Nuzvid is a sleepy town, 50 kilometers from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. It is known for its sweet rasalus (mangoes) and chedugudu (rural sports). But come festival season the otherwise quiet town becomes unrecognisable, especially during Dussehra. People throng the narrow lanes and make their way to the Ayyappa and Saraswati temples to seek the blessings of gods and goddesses. During the the Orugallu dynasty (12th – 13th Century AD), these festivities would be accompanied by Kauthvam performances, the foot painting dance which originated in Nuzvid.
This temple ritual — which involves the dancer painting with the foot as he/she performs Kuchipudi — will now be revisited by dancer Vyjayanthi Kashi. A performance at the National Centre of the Performing Arts (NCPA) on April 25 as part Mudra Dance Festival will be followed by a lecture demonstration for those interested in knowing more. “The theme of the festival this year is colours. When someone thinks of colours, a painting comes to mind. So we thought of combining art and dance and Kauthvam is one of those rare combinations,” says Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, Head – Programming, Dance.
One of the few practising Kauthvam experts, Kashi walks us through its rich legacy. “Kauthvam was first seen practised by the temple cleaners of Nuzvid. The story goes that when the festivities of Dussehra were in progress, these cleaners were not allowed inside. So they found a way to express their devotion outside the temple,” Kashi explains. The dancers would carpet the streets with colourful rangoli and dance over the powder. It was Kuchipudi with a difference. The masterful and rhythmic footwork of the dancers would leave large patterns and outlines of lions and peacocks — the vehicles of the Saraswati and Lakshmi — on the path leading up to the temple.
Over the years, Kauthvam became a temple ritual, Kashi explains. But it did not sustain. “The dance is complex even without the swift footwork. It was difficult to pass along,” she says about the art form which, 40 years ago, was rescued by Kathak guru CR Acharya. Studying the footwork that created the large floor paintings, he brought the artform out of its temple spaces and onto the stage. “Some dance forms such as the Tharanga, where the dancer balances his/her weight on the rim of a plate, enjoy commercial attention. Other lesser-discovered forms remain in the background. Kauthvam is one such form that I want to draw attention to,” says Kashi, who is continuing her guru’s legacy.
Over the years, the dance form has been modified to suit a theatre audience. “One of the main challenges was to allow audiences to watch what I’m painting on stage. Also, many auditoriums refused to provide us stage space as they didn’t want to risk staining it with colour,” she explains. Eventually, as Kashi patiently took her shows to different parts of the country, people sat up and took notice. Kashi, who performs with her daughter Prateeksha, now dances over a large 9 x 9 feet frame that is covered with a damp white cloth on which she paints. Each performance requires her to use about 20 kilograms of coloured powder. Even after years of practice, Kashi admits that she is still learning. “Even if you get the footwork right, the dance form is so tricky that sometimes the colour is smudged or the rangoli mix is inconsistent. There are times, while I am dancing, when I try and catch glimpses to see how the painting has turned out,” says Kashi with a laugh.
Show some colour
At Mudra, dancers interpret five colours through their performances
Yellow: A Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam performance by Lata Surendra and Sujatha Nair will interpret the colour yellow with the creation of Lord Ganesha. Date: April 23
Orange: Kathak duo, Abhimanyu Lal and Vidha Lal have chosen orange to talk about the Basant festival; Date: April 23
Amber, peacock blue: Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen will illustrate the colours amber and peacock blue through their Kathak performance based on the avatars of Lord Vishnu. Date: April 24
Midnight Blue: Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy’s Odissi act brings to life Jayadeva’s love poem, Gita Govinda, with a recurring night theme related to the blue-bodied Krishna. Date: April 25
Red: Through heir Kuchipudi performance, Vyjayanthi Kashi and Prateeksha Kashi take on the colour red talking about the concept of Shakti. Date: April 26