Choosing Dance: Part One of an Interview with Vempati Ravi Shankar

“Initha Mudan editha por paadamu kaana petral

Manitha piraviyum vendu vade, im manilathe”

TRANSLATION

“To get the chance to see Shiva in that pose,

with His golden foot raised high over His head,

what more do we need in this birth?…”

For those who have seen Vempati Ravi Shankar in Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam’s ballet “Ardhanareeswara,” the reference to these lines from a Tamil padyam (verse) is not perplexing.  That is because, seeing Vempati Ravi Shankar dance, we saw Shiva Himself in front of us and our lives were transformed after it.  In Part One of this candid interview with Vempati Ravi Shankar we meet the humble, intelligent, and warm man behind such artistic mastery.  His is a story of exceptional talent and complete dedication to art.  This is a rare glimpse into Vempati Ravi Shankar’s journey as a student of Kuchipudi dance…

KV:  At what age did you begin learning dance and at what point did you become serious about your study of Kuchipudi?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: According to what my mother has told me, I started dancing at about one or one and a half years of age.   But I actually started learning dance when I was seven or eight years old.  After that I started thinking seriously about dance as a profession for the first time when I was a teenager–perhaps sixteen or seventeen.

KV:  What brought upon this serious consideration of dance as a profession?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: Well first off, for everyone there is a certain time when he/she thinks of a certain livelihood or has an impression in his/her mind about what he/she wants to do.  As a child I was like other children, interested in playing with friends.  Even so, dance was special for me even from that age.  While I was dancing, I used to try and dance in the way professional dancers used to dance–in a mature way.   At the age when one doesn’t know what a profession is, how could I think of taking it on as a profession?  As I became older, as my mind matured, and having seen many great dancers who came to learn from my father and all of his senior students I thought to myself, “I see. This is how a professional dancer is.”  When I watched dance programs and heard adults talk about professional dancers, I began understanding what it meant to be a professional dancer.  One of the things I realized at a young age itself is that, without seriousness, one can’t learn dance.   So from that point, with the desire kindled, I began pursuing dance seriously and getting further in my training.

KV:  While learning, did you have to fight for the attention of your guru-your father-in class like all students do for their gurus?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: To tell you the truth actually, right from the beginning, my father was not very interested in me learning this art form because he himself had undergone a lot of struggle.  Also in those days for a man to be a dancer was something like an insult.  In the sense, people used to think it very strange for a man to be a dancer.  People used to think that if a man dances, he probably walks like a woman and his mannerisms are probably all feminine.  So in those days there was the conception that it’s not good for a man to be a dancer.  There was also the conception that, unless one had a nice physique or a certain type of beauty in the face, a person wouldn’t be good for the stage.  Also for a man to be a dancer, he would have to really struggle in society to rise.  To please so many people in so many ways is difficult indeed.  The concept that it doesn’t matter what a male dancer looks like as long as he is a good dancer is there in today’s society, but in those days it was necessary for the boy to be very handsome, have an attractive physique, and worry about those types of things.  Knowing this struggle, my father didn’t want me to get involved in dance.  When we children (my sisters and I) used to go downstairs into class, he used to say, “ Go away! Go back into the house.”  He didn’t encourage us (to dance) at all.  It was my guru, Balakka (Smt. Bala Kondala Rao) who took an interest in me.  My sisters also used to encourage me to learn dance when I was a young boy.  I have three sisters and they took a lot of interest in my dance and they wanted me to be taught.

KV:  So how did you manage to learn?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: At that time, Balakka took more interest in me and, whenever my father wasn’t home, had gone out of town, or whenever she was free, she used to teach me.  That’s how I learned.  Sometimes she would teach me in the middle of the night, or in the afternoon when nobody was there in the class, or early in the morning.  For ten years that’s how I learned.  My father didn’t know that I was even learning dance.  In this respect, I struggled a lot.  To explain how it was for me, think of this:  You know that anxious anticipation when someone from the U.S. comes to India to learn dance?  You know that great anxiety that one feels to go somewhere and learn something that you don’t have where you are?  For me, though it was in my own house—though dance was within the four compound walls of my house; though the art was there—I didn’t have the opportunity to learn directly from my father.  So I had to struggle a lot.  At any time if by accident my father caught me in class, my father would say, “Why did you come to class? Go!”  It wasn’t that he didn’t want his children to learn.  It was that he knew what a difficult field this was and didn’t want any of his children to face that life.  The way in which he brought his students to a high level, he didn’t promote the members of his family.”  Another point is that he feared that people would think, “Vempati garu is very selfish.  He’s only promoting his children.”  So never did he encourage his children or even his sisters’ children.  You see we used to live as a combined family.  So we all had an inspiration to learn dance.  He always gave first preference to his students.  But I never stopped it.  I had a very strong mind.  I decided I have to learn somehow or another.  So due to my guru, Balakka, teaching me as well as my own steadfast determination to learn, I was able to learn.  But of course, at other times as a child, I would be playing games, playing cricket.  It was only when I got to fifteen or seventeen years of age that I had the thought, “I must really do this.”  And now and then my sisters used to point out to me: “Look at these senior students.  Why are they working so hard?  Because they want to get higher in dance.  You too should come up like them.”  So all my moral support came from my sisters.

