Celebrated for its grace, rhythm and stylised mime, the dance form of Kuchipudi takes its name from a village in eastern Andhra Pradesh. Over the decades, Kuchipudi village has produced renowned teachers who have groomed iconic dancers and a superstar or two (in addition to chief ministers, a cabinet minister, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businesspeople). Almost every house in Kuchipudi still boasts of a teacher, a performer or a student, almost every home reverberates with the sound of music and anklets every day.
The road to Kuchipudi passes through villages big and small, coconut and palm trees, paddy fields, and sugarcane plantations. This region is steeped in Krishna lore: in addition to the River Krishna, which flows languidly past many settlements, the district itself is named Krishna. There are numerous temples to the deity here. Many proud flag bearers of the Kuchipudi tradition were Krishna devotees and the dance form draws liberally from episodes of the blue-skinned god’s life. Kuchipudi’s streets are dusty, and visitors will often have to skirt a puddle or dodge a cyclist as they follow the sounds of dancing feet and music.
Kuchipudi was once a dance agraharam (a colony of Brahmins), where the art form was passed down the male line. Just as the dance has changed contours, breaking away from the confines of the locality, a particular caste and gender, Kuchipudi too has become home to various communities.
Kondapalli toys, made from soft light wood and papier-mâché depict rural folk as well as mythical figures. Photo: Balamurugan Natarajan
The village is located in a culturally rich ecosystem. Next door is Movva, hometown of famous 17th-century composer Kshetrayya. The historic town of Srikakulam is close by and is surrounded by three famous artisans’ villages: Machilipatnam is the home of kalamkari block prints; Mangalgiri, of the eponymous handloom fabrics and saris; and Kondapalli makes wooden toys and décor items. Further away are Ghantasala, an ancient Buddhist pilgrim centre, and Kaza, which is the birthplace of renowned Carnatic music composer Narayana Teertha.
A large yellow arch marks the entrance to Kuchipudi village, dominated by the sprawling campus of Sri Siddhendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kala Peetham, a college for Kuchipudi dance. It’s named after a dance maestro who lived here sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. Siddhendra Yogi systematised and streamlined Kuchipudi, enriched its repertoire, and wrote one of its best-known dance-dramas, Bhama Kalapam.
The college’s principal, Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry, is a reputed teacher, performer, choreographer, dramatist, and author. The village “was once populated by Bhagavathulu or Brahmin artistes who propagated bhakti through song and dance, and their families”, he said. According to popular legend, Abul Hasan Tanisha, a scion of the Golconda Nawab dynasty, gifted the village (read, exempted them from paying taxes) to the Bhagavathula after witnessing an impressive performance sometime in the 17th century.
A few minutes down a dusty road from the college is a small, simple temple, where a black stone statue of Siddhendra Yogi is worshipped. A comparatively larger temple nearby is dedicated to Shiva and his consort Balatripura Sundari. An extended platform on one side serves as an open-air stage for performances on important occasions and religious festivals.
The Balatripura Sundaridevi temple also serves as an open-air stage for dance performances. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju
Homes of the maestros Down the road from the statue of Siddhendra Yogi is the home of Kuchipudi stalwart Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, who mesmerised audiences with his stree-vesham (female impersonation) performances. A long jada (brocade plait), a staple of the female impersonator’s costume, hung on the wall behind him as he spoke of a time past. “At one time, everyone in Kuchipudi village lived for dance, and lived by dance,” he said. “Today, youngsters are more interested in careers in science and commerce. Few people recognise that Kuchipudi is about aerobics, meditation, yoga, and high aesthetics in one package and, on a higher plane, a spiritually uplifting experience and a means to divine grace.” (Sarma passed away in mid-November, a few weeks after this writer met him.)
To the right of the temple is a spartan, double-storeyed house, home of the recently deceased legendary guru and choreographer Vempati Chinna Satyam. Born here in a family of famous artists, Chinna Satyam migrated to Chennai early in life. He was the colossus who expanded the Kuchipudi repertoire, refined its techniques, and won the admiration of a global audience. His disciples (for varying lengths of time) included Vyjayanthimala, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Raja and Radha Reddy, Sonal Mansingh, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha, Union minister D. Purandeswari, Hema Malini, Rekha, and Sobha Naidu. No one lives here anymore, but seven busts of the great gurus of Kuchipudi mark this as consecrated land. A statue of Vempati Chinna Satyam is to be installed here and the house turned into a memorial.
