Amitabh Bachchan had the grace to look embarrassed when the hot seat candidate
answered 'Vempati' even without hearing the four options to the question, "Who
amongst these is the most renowned Kuchipudi Guru?" Such is the popularity of
Vempati Chinasatyam, who carved a laurel-filled niche internationally for himself
as a Guru. The man has to his credit 16 dance ballets and 200 dance items for
women dancers, with Vyjayanthimala, Yamini Krishna Murthy, Shobha Naidu and Manju
Bhargavi being the more prominent performers.
He was presenting his 16th ballet, 'Sri Pada Parijatham' based on Annamayya's life and times, at the 41st anniversary festival of the South Indian Cultural Association (SICA), to an enthralled audience. SICA, known for its commitment to dance and music, was honoring Guru Vempati on this occasion. Governor Rangarajan, who inaugurated the festival on the evening, noted that appreciation also needed training, and proved his involvement by watching most of the program appreciatively.
The ballet had the story of Annamayya unfold itself in stages, starting with the parents instilling spiritual values in their only son and his travails in everyday living, and progressing onto the call of devotion to Lord Venkateswara, Bhakti established at the temple and his initiation by a Vaishnava Yati who leads him on to the divine path through the keertanas that he writes.
Then Annamayya's mother requests the Guru to release him from the fold so that he can lead a householder's life. Lovingly sent off by the Guru with a blessing to serve the Lord while still being in samsara, Annamayya grows into a fine saint poet. He is married to two young damsels who are as devoted to him as to the Lord he worships, providing inspiration along with the right conditions for his poetic works.
Many lyrics flow from his 'ghantam' and his fame spreads far and wide, reaching the art loving king Saluva Narasimha Raya who reverentially escorts him to his kingdom to write sensuous lyrics with the spiritual aspect. Thus emerges the master piece 'Emeko Chigurutadharamuna' from the bhakti-filled heart of Annamayya, engrossed totally in his Lord even as the court dancer depicts the song provocatively.
The king, thoroughly captivated by the beauty of the lyrical composition, asks the poet to write a similar verse on him. Annamayya declines, pleading devotion only to his Venkatapati. The enraged king imprisons him, and Annamayya once again reveals his spiritual commitment, eventually having the repentant king set him free. What follows is the dedication of all the saint-poet's works to Lord Venkateswara at the Brahmotsavam and the ultimate merging of his soul in the divine.
An engrossing dance drama, though too long. The dances were excellently choreographed by the unparallelled Vempati. The dancers, both family (son and daughter-in-law among them) and disciples, and male and female, were meticulously trained to fit the roles they were playing. Akella Aneesha as young Annamayya was talent personified. Vempati Ravishankar as the older Annamayya, and wife Srividya (a pretty and graceful danseuse if I ever saw one) who played his wife in rhe ballet, too, were simply superb.
Other dancers and dancers were lively and kept the tempo of the dance form. Only the king was shown as a buffoon, which is rather unjustified - history tells us that he was a rather a dignified person interested in all art forms. A small episode on marriage talks for Annamayya by his mother with her brother and wife was an entertaining bit.
There were relevant link songs written by Indraganti Srikanta Sarma , set to fine tunes by P Sangeet Rao, interspersed by Annamayya's own creations. Importance was given to dance-oriented rhythms in the music compositions, and the 30 odd dancers executed all items with precision and a style that could only be called 'Signature Vempati'.