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“Bharata Kala Prapurna” Sri Vedantam Raghavaiah

Vedantam Raghavaiah

Reams of papers have been written about a fascinating, colossal and legendary personality – Vedantam Raghavaiah, who ruled the world of Kuchipudi & South Indian film field as an uncrowned King for over four & half decades (47years) in 20th century. One can never get tired of retelling his story since the greater heights reached by him in both the classical dance form and the glamour cinema world are firmly etched as one of the golden period of Kuchipudi. He was destined to be great, since he was born in Kuchipudi, Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh to one of the traditional Vedantam families. Vedantam families migrated (11 generations) from Kunchavaram Agraharam near Tenali. This Agraharam was gifted by Raja Venkatadrinaidu to YAJURVEDIC Brahmins (Ghanapaties) of VEDANTAM families, torch bearers for centuries of the popular classical art form of Andhra Pradesh.

He hailed from Kuchipudi village, born on June 8th, 1919 to Vedantam Ramayya and Annapurnamma. He married his own maternal uncle Hari Punnaiah’s five year old daughter Sriramalakshmi at the age of nine in the year 1928 by performing five days marriage function in Kuchipudi village. He is survived by four children

  • Bokka Lalithadevi Sitharamaiah
  • Mantrala Rajyalakshmi Umamaheswararao
  • B. Madhusudhana Sankar
  • Vedantam Ramachandra Varaprasad (Ramu)

Vedantam Raghavaiah

He started his formal training in Dance (Yakshagana) and Music (Yakshna Sampradaya Sangeetam) from his own father at a very tender age of five and later he continued under the tutelage of Yakshagana Pitamaha Sri Chinta Venkararamayya and Natyakalanidhi, Shadbharathkalanidhi, Abhinaya Brahma Sri Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry. He had also mastered the languages of Sanskrit & Telugu from one of his cousins and Scholar, Bhagavatula Sitaramaswami within a very short span of time because by birth he was an Ekasanthagrahi. He very quickly became one of the star students of Kuchipudi Yakshagana tradition. He also became a poet (Asukavi).

He plunged head long with his heart and soul with an unknown level of devotion & passion and quickly imbibed the various techniques of dance, music and tala and above all stage presentation, simultaneously absorbing all the nuances of laya under a genius ‘Laya Brahma’‚ (Kaliyuga Satyabhama) Vempati Venkatanarayana. When most kids of his age were busy with their play toys, Raghavaiah, toyed with (dance) plays, made his debut performance at the age of seven, as Prahlada, which was awarded at many quarters including a Gold medal by the British Government. According to many artistes of his time, this signaled the ‘Golden Era of Kuchipudi’ since this is acclaimed to be the first such recorded accolade given to the art form by the then rulers of the land. From then on there was no looking back and he excelled in the roles of Lohitasya, Lava Kusa and others. However, his specialty or penchant if one can say so was that of female impersonator. He became one of the outstanding female impersonator of his time by mastering the Kaisiki vritti.

Raghavaiah who was equally adept in music world & Kuchipudi traditional music (Kuchipudi Sampradaya Sangitam), sang while performing like Kuchipudi Yakshagana artists playing on the ‘Mukhya Sancharas’ or the key-notes of every raga of any daruvu and this made his performance very memorable and soul stirring. His effortless performances in the characters of

  • Usha in Ushaparinayam
  • Sita in Ramanataka Yakshaganam
  • Leelavathi in Prahallada Yakshaganam
  • Chandramathi in Hrischandra nataka Yakshaganam
  • Sasirekha in Sasirekhaparinaya Yakshaganam
  • Mohini in Mohini Rukmangada Yakshaganam
  • Satyabhama in Bhamakalapa Yakshaganam
  • are still revered.

Vedantam Raghavaiah

Folklore says that people used to travel miles to see him in his famous female impersonator (Rupanurupam) roles. His ‘Ushaparinayam’ was considered to be enough for liberation and thus people used to come in droves from afar as if it was a pilgrimage to watch him perform.

In the days where there were no action replays, freeze frames, giant screens, dolby sound systems, etc., it is learnt that the plays of Vedantam Raghavaiah not only attracted audience from far and wide but also they were unruly and difficult to control since all of them wanted to view from close quarters from a vantage position. This necessitated, perhaps for the first time, police protection / intervention in such performances of the time.

Just when he was being branded as an excellent female impersonator, he took it upon himself and created waves by performing the key male roles like Harischandra, Hiranyakashyapa, Rama and Krishna. Any role played by him became a rave among the audience and he carried with aplomb, not even suggesting an iota, the difficulty of playing such versatile roles. He performed unique items like Bala Gopala Tarangam with dancing on brass plate balancing a water vessel on his head. He has the unique distinction of being one of the first to perform Narayana Theertha’s “Krishna Leela Tarangini” Taragam called Balagopala by including the brass plate and water vessel (a small pot) depicting the Yoga Sastra slokha

“Punkhanu Punkhavishaye kshanatatparopi
bramhavalokanadhiyam najahatiyogi
sangeeta Tala vadya vasamgatapi
moulista kumbha parirakshana dhirnativa”

The meaning of the sloka is that a Yogi who sits on meditation reaches the Parabrahma state unmindful of having to go through lot of distractions on the way is called as a Siddhayogi. Likewise the dancer who stands on the brass plate and balances the water vessel on the head and successfully completes the dance is called as Natyasidhi. He performed this dance in the film Mohini Rukmangada also.