At one time, many homes here produced distinguished dancers. Some are occupied by their descendants, while others are dilapidated, but still hallowed ground for dance aficionados. Contemporary dancers who still live here are approachable and happy to talk dance with the genuinely interested. Pasumarthy Kesava Prasad organises an annual classical dance festival here in March (email email@example.com for details). Given the historical importance of the village and the number of high-profile dancers who visit regularly, you would think there would be fairly extensive tourist infrastructure here. This is not so. Kuchipudi remains a simple, dusty Indian village.
A 15-minute walk from Kuchipudi, Movva was home to famous 17th-century composer Kshetrayya (aka Kshetragna). His exquisite—and often erotic—lyrics are a treasured part of the Carnatic music repertoire and accompany Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. A charming temple to his favourite deity and muse, Muvvavenugopala (a form of Krishna) is the chief attraction in this village, followed by the statue of Kshetrayya himself next door.
About 18 km southwest of Kuchipudi is Srikakulam, the ancient capital of the Satavahana Empire (second century B.C.). Its main attraction is the Andhra Mahavishnu temple where the presiding deity (installed here in 1010 A.D., according to the priests)— unusually for a Vishnu idol—holds the conch in his right hand and discus in the left, and wears a large Saligrama Mala (a garland of stone symbols of Vishnu).
Ghantasala, a prosperous village 13 km south of Kuchipudi, is an important part of south India’s Buddhist circuit. In addition to a mahastupa that dates back to the first century B.C., it also has an ASI-run museum with exhibits on Hinduism and Buddhism. Nearby is the ancient Jaladheeshwara Temple. Sage Agastya is said to have consecrated it aeons ago, and it was subsequently used by the Adi Shankaracharya for worship in the eighth century. Unusually, it features the shivalingam and Shiva’s consort Parvati on the same pedestal, the Navagrahas (planet gods) with consorts, and Lord Narasimha guarding at the gateway. The Nandi, which typically faces the sanctum-sanctorum, has its face slightly turned away.
Around 12 km southeast of Kuchipudi is Kaza, the birthplace of 17th-century composer Narayana Theertha, whose exquisite lyrics are part of the repertoire of Carnatic music, Kuchipudi, and Bharatanatyam. There is no proper memorial here, though.
Kalamkari derives its name from the word “kalam”, the pen used to draw outlines on the cloth, and “kari”, which means work. Traditionally, fabrics are outlined with a cotton-tipped bamboo stick and dyed using vegetable and mineral colours. Photo: Dinodia Photo
At the historically-important seaport of Machilipatnam (27 km east of Kuchipudi), you get kalamkari block prints. Mangalagiri town (62 km northwest, via Vijayawada) has the famous Panakala Narasimha Swamy temple with a soaring gopuram (tower), and a large and flourishing cotton handloom centre. Kondapalli (66 km northwest via Vijayawada) is another large handicrafts centre, which produces colourful toys and items in softwood. There is a small fort nearby.
Sagara Sangamam (meaning confluence with the sea) at Hamsaladeevi is a scenic area (40 km south of Kuchipudi) with views of the river Krishna merging with the Bay of Bengal. The beach is very clean and quiet and lucky visitors may spot dolphins in the early morning or late evening. A small platform on the beach has some interesting artefacts, including a pair of stone feet symbolic of the goddess Krishnaveni–the river deity–and others that have either washed ashore or been excavated. The famous Subramanya Swamy Temple in Mopidevi en route to the beach makes for an interesting short halt. There are no boards with information or warnings about safe and dangerous zones for a stroll or swim. Check with locals. In some areas, the car might get stuck in the wet sand.
