge everyone to put in relentless practice and wait patiently for their efforts to pay off. Dance by its virtue will give us a lot more than money or fame can ever give.
Bhavana: Kuchipudi is a golden art form, it can never get old. It’s like emotions, they can never get old. I would say delve into the field, give it your hundred percent and merge into it. Let your personality shine through the art form. But to become one with the art form, one must first master the technique and study various related aspects. Kuchipudi is a dance drama, not just dance and not just drama. That’s what makes it unique, so do justice to it.
What are you working on currently? What are your plans for the future?
Yamini: At present, I am starting work on a new production called ‘Temple Bells,’ which I hope to stage in 2020. In the future, I hope to take my initiative to support artists further and involve more corporate partners. I also wish to do more research-oriented work in my field.
Bhavana: I am currently studying the body of work of my father and his guru, the master guru Vedantam Prahlada Sarma.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com