“Do not ever leave this village, which reverberates with the art of our ancestors. Your life’s purpose is to continue this beautiful tradition and enrich it” … his father’s words inspired the talented dancer, who declined lucrative opportunities outside and stayed rooted to the land and art that he was born into.
Alekhya Punjala and Dr Chinta Ravi Balakrishna in ‘Mandodari’
Recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar of the Sangeet Natak Akademi for 2009 and the Yuva Sutradhari award at the Siddhendra Yogi Nrityotsav 2007, his life is defined by the prism of his exceptional body of work and the many splendoured roles portrayed by him in the richly choreographed dance ballets and solo performances typical to the Kuchipudi tradition.
A gold medallist in MA (Kuchipudi) from the Telugu University, he secured a doctorate for research on the work of legendary guru Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, his relative and teacher along with father Chinta, Ramanatham, Vedantam Ratthiah, Korada Narasimha Rao and other stalwarts from Kuchipudi. Among his most unforgettable moments is his stage performance in 2006 where Vedantha Satyanarayana Sarma was Satyabhama and he was her friend Madhavi.
“I have learnt a great many things from him about dedication to the craft and conveying the emotion that has to be understood alike by both Panditha (scholars) and Paamara (common man). Although he was renowned for playing female characters, he stopped after a certain age guiding younger disciples to do them on stage. He always insisted that dancers have to be ready half an hour before the performance and vacate the auditorium ten minutes after conclusion,” Ravi Balakrishna says speaking of Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma’s influence on him.
A riveting dancer, who has audience glued to his every movement, he says the secret to his success is his total involvement and immersion in the character he portrays. The wide range of characters and the appreciation he has garnered reflect not just his versatility but the commitment and effort he puts in. To make his dancing experience complete he learnt Carnatic music and plays the harmonium and the mridangam. He has read the Vedas, the Ashtadasa Puranas and relevant literature to understand the mythological characters that he portrays to ably convey bhava, raga, tala that enhance his dancing skills.
Enchanting audiences as Satyabhama and her friend Madhavi, Hiranyakashipa and Prahlada, Aniruddha and Sasirekha, like Hanuman, Ravana, Bruhannala and Bhasmasura, he believes in playing his part to perfection. He has also mesmerised audiences as Sutradhari, pivotal to the dance-drama tradition and one who needs to fill gaps and lapses without the audiences noticing them.
“I have played the minor roles of Kagada (torch) holder and that of the servant, who fans the king for two years and I did it with pride as each role is important for the dance ballet to make an impact. Since I become the character I don’t look for applause or appreciation. I am totally in the skin of the character and forget myself,” he adds when quizzed about the magnetic attraction he holds whatever be the character. Is he happy about the current state of affairs pertaining to Kuchipudi dance? Ravi Balakrishna answers in the affirmative.
The new State of Andhra Pradesh has been encouraging Kuchipudi dance, with the Department of Culture giving it great prominence at all programmes organised by the government. Apart from enhancing pensions for aged artistes, the government’s move to appoint 200 Kuchipudi teachers in Zilla Parishad schools with a monthly emolument of Rs 12,000 are certainly the gestures that encourage youngsters to take this up as a profession he asserts.
Dance definitely has a social purpose and social themes have been selected by Kuchipudi Bhagavathars, who enacted these themes called “Kelikas’’ to benefit people as far back as the 15th century. Sammeta Guravaraju, a vassal of King Veeranarasimharayalu was a corrupt ruler who terrorised the villagers and troubled their women. Kuchipudi Bhagavathars brought this to the notice of the King by staging a dance drama about the atrocities of Gurvaraju.
The King had the vassal beheaded after seeing this performance. “The entire village of Kuchipudi was saved from this corrupt ruler and such ‘kelikas’ have brought focus on several social evils,” Ravi Balakrishna cites. The extraordinary dancer, who has performed at several prestigious venues, returns to Kuchipudi each time after spreading its fame far and beyond. Awards and honours only increase his responsibility to better his performances according to him. For the man who inherited the mantle from ancestors who are torchbearers of a hoary tradition, dancing is its own