The main gate of the Kondapalli fort is made of a single granite block measuring 12 feet by 15 feet. Photo: Dinodia Photo
It is possible to call ahead and ask one of the well-known dance teachers for permission to watch their class in progress, or to spend some time talking to you about the dance form. Many of them travel frequently, so call at least a week ahead. You may need an interpreter with a few teachers and performers who are comfortable only in Telugu. For Kuchipudi Kalapeetham, call Vedantam Ramalinga Shastry (89857 38999). You can reach Pasumarthy Kesava Prasad on 99496 18846 and Vedantam Radhesyam on 98491 38166.
There are no hotels in Kuchipudi. To stay there, contact Pasumarthy Kesava Prasad, who can arrange very basic accommodation, simple, vegetarian food, and transport facilities at a minimum of a week’s notice. (99496 18846; firstname.lastname@example.org;). Several options are available in Vijayawada, just an hour away. Many lodges across the town accept walk-ins.
The Gateway Hotel is part of the Taj Group and a sleek, very well-appointed hotel. Bayleaf Restaurant offers authentic Andhra cuisine (0866 6644444; www.thegatewayhotels.com; doubles ₹6,500 plus taxes).
Fortune Murali Park which is part of the ITC chain, overlooks the Indrakiladri Hills and has elegant interiors, and spacious restaurants and rooms (0866 3988008; www.fortunehotels.in; doubles ₹5,200 plus taxes).
Hotel Marg Krishnaaya is fitted with all amenities for business and leisure travellers (0866 6622222; www.margkrishnaaya.com; doubles ₹4,500).
Haritha Berm Park offers satisfactory rooms and decent service (0866-2418057; www.aptdc.in; doubles from ₹2,722 including taxes).
Throughout the region, most decent eateries serve scrumptious pesarattu (spicy, green moong dosa, AP’s signature dosa), pesarattu upma (dosa stuffed with upma), idlis with kharappodi (spicy powder), masala vadas, minapattu (regular dosa) and punugulu (tangy, crispy rice-powder fritters). Shops sell sweets like minapasunnunda (urad dal laddoos) and putharekulu (sweets made of paper-like sheets of rice powder, unique to the state). Small stalls, called baddikottu, offer allam tea (ginger tea) and coffee.
In Kuchipudi, New Rajarajeshwari Hotel and Prem Tiffins, both near the entrance arch, are the only barely-decent eateries. Rajarajeshwari’s rava dosa, upma, and pesarattu-upma are delicious. The village has several small places offering coffee and tea. In Vijayawada, the restaurants in the major hotels are by and large good. A must-visit is Babai Hotel (Gandhi Nagar), a simple, no-frills restaurant that serves delectable vegetarian Andhra cuisine. Their idlis, known as Babai idlis, are a regional specialty.
Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “Krishna’s Dance”.
Map: Urmimala Nag
Kuchipudi is a village in the Krishna district of eastern Andhra Pradesh. It is approximately 50 km southeast of Vijayawada and 320 km east of Hyderabad.
Air Vijayawada (50 km/1 hour) is the nearest airport (at Gannavaram, on the outskirts). There are direct flights from Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad.
Rail Vijayawada is the most convenient major railhead to Kuchipudi. It is well connected to Hyderabad, Chennai, New Delhi and Kolkata.
Road Hyderabad is approximately 320 km/6 hours from Kuchipudi along NH9 going towards Vijayawada. Continue along the highway and turn off from Pamarru towards Challapalli. Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) runs only one non-AC overnight bus to Avanigadda bus depot; Kuchipudi is a few minutes before the final stop.
Vijayawada to Kuchipudi Taxis are available. Buses run by the APSRTC and private companies ply frequently, taking between 1-2 hours.
Auto rickshaws and taxis are the only modes of transport in Kuchipudi. However, the village is best explored on foot.
Kuchipudi is warm throughout the year. Monsoon and winter temperatures are the most comfortable. During the searing summer, temperatures can rise to around 43°C.
There is a State Bank of India ATM in Kuchipudi. Mobile phone connectivity is good. The region—including the surrounding attractions—is safe and the people are very friendly. It is advisable to visit Sagara Sangamam in groups, and avoid going into the water without first checking with locals about safe swimming areas.
It is customary in south India to visit dance and music gurus with some fruits and sweets—and lots of respect.
is a freelance journalist, photographer and translator. She writes on travel, art and culture. She has been trained in classical dance and music.
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