His solo items included “Saa Virahe Thavadeenaa Radha” from Jayadeva’s Ashatapadi, the Dasavathara Shabdam written by Sidhabattula Rangadasu of Pedapulivarru, Andhara Pradesh (also performed in the film “Raitu Bidda”) and “Kanto Yaasyathi Dura Desa Mithi” slokam from Pushpa Bana Vilasam, javalis, shabdas among others. It is felt that his abhinayas as a Kuchipudi artist is par excellence and nobody could equal him up to this day.

Vedantam Raghavaiah

His solo item – the much acclaimed Siva Thandavam, where he danced as Siva was also featured in the film “Maya lokam”.

He performed the character of Usha (lady personification) of Ushaparinaya Yakshaganam, taking just a pallavi of the daruvu “Anangudun ghanam batanchu” from night to sunrise of the next day showing variations of abhinaya and dance in the character. His astonishing variations of just one pallavi kept lakhs of audience enthralled the whole night. He was honoured with “Simhatalata Ghantaakankana”.

The great Harikatha Pitamaha, Aadibhattla Narayana Dasu garu was very much impressed with Raghavaiah’s Yakshagana performances and honoured him with “Gandapenderam”. His lady personification roles were very much popular and had a huge fan following including that of Zamindars of the time. He was honoured with silk sarees, gold medals by the Zamindar Chalapalli Raja.

His eyes were set next from being a dancer to create dance and the natural corollary of becoming a Choreographer. Vedantam Raghavaiah founded an innovative, unique group called the Prabhakara Natya Mandali, gathering the talented Kuchipudi youth of the time, such as Vempati Pedda Satyam, Pasumarthy Krishnamurthy etc., and used his ingenious ideas to improvise and showcase new pieces as a trend setter.

Being reckoned a great dancer par excellence and a good choreographer, his period of performance was said to be called as the “Era of Raghavaiah”, inducing the scholars of his time to give him a title of “Sakapurusha” or “Man of the Era”. As long as he was in the Kuchipudi village, the whole kuchipudi dance world revolved around Raghavaih – which is called the Raghavaiah’s Sakam

In the year of 1938 at Machilipattanam, Sri K.V.Ramachandran from Chennai saw Raghavaiah’s USHA character of USHAPARINAYAM, wrote about Raghavaiah in Triveni magazine as

‘Vedantam Raghavaiah claims the honours as the best exponent of this (kuchipudi) school by his amazing record in speedy execution’

Thus having won the hearts of both art lovers and critics, word of his talent, name and fame travelled the entire length and breadth of the dance fraternity. This led his foray to the silver screen. A bold director, Sri Gudavali Ramabrahmam of Sarathy films, who stumbled upon this idea of showcasing Kuchipudi art form in celluloid for the first time, made way for the uncrowned King of Kuchipudi, Sri Vedantam Raghavaiah to make his debut in films with the movie Raithubidda (1939) as a traditional Dasavatara Sabdam.

Raghavaiah’s journey in filmdom took him from being an actor to that of dance director and his contributions to show case Kuchipudi were note worthy and well appreciated in the following films spanning over 12 years (1937 to 1949) as an actor and choreographer:

  • Mohini Rugmangada (Telugu1937) (actor in the Balagopala Tarangam)
  • Raitu Bidda (Telugu 1939) (dancer and choreographer)
  • Seeta Rama Jananam (Telugu 1942) (choreographer)
  • Panthulamma (Telugu 1943) (choreographer)
  • Garuda Garvabhangam (Telugu 1943) (actor and choreographer)
  • Swargaseema (Telugu 1945) (choreographer)
  • Tyagayya (Telugu 1946) (choreographer)
  • Palnati Yudham (Telugu 1947) (choreographer)
  • Yogi Vemana (Telugu 1947) (choreographer)
  • Vande Mataram (Telugu 1948) (choreographer)
  • Laila Majnu (Telugu 1949) (choreographer)
  • Raksharekha (Telugu 1949) (actor and choreographer)

He received high acclaim for the film “Thyagayya”, in which he evoked remarkable performances from young children to depict the famous episode “Madhuranagarilo Challalamma bodu Dari vidumu Krishna” in which Thyagayya dedicates the Anandabhairavi ragam to Kuchipudi artists.

