Kuchipudi is a rich tradition that flourished over a thousand years ago. It derived its name from a village in Andhra Pradesh called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram in the 3rd century B.C. Similar to many other classical dance forms, Kuchipudi was initially presented at temples by the Brahmin men known as Bhagavathalu. These dances were considered as offerings to the deities and women were not allowed to be a part of these dance groups. It was in 1502 A.D that the first group of Brahmin performers was formed. In the beginning of the 7th century, Kuchipudi largely grew as a product of the Bhakti movement but got a new definition and direction in the 14th century when the ascetic Siddhendra Yogi appeared on the scene. However, it is the only dance where all the four Abhinayas namely the Angika, Vachika, Aaharya and Sattvika are given an equal importance.
Kuchipudi is a quicksilver and scintillating dance. The performance begins with the recitation from the four Vedas which symbolises the composition of the Natyaveda. Ganpati stuti is followed and the artists are introduced by the sutradhar who narrates the dance–drama with its implications. Each character performing on the stage impersonates the merits of the character. This is known as ‘Daruvus’. The dance is characterized by rounded and fleet–footed as well as graceful and fluid movements. The performance contains some of the very complicated items of original footwork which include tracing an outline of a lion or an elephant with the feet on the floor or dancing with the feet on the edges of a circular brass tray with a water pot delicately balanced on the head. The dance has common elements with Bharatnatyam. The solo exposition of the dance numbers include ‘jatiswaram’ and ‘tillana’ whereas the lyrical composition reflects the desire of a devotee to unify with God.
Kuchipudi is comprised of a blend of Tandava and Lasya elements. It has a classical and conventional music. The dance is accompanied by a typical Carnatic music. The musical instruments used in the Kuchipudi performance include mridangam (a South Indian classical percussion instrument), flute, violin, tambura (a drone instrument with strings plucked), manjira, saraswati veena (South Indian Veena), kanjira, surpeti and venu.
One of the unique characteristics of the Kuchipudi dance form is its make–up and costume. The female dancers adorn themselves with ornaments and jewellery which include Rakudi (head ornament), Chandra Vanki (an arm ornament), neck ornaments such as Adda Bhasa and Kasina Sara along with a plait decorated with flowers and jewellery. Most of these ornaments are made of Boorugu, a light weight wood.
Originally, Kuchipudi was a male dance tradition. These men travelled in groups from village to village enacting stories from the Hindu mythology. At many performances around the country and the world such as the Elizabethan theatre, men portrayed the roles of women. Women were however, introduced in this dance form about 9 or 10 decades ago. The present form of Kuchipudi is a result of the vision of stalwarts like Vempati Chinna Satyam and the late Vedantam Laxminarayana Shastry.