Yashoda Thakore has fought against all odds to uphold the tradition of the Kalāvantulu community* and their dance repertoire. And what drove her with passion all these years? It is the realisation that she belongs to this artistic community. She is one among them. Let me take you through her journey of self-realisation and her commendable work that she has been doing so far and plan to do more in the future.
Yashoda wanted to dance from when she was four years old. There were no established dance schools in Hyderabad at that time and she had to wait. Later, erstwhile Guru Dr Vempatti Chinnasathyam started Kuchipudi academy at Hyderabad. She had just turned seven and was enrolled at the institution by her parents and from then on there was no looking back for this graceful artist and scholar. After Vempatti master moved back to Chennai, she continued her training under his student Guru Shobha Naidu. She was part of the performance wing of her dance school and has performed across several stages in India and abroad. It was during one of these rehearsals for a dance drama that something happened which became a major turning point in her life.
She had just turned 18 years old and she was rehearsing for her part in Kalyana Srinivasam, a drama from her dance school. The musicians who had come for rehearsals noticed her and gave her compliments on her beauty and her talent and how it is hereditary. “I went back home and told my mother thinking it was a compliment for her because they said my talents and beauty were hereditary. My mother hearing this, thought that it was the right time to tell me ..that I belong to the Kalāvantulu community. My maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother were the last dancer and singer from the community. They were called Kotipalli Madhuravani and Pichaiyamma. They were very famous for their beauty, dance and their songs,” she recalls.
Though she wanted to pursue dance not everyone in her extended family were supportive. Yashoda thinks, it was the stigma and the unfortunate events following the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act that stopped them from doing so. “None of us knew what the actual background of our community was. By the time my father was growing up, the women in our community were equalled to prostitutes. Our family name was changed to Naidu because we didn’t want any link to the community,” she said. In her pursuit to understand where her community came from, she met scholar Dr Nataraja Ramakrishna who was a pioneer in his research on the Kalāvantulu community. But she was discouraged by him too. Later, Yashoda went on to finish her masters in Kuchipudi – a gold medallist and then earned a doctorate in dance. Her thesis was on dance and yoga.
It was during this time, that Yashoda came to know about Smt Swapnasundari’s research and performances on Vilasini Natyam. Excited by the prospects of learning something that she always wanted to, Yashoda approached Smt Swapnasundari during one of her performances where she has had also brought her guru Smt Maddula Lakshmi Narayan. “I told her I belong to the community and how I wanted to learn from her. Swapnasundari garu introduced me to Dr Arudra but she wasn’t positive about teaching the dance form. She wasn’t teaching anyone then. But I kept writing to her,” she said. Finally, she answered her requests and Yashoda was one among the few dancers she selected to be trained in Vilasini Natyam.
Yashoda was under her guidance from 2006 for about six years. But then, she wanted to know more and learn more… learn from the women from her own community. At that time, Dr Davesh Soneji, a scholar who has researched extensively on the history of Bharatanatyam came to Hyderabad University for a talk on his research on women from Kalāvantulu community and their dance repertoire. Yashoda, who went for the presentation introduced herself to Davesh and he took her to the community and introduced her to the women of the community.
“I had the opportunity to learn from them. Now, I don’t do Vilasini Natyam anymore. In fact, I don’t call my dance anything for the lack of a better word. So, I just call it the Courtesan repertoire or the Devadasi Nrithyam. I dance the repertoire of the Kalāvantulu community from the Godavari belt. I call it so, only because we tend to categorise everything and it is all so political,” she said. But she is quick to remind me that she is not aiming at making this repertoire into a ‘classical’ category. She reckons she would rather keep it as it is – preserving the Kalāvantulu history and the repertoire as much as she can.
Currently, Kotipalli Hymavathi and Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru come to her dance school Rinda Saranya, to teach the repertoire to those who are interested. But sadly, not many women from the Kalāvantulu community wants to learn this dance or rather they are not allowed to learn this dance form. Again, it is all the stigma that is attached to it and the society shifted from matriarchy to patriarchy. This stopped the women’s voice from coming forward and restricted her movements within her own society.
Though initially, Yashoda faced a lot of opposition for being honest about her identity, her history and her passion to share it with the rest of the world, now she is a highly honoured and acclaimed artist in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. She won the Ugadi Puraskar for this year from Government of Andhra Pradesh. Yashoda has performed worldwide including at the Centre for South Asian Studies, Paris. Yashoda has learned Bhamakalaapam from the Kalāvantulu tradition and has performed on several stages across India. Currently, she is learning the Yakshaganam format of Kuchipudi under the guidance of Guru Pasumati Rathaiyya Sharma which will be performed this year, the only woman artist to do so. She has also translated the 13th century Sanskrit treatise on dance, Nṛtta Ratnāvali, into English in association with renowned art critic Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao which was published in 2013. She has also authored the book Kaivalya – Joy in Yoga and Dance published in 2014. Her critical edition of Nṛtta Ratnāvali has been approved for publication by IGNCA, Government of India which will be published this year. Yashoda is also a faculty at the newly established University of Silicon Andhra in California.
As a parting note, I asked her what she would wish the future of the Kalāvantulu dance repertoire be and she said, “I hope someone from the community takes it up. It will mean a lot. I want people to remember this community for their art.”
*Kalāvantulu community was a matriarchal community of artists that live on the Godavari Belt of Andhra Pradesh. Their dance repertoire inspired other classical dance forms of India during the reconstruction period. The women from this community were unfortunately banned from dancing in public following the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act.
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