Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Dancing in Place: Mythopoetics and the Production of History in Kuchipudi

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Dancing in Place: Mythopoetics and the Production of History in Kuchipudi

Article excerpt

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In the twenty-first century, the term "kuchipudi"1 refers to a style of dance, a South Indian classical genre which, to the untrained eye, is indistinguishable from its better-known cousin, bharatanatyam.2 After India achieved Independence from the British in 1947, kuchipudi came to be known as a dance style synonymous with the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi's metonymic status reveals a broader logic of linguistic, geographically grounded identitarianism; indeed, the dance known today as kuchipudi is said to hail from a physical place called Kuchipudi, an otherwise nondescript farming village located about fifty kilometres southeast of Vijayawada in central Andhra Pradesh (see figure 1).

Over the past sixty years, the standard narrative about kuchipudi circulated in government publications and, more recently, in Incredible !ndia tourism campaigns, has relied heavily upon this understanding of expressive culture as both primordial and historically continuous:3

Kuchelapuram is a small village in Andhra Pradesh. The descendants of 300 [Telugu] Brahmin families live here to continue a tradition that dictates that only men may dance. The village and the land are gifts from the Nawab of 1675, after witnessing a performance of a Kuchipudi dance-drama by migrant Brahmins. Since then, every Brahmin family of the village ritually offers at least one male member to be trained as an actor-dancer. The name of the village changed to Kuchipudi as time passed and its dance-drama also acquired this name. (Mansingh 2007:82)

Despite its purportedly long and exclusive tradition of training Brahmin men, the Kuchipudi demonstration at the first All-India Dance Seminar in 1958 was not presented by a Brahmin male dancer from the village in the dance-drama tradition; rather, it featured a lecture by a Telugu advocate-cum-scholar, Vissa Appa Rao, including a demonstration by a young woman named Maranganti Kanchanamala (Putcha 2013).4 Neither of these representatives was from the village of Kuchipudi or related to the hereditary dancing families living there. Kanchanamala, a student of Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry (1886-1956), did not perform a traditional number, such as an excerpt from a dance-drama, but rather a potpourri of pieces that were openly criticized by the experts in the room as bearing no relation to the known Kuchipudi repertoire.5

Based on even the narrowest interpretations of gender and performance cultures in early twentieth-century South India, it is clear that the items Kanchanamala presented in 1958 belonged to the broader female dance traditions of Andhra, not to the men of Kuchipudi. Given this contradiction, why did Vissa Appa Rao historicize Kuchipudi village and its dance-at the very same seminar where Kanchanamala presented these items-as an exclusively male, high-caste tradition? This article analyses the paradox of the historical moment Appa Rao and Kanchanamala represent and connects the rhetorical strategies therein to discourses on history, tourism, and performance in South India that have come since.6

In order to engage with the dissonance on display at the 1958 seminar, over the course of this article I analyse kuchipudi's claims to historicity-a process that I refer to as mythopoetics. Mythopoetics, literally myth-making, refers to the social processes by which certain narratives of fact and/or fiction have fused as history and, in doing so, have come to buttress broader narratives of dance and identity across South Asia.7 For my purposes, mythopoetics provide an agentive counterpoint to the kinds of western, liberal feminist, and postmodern analyses that have defined much of the scholarship on dance in India.8 Indeed, a central intervention of this work functions as an answer to the charge to identify "the power in the story" (Trouillot 1995:1). As a way of accounting for the epistemological power that has shaped much of the way Indian dance history has been written in the West, I rely on the concept of mythopoetics throughout this article to help me carve out a space where the half-truths and silences of kuchipudi's past can and do live uncomfortably with its present. …

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