'I was immersed in a world of natyashastra and music,' says Geeta Padmakumar

We sit down for a quick chat with Kuchipudi exponent Geeta Padmakumar, who was recently in Kochi for a performance
'I was immersed in a world of natyashastra and music,' says Geeta Padmakumar
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An art form that has immense regional connect as dance-dramas, and a history of evolution that is theme for in depth art treatises. Beyond this, kuchipudi is part of the life at Kuchipudi village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh where it emerged with a prompt schedule put together by Tirtha Narayana Yati, a proponent of Advaita philosophy and his disciple Siddhendra Yogi, some 400 years ago as per documented history.

This was the legacy that Geeta Padmakumar was entering after finishing her basic dance training — that began at the age of three — under several gurus, and progressing to become one of the legendary Vempati Chinna Satyam's chosen disciples. The tutelage under the titan led her to choose kuchipudi as the fulcrum of her art life.

This, coupled with the rigours of practise, tuned her to be the dancer that her guru was proud to present at festivals across the globe, as a mark of exemplary kuchipudi.

Following this, Geeta walked further on the path to become a performer and a teacher herself, opening a dance school in Perumbavoor and training students to be as motivated as herself. Her work has been lauded with several laurels, including the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy award being one of them. We caught up with the veteran on the road she has travelled so far. Excerpts

How did your dancing journey begin?

I was born in Haripad but raised in Ernakulam. I believe that my family’s cultural heritage greatly influenced my artistic pursuits. My mother and her sisters held music diplomas, while my uncle, Haripad K P N Pillai, served as music director at All India Radio in Kozhikode. Another uncle, Udyogamandal Vikraman, was also trained in bharatanatyam. Although my father, Velappan Ilayidam, wasn’t an artist himself, he consistently inspired my passion for dance.

He also emphasised the importance of academic excellence, leading me to pursue a degree in economics. I started my dance lessons when I was just three, under my first guru Kalamandalam Gopinath. When I was in Class 4, I started learning from RLV Shyamala. The shift to Kuchipudi was in Class 8, under Kalamandalam Mohana Thulasi. Later, I completed my graduation in bharatanatyam from St Teresa’s College and earned a postgraduate degree from RLV College, Tripunithura.

'I was immersed in a world of natyashastra and music,' says Geeta Padmakumar
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How was your experience of learning from the legendary Vempati Chinna Satyam?

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from the legend. Mohana Thulasi, my teacher, used to take her senior students to him. After my graduation, I expressed my wish to learn from him, and she graciously took me to meet him.

Visiting Vempati Chinna Satyam was like stepping into a different world. Although we were in Chennai, it felt as if we were in Kuchipudi village. Our daily routine revolved around kuchipudi dance, Natyashastra and music. I was completely immersed in that world, disconnected from the outer one. Guru had an aura that enveloped us. I spent nearly six years under his guidance. During my time with him, I not only learned, but also unlearned many things. His choreographic techniques left a lasting impression on me.

We often see dance students focusing on school Kalolsavam and similar competitions. Do you believe that dance extends beyond these competitive events?

While I don’t dismiss the idea of participating in Kalolsavam, I don’t believe dance should be solely about winning contests. Competitions play a crucial role in a dancer’s growth, especially in Kerala where many celebrated dancers once participated in these competitions. Therefore, I do support them. However, dance transcends competition; it’s a divine medium of expression, creativity and connection with the audience.

Finance plays a huge part, as parents invest heavily in these festivals. Sometimes, teachers make tall promises to parents. As an instructor, I emphasise that both students and parents need to understand that onstage, we have just 10 minutes to showcase our best. Competitions are valuable learning experiences; they expose us to new methods, approaches, and help us become more presentable in front of audiences. We should view competitions as opportunities for growth.

Dance is usually considered as an expensive art form. Do you think that it is affordable for everyone?

Dance expenses depend on individual choices. You can stitch a saree that costs Rs 25,000 or opt for one priced at Rs 5,000 or less. Similarly, you can either invest in jewellery worth Rs 30,000 or choose to rent them. The real expense often lies in recording performances. If you prefer not to share your dance item with others, recording becomes necessary and it incurs additional costs. Fee of teachers also plays a significant role. Additionally, there are instances where judges may be bribed, although this is not officially considered part of “dance expenses". Ultimately, whether dance is expensive or not remains our personal choice.

Do you think kuchipudi is less popular in Kerala when compared to bharatanatyam and mohiniyattam?

The issue is people do not get to learn it systematically here. There are institutions to learn bharatanatyam and mohiniyattam, but none specifically dedicated to kuchipudi. If you want to learn the art form, you need to go to Chennai or Hyderabad. Unfortunately, some people here mistakenly believe that learning bharatanatyam and mohiniyattam will automatically enable them to perform kuchipudi. As a result, they do not take kuchipudi seriously. Despite these challenges, I do not believe these factors diminish kuchipudi’s popularity. Fortunately, a few dedicated teachers like Mohana Thulasi and Anupama Mohan continue to teach kuchipudi in a systematic manner here.

We have heard that actor Manju Warrier trained under you…

Manju started training with me during the time she made a comeback to films. She is a down-to-earth person and used to come to Thrissur while I was teaching there. She would join other students and learn nuances from me, sitting on the floor. To me, she was never a celebrity and was my student just like the others. Each student is special to me. Nowadays, however, Manju is busy with her shoots, and has not been able to attend training. I hope she rejoins soon.

(Written by Swathy Lekshmi Vikram)

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