Dancing for Tradition

The Natyanjali Kuchipudi Dance School held a Kalyana Srinivasn dance drama to celebrate the studio’s 25th anniversary.
Sophomore Srija Nallala hides underneath the mask of a calf and blanket for one of the scenes during the Kalyana Srinivasm dance drama performance.
Sophomore Srija Nallala hides underneath the mask of a calf and blanket for one of the scenes during the Kalyana Srinivasm dance drama performance.
Poojasai Kona

A cow and calf come into the scene. The calf is forced to enter the scene first, cautiously taking each step, while its mother follows behind it. Their anklets jingle when stomping their feet in patterns to the sound of Sanskrit melodies being played. Both are two people hiding underneath a mask and blanket, all while gliding across the stage swaying their heads and bodies. 

The Natyanjali Kuchipudi Dance School held a Kalyana Srinivasm dance drama to celebrate their studio’s 25th anniversary. The Kalyana Srinivasam is a Hindu mythological story of how Lord Vishnu descended onto the earth, took the name of Srinivasa and married Padmavathi, a reincarnation of his wife, Goddess Lakshmi. 

Founder of Natyanjali, Srilatha Suri, participated in this drama when she first came to Dallas. However, she also held this drama as a way to carry her teacher’s legacy forward. 

Founder of Natyanjali Kuchipudi Dance School, Srilatha Suri, portraying the role of Goddess Lakshmi, is upset by the actions Lord Vishnu decided to take, when hit on the chest by the Brighu Rishi in the Kalyana Srinivasm dance drama performance.

Suri is a senior disciple of internationally acclaimed Kuchipudi teacher, or as she’s culturally referred to, guru Dr. Sobha Naidu. Kuchipudi is a dance-drama form, that originated from a village named Kuchipudi in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, one that is rooted from the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text of dance, the Natyashastra.

It’s a form of dance that tells stories through the depicted dance, music and song.

“Kuchipudi was not that aware [well-known],” Suri said. “Even today, Bharatanatyam is more aware because we don’t promote Kuchipudi enough. But it’s so important because not only are we training the body with this dance, but we’re training the soul.”

Bharatnatyam is a form of classical dance that is more common from of dance throughout India, that’s composed of more sculptured poses whereas Kuchipudi has more rounded poses.

Suri believes Kuchipudi is a training that many of her students enjoy.

“I think my kids enjoy it because it has a lot of peer interactions, but also because of what COVID-19 did to our studio,” Suri said. “Kuchipudi is a lot of theater based, but we didn’t get to do much stage performances during COVID, so the kids are very excited and putting a lot of serious effort and practice into the performance.”

Suri hopes such a performance can bring awareness to this dance and the legacy of her guru, something she wants to carry forward to her students as a part of the production.

“This is a celebration and we’re definitely educating people about it,” Suri said. “Kuchipudi is a very very precious treasure we have and with this dance, we are propagating it to everybody. We need a lot of support from all the audience and art lovers so this art can sustain. But, more than anything it’s passing this treasure to the younger generation.” 

That younger generation included sophomore Srija Nallala. 

Sophomore Srija Nallala practices at the studio for the Kalyana Srinivasm dance drama.

“Dance is really really big for me,” Nallala said. “As a child, I really did not want to do dance because being a tomboy and seeing all the makeup and jewelry, I was like ‘no’. But then at 8, I was like ‘oh, I’m bored, let’s try it out’ and I was fine with and started to like it.”

Then COVID hit. 

“Things started getting difficult,” Nallala said. “The one thing that was consistent in my life suddenly changed. We had online classes and all, but it’s really hard to be in sync with everyone else in your group online, especially because people’s cameras are flipped or are lagging. It ruined what dance was for me growing up.” 

However when the fright of the pandemic started to die down, a realization struck Nallala. 

