If you had told me when I arrived in India that, four months in, I would be performing a classical Indian dance on stage in front of the entire university, I probably would have laughed at you. I do not like to dance, I do not know how to dance, and, aside from an (in?)famous rendition of “Evolution of Dance” that a friend and I performed in eighth grade, would not be caught dead dancing onstage.
However, this is where I somehow found myself last night: on stage, dancing Kuchipudi along with five of my classmates in the annual SIP Cultural Night. As anxious as I was for the performance, it surprisingly went a lot better than I expected: 24 classes along with many extra hours spent stomping in the common room (probably annoying everyone to death with the sound of our bells) definitely paid off.
Kuchipudi is a classical dance of South India, and actually gets its name from a small town in Andhra Pradesh. Quick history lesson: Hyderabad (the city I’m in) and Telangana (the state I’m in) used to be part of Andhra Pradesh until June 2, 2014. Telangana’s recognition as the 29th state of India came as the result of decades of struggle. Hyderabad is currently the joint capital of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
But back to Kuchipudi. Traditionally, Kuchipudi was only performed by males, and was more of a play. There was dialog and a main part of the performance came in the role of the Sutradhar. The Sutradhar combined the roles of conductor, director, dancer, singer, musician, comedian, and narrator. There would be a few other dancers beside him, but it was up to the Sutradhar to keep everything moving. Kuchipudi is an extremely expressive dance: there are twenty four single hand gestures and twenty three double hand gestures, and each gesture has several different meanings. For example, one movement denotes a “lotus flower,” another two can be combined to signify “bow and arrow,” etc.
Today, Kuchipudi is more often perfomed as a solo dance, and oftentimes by females. The drama component has waned, though there are still classical pieces that tell stories. One of the most popular, Bhama Kalapam, is about one of Lord Krishna’s wives named Satyabhama.
To prepare for our cultural show performance, we first learned five different units of steps, with four components within those units. Each component had up to five speeds as well. If I’m remembering correctly, our teacher told us that there are actually 12 different units of steps, and Kuchipudi training usually takes years to master, meaning we barely scratched the surface in our hour and a half long classes twice a week.
The process of getting dressed for the dance was nearly as complicated as the steps we learned. Our teacher had told us it would take four hours to get ready, but we kind of laughed her off. Four hours seemed so excessive. We were wrong to laugh. First came the clothes: an elaborate six (I think) part outfit that was impossible to figure out. Next was a hefty dose of stage makeup, including some weird glue stuff that covered our eyebrows and allowed for that gorgeous coal shade. I don’t think I’ve ever worn so much makeup in my life.
Following this was the part I was dreading the most: the wigs. I had begged our teacher to allow us to perform without them, but she scoffed at this, rolling her eyes at me. “You have blonde hair Maggie, of course you have to wear a wig.” This was the most uncomfortable part of the whole outfit. My hair was literally braided into it, the pressure on my skull was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Pain is beauty, I guess?
Once we were finally in proper attire, our hands and feet were painted with a reddish substance (still not sure what it was) so that they would truly pop onstage.
The one benefit to all the makeup? It was coated on so thick that it didn’t really feel like we were sweating. But, as our teacher commented after the show, she could see us sweating and knew we were truly working hard. After a brief meditation backstage, it was showtime!
I’ve attached the link to our dance. (Un?)fortunately, I didn’t tell the girl who was filming what side I would be on, but I’m in the back left, wearing the purple-ish blue pants.
Will I be taking to the stage again soon to show off what I have learned? Probably not. Was taking Kuchipudi one of the best decisions I’ve made thus far here in India? Absolutely.