KV:  How did your father find out about your training?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: One day on Sankranthi, my guru Balakka brought me in front of Master garu, sat me down and told Mastergaru: “Master garu, just see his dance one time.  If you say it is good, he will continue.  If not, he will stop.”  She had gotten new clothes stitched for me just for that day.  She asked me to stand in front of everyone and said to me: “You dance.”  So I did “Brahmanjali” item in front of Mastergaru.  After seeing me dance, Mastergaru said, “Okay fine.  He did good,” and from then on he let me remain in class and learn dance.  Later one day he told my mother: “This boy is doing very well.  He has good talent.”  But I definitely had to undergo that fight for attention that you asked about, like other students.  He used to never look at me in class.  He never looked my way.  I used to get very sad.  I would go then to my mother and cry to her while she was cooking saying, “Father is not looking at me during class.  I’m not able to understand whether I should continue dance or not.”  Then at some time at night when my father was free, my mother talked with him (Master garu): “Ravi is really upset.  It seems you are not looking his way during class.”  So my father apparently said at that time: “There is no need to look his way, because he is dancing so perfectly.”  Another reason he did this was that a father should never openly praise a son.  That is not a good thing.   Because I was treated like a student, today I know the value of this art.  If since the beginning I was given encouragement for everything and given the opportunity to do a lot of programs and had become a Padmasree or Padmabhushan by my age, I probably would have become arrogant.  So as a father, a guru, my father did a great job.  There is nothing I can criticize him for today.

KV:  Your artistry is known for its perfection and great ease of movement.  As a young student, what went into achieving this perfection you are known for?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: If I have to tell you the truth, while I was learning dance, I never had to really work hard at it.  As they taught me, I used to just be able to do it.  That sense of perfection was something in-built in me and perhaps came to me by birth.  Of course my gurus did tell me that my goal should be perfection.  Definitely a guru tells you that and as a student you must follow that.  Struggling for a particular movement, or feeling upset that I didn’t get a certain movement, or thinking consciously that I must do this ‘perfectly,’ were things I never did or felt.  Those things simply came automatically to me.  By ten years I had learned the fundamentals–steps and jathis.  And items I learned very systematically.  One month (of daily classes) for one item.  The understanding of what all is involved in doing an item—finding out what the meaning is, what the notes are, what is the talam, and what is the ragam—and that for each abhinaya there are so many expressions one can do was something that came to me automatically.  Definitely also because the teachers tell us, that learning happens.

KV:  Can you tell us how you got started performing in your father, Vempati Chinna Satyam’s, ballets?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: Once I grew a bit taller, I got to play the calf character in my father’s ballet.  Not the head person, the tail person.   I did that character for many years—about four or five years.  After that one time we (Master garu’s students) had gone to Vijayawada to do Srinivasa Kalyanam, and I had also gone along just to visit.   On that trip one of our dancers, one of the chelikathas (Padmavathi’s friend character), became sick suddenly.  On the morning of the show we found out the girl had a fever, so Balakka said ‘Ravi, do her part.’  Balakka just arranged everything like that.  Because we used to have all those wigs, and fake hair, she quickly got me ready.  At the end, before the wedding scene, there is one song you see that goes, “Taraleeri Suramounulu, Purohithulu (Ravi garu sings this line).”  After the ballet was over Master garu was announcing who played each character.  Balakka was helping him with the students’ names.  Balakka had given me (as sakhi) the name “Rekha.”  So my father went ahead and announced that one of the sakhis was played by ‘Rekha.’  Then after everything was over he asked Balakka, ‘Who is this Rekha?”  “It’s not any stranger Master garu.  It is Ravi himself,” Balakka told him.  My father had a great laugh over this.  He joked about it for a while but appreciated Balakka’s quick thinking in handling the emergency.  He also appreciated my work in dancing undetectably as a young girl.  After that, for many years, I played the sage role and then the soldier role.  So step-by-step I took part in every ballet.  In this way I learned every character.  “For each role, how should I interpret a character,” I learned to think.  Slowly I took on the role of Shiva in Haravilasam, Shiva in Srinivasa Kalyanam, Rukmi in Rukmini Kalyanam, Dushyanta in Shakuntalam, Ardha Nareswara in Ardhanareeswara.  Because all of these roles came to me step by step, I gained a lot of experience.   I gained the ability to play any character.  That’s most important for every dancer.   Whatever it is, only if one goes step by step will he/she have a strong foundation.