“When COVID was over and I went back in person, I felt like I saw something in dance that I never saw in the past years of dancing before — a sudden connection,” Nallala said. “It felt like I got something back that I lost. I guess in a way, COVID made me realize how important dance really is to me. I think now I’m able to cherish it way more and that my dedication for it increased and gave me something to always look forward to.” 

This dedication is something that guru Suri notices nonetheless. 

“Srija has a lot of devotion and that’s what matters,” Suri said. “Srija’s group themselves are an excellent group. They do a lot of practice. They’re very self-driven and disciplined. They come every Wednesday, 8 o’clock, and practice three to four hours, even when I’m not there. It shows how disciplined and dedicated their character has been molded into. For this art, everything counts, you know.” 

Their disciplined and dedicated character went hand in hand with the extensive amount of work that was put in for Suri’s studio to lead a successful production.

Knowing that this younger generation that I’m teaching is becoming our torch leaders for this ancient art form is a very proud moment.

— Srilatha Suri

“The preparation was crazy,” Nallala said. “Personally, I was at the studio my entire spring break since 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then again 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and sometimes usually might even go till 10 p.m. because after practice, I would stay back to help with creating props, getting costumes out, helping people with costumes, helping put those costumes in people’s cars and drive to their houses to take to the theater.”

The advertising for this performance was an extensive process. The studio put flyers around Frisco, while advertising on social media and reaching out to Indian radio channels many listen to. A few even went around foot to advertise.

“One of our classmates even got the thing onto the Dallas Morning News,” Nallala said. “A lot of people bought tickets after seeing that on the Dallas News.”

The production started around January and it included roughly 70 students. Nallala had three roles throughout it. 

“First, I had the opening stage scene where we introduced the school, where Aunty chose some people to do a little dance,” Nallala said. “In another part I was a sage with the head of a parrot, who tried to set the marriage between the lord and princess. Then, I was a cow, who was supposed to be Lord Shiva in disguise.” 

One of the scenes Nallala was most worried about was in her role as the cow.

“You couldn’t see, it was kind of scary,” Nallala said. “It was so suffocating and hot inside the costume because there were two people inside. But they opened up a few holes in the costume overall to breathe and help with that so I guess it helped. I’m just so thankful for stage rehearsals to practice not falling off.”

Nallala was inspired by Suri’s daughter, who had to take time off from her work, which that requires much travel, and still played one of the lead roles of Padmavati. Similarly, another girl, who is currently in medical school, played another lead role of Srinivasa. Both still found time to come into the studio to practice for the performance, inspiring Nallala of their dedication to the art. 

“They’ve inspired me a lot,” Nallala said. “I could sit there for hours during practice to watch them dance, even if they aren’t giving their 100% because just watching them dance is just so mesmerizing and inspiring. Them taking the time out of their schedules to come in and practice was really wholesome to see, especially because I want to be like them one day.”

Sophomore Srija Nallala poses at end of her dance scene during the Kalyana Srinivasm dance drama performance.

The profits from this production go to Echoes of India, a non-profit that Suri’s daughter is the president of, where they install water plants in India for rural villages to benefit from getting pure water and fight against fluoride contamination. 

“My daughter started the non-profit and whenever we have these shows, we always find a way to support it,” Suri said. “To be frank, we might not get community support to do this art, but still giving back to the community is the right thing to do. And I’m glad that I can do it with my dance school family.” 

Dancing and performing is very much prevalent in Suri’s life, but after being diagnosed with lymphatic cancer Stage IV, even though it’s been hard for her sometimes to be positive and get through the day, Kuchipudi and her kids have always been there for her. 

“I wake up with some excitement to come, teach and see them,” Suri said. “Focusing on them and dancing helps my mind not to go in another direction to where I’m not thinking about it anymore and just focusing on this. Knowing that this younger generation that I’m teaching is becoming our torch leaders for this ancient art form is a very proud moment. There’s an energy that this realization gives me. And I feed on their energy right now, all their positive energy, and the love that they all have for this art.”



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