KV:  Do you practice the art of female impersonation in dance?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: My mother used to force me to do the Satyabhama character, but I personally didn’t have an interest in it.  As a male character, if I have to portray a woman, I don’t mind.  Having observed so many great women dancers from my childhood, I was able to differentiate the woman and male role as Ardhanareeswara.  It was indeed a bit of a challenge.  But when you absorb the character into your mind and soul, you need not panic.  But you do need to do your ‘homework. ‘ You have to study the character a lot and have to practice a lot.  Solo items like padams and javalis, I wasn’t taught by my father.  He felt those were more appropriate for women.  However, when master garu was choreographing them on seniors, I used to observe and learn those dances myself.

KV:  How do you mentally and physically approach the satvika and angika abhinaya of a role you are dancing?

Vempati Ravi Shankar: Let’s take the example of playing a ‘rishi’ character.  Who is a rishi?  He is one who has given up all the happiness and all interest in society.   Without any relationship to society, he lives somewhere in some mountains or forests.  A rishi is a sanyasi (ascetic).  They are ones who’ve read the Vedas.   They are people who only want to be very close to God in every thought and at every moment.   How they actually are we don’t know.  We haven’t seen rishis or yogis right?   Because our elders tell us that in those days rishis used to be that way, we listen.  Today in these cities that we live in, are we even able to see them?  Even if we wanted to see them, we don’t know in what forest, in what cave they are.  They are hidden.  But in our imagination we have the thought that they are very pure beings.  First of all one must absorb that feeling into one’s mind.  That’s the fundamental, basic thing.   In the first scene of Srinivasa Kalyanam, Narada asks the rishis, who is the right person to go test all the gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheswara.  The rishis come to the conclusion that Brighu is the right person.  In that scene, when the rishis are debating amongst themselves, that body movement comes at the point when you feel in your mind that you are a sage and you absorb the nature of the characteristics of that character.  Then automatically it will come.  First in that process itself, fifty percent of the dance comes.  Then after that based on the words, our abhinaya comes.  As another example, I’ll take my experience playing Shiva in Haravilasam.  Shiva is not always the angry, roudra tandavam-dancing Shiva.  When he is dancing next to Dakshayani, it is a nice romantic song.  In that sringara (romantic) situation, grace is more important.

In terms of aharya abhinaya, it is said Shiva wears a garland of skulls. But wearing a real garland of skulls on stage wouldn’t be nice.  He is also said to have snakes all over his body.  But we have to just suggest these aspects.  We must wear only as much as is needed.  Actually, anything we wear or put on stage should only be suggestive of the real thing.  We have to be able to dance first.  So just a small crescent in his hair, a few rudraksha beads around the neck, a small snake around his hair are used.  All these things Master garu really thought about when he imagined how each character would be.  All these things I learned not by him telling me, but by watching him.

My father, the art director, the script writer Bhujanga Raya Sharma garu, Sangeetha Rao garu the music director used to have discussions.  When they all sat together and discussed, I used to observe.  They would talk about how music-wise and lyric-wise the abhinaya should be.  I used to listen and think about it.  In the lyrics—in each word—there is a certain bhavam (feeling), so how should I do this character I used to think.  They discussed how in the music, when there is a certain tune, how the abhinaya should fit the tune.  I was observing and understanding their discussions.  I never interfered.  You see, they had an immensely vast knowledge.  When my father, Bhujanga Raya garu, and Sangeetha Rao garu were discussing, I would hear them saying “If we do this it will be an advantage.  If we do this it will be a disadvantage.  This is right.  This is wrong.”  They were able to make decisions very quickly.  And I would ‘get it’ right then and I wouldn’t have any doubts.  But there were some days once in a while when I did wonder and ask Bhujanga Raya Sarma garu for example, “Master garu you said to do this part this way, but if we do it another way how would it be? ”  And when I asked he would very happily elaborate and explain to me in detail the creative reasoning.  Even Sangeetham master garu would explain to me kindly: “If we put this raagam, it will be fitting son.  If we put this nadaka (walk) it will be suitable.  If this character does this action with this music in the background, then that feel, that atmosphere will be seen and felt.”  So perfect was their thinking and analysis that there was no need to question or rework their scenes.  Such perfect information they had-so accurate were their discussions.

Having heard them talking and analyzing in this way, when I played Shiva in a ballet, I felt I had to do it in a way to satisfy all those elements of their creation.   For any dancer, it is very important to first do character analysis for every character.  We have to become the character.  If I am doing a Shiva character, people should not see Vempati Ravi Shankar.  They should only see Shiva.  That’s all I have done, and perhaps that is what audiences have appreciated.

(Note:  This is an English translation of an interview conducted in Telugu.)

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