The lure of reel life is too real to ignore for one who excelled in anything he did in life and thus he turned his attention towards directing films and no wonder he created a niche for himself as a film director too. His incorrigible enthusiasm and zeal for work showed very much in his films. The transition from Stage to Silver Screen was smooth and easy for him since he learned the nuances of not only dance and drama from Kuchipudi Yakshagana, but also other finer aspects like literature, composing, characterization, etc.

The list of successful films that he made makes an interesting study as it spanned over a couple of decades and covered a wide spectrum of emotions and weaved stories to remember for eternity. He was a prolific film maker and he made quite a number of movies, even in the era wherein big banners used to take years to make a film. His films were not only a hit with the telugu speaking audience but also was remade in other languages and his fame knew no boundaries in the country.

He continued to weave his charm in filmdom and commercial success apart from critical acclaim was not far off. His film, “Devadas” till today continues to occupy its position as one of the best Telugu pictures ever made and all his films were known for outstanding story line, music, and characterization. He also thoroughly learned the entire film technology such as Camera, Sound, editing, lighting etc.

The following are the list of films written, produced and/or directed by him from 1951 to 1970:

Vedantam Raghavaiah

  • Strisahasam (Telugu 1951) (producer and director)
  • Shanti (Telugu 1952) (producer and director)
  • Devdas (Telugu and Tamil) (1953) (producer and director) View one of the famous songs from the movie here
  • Annadata (1954) (director)
  • Anarkali (Telugu 1955) (director) You can watch a beautiful song from the movie
  • Chiranjeevulu (Telugu 1956) (director)
  • Bhale Ramudu (Telugu 1956) (director)
  • Prema Pasam (Tamil 1956) (director)
  • Suvarna Sundari (Telugu 1957) (screenplay writer and director)
  • Bhale Ammayilu (Telugu 1957) (director)
  • Iru Sahodarigal (Tamil 1957) (director)
  • Manalane Mangayin Bhagyam (Tamil 1957) (director)
  • Raja Nandini (Telugu 1958) (director)
  • Intiguttu (Telugu 1958) (director)
  • Bala Nagamma (Telugu 1959) (director)
  • Jai Bhawana (1959) (director)
  • Adutha Veetu Penn (Tamil 1960) (director)
  • Mamaku Tagga Alludu (Telugu 1960) (director)
  • Runanubandham (Telugu 1960) (director)
  • Swarnamanjari (Telugu 1962) (director)
  • Mangayir Ullam Mangada Selvam (Tamil 1962) (director)
  • Aadabrathuku (Telugu 1965) (director)
  • Nanna Kartavya (kannada 1965) (director)
  • Sati Sakkubai (Telugu & kannada 1965) (director)
  • Rahasyam (Telugu 1967) (director)
  • Sati Sumati (Telugu 1967) (director)
  • Kumkumabharina (Telugu 1968) (director)
  • Sapta Swaralu (Telugu 1969) (director)
  • Ulagam Ivvalavuthan (Tamil 1969) (director)
  • Bhale Ethu Chivaraku Chittu (Telugu 1970) (director)

He also paved the way for other Kuchipudi artists like Vempati Peda Satyam, Vepati Chinna Satyam, Pasumarthi Krishnamurthy, Vedantam Jaganatha Sarma & Mahankali Venkaiah to films and they too had their due share of stardom.

Branching to films didn’t diminish his sights on mainstream Kuchipudi art form and he continued his contributions with zeal and vigour. His advent to filmdom signaled the exodus of quite a few Kuchipudi artists to the green pasture – filmdom, a few traditional Kuchipudi artists became old for performance and remaining few etched living as a Dance Guru for rich people. This led to dwindling number of Kuchipudi and Yakshagana performance and a situation wherein there was a general misconception and strong advocacy that Kuchipudi was utmost only a folk dance in nature and the status of classical art form could not be bestowed to it.

Vedantam Raghavaiah

Raghavaiah swung into action and organised extensive performances with an entire troupe to prove that Kuchipudi was a truly classical form and he was supported by likeminded illustrious dancers of other art forms too. He became a member in a committee of the First General Council of the Andhra Pradesh Sangeeth Nataka Academy (APSNA) that represented Dance and not Cinema and he was also nominated as President of the National Festival organized by the APSNA in 1964.

Vedantam Raghavaiah

Raghavaiah was honoured by the Academy with the prestigious and impressive title of “Bharata Kala Prapurna” – the first such award to a Kuchipudi artist – very rightly for his contributions to Kuchipudi art form right from a very young age starting as a child artist to finally being a dance director and an integral part of the concerted efforts ensured that Kuchipudi got its due share and recognized as one of the Classical Dance – art forms of India.

Some of his disciples in the film industry were Sri C.S.Rao & Sekar. He directed the renowned artists Sri Akkineni Nageswararao, Sri N.T.Ramarao, Sri Kasturi Sivarao, Sri Peketi Sivaram, Sri Relangi Venkataramaiah, Sri Mahankali Venkaiah, Sri S.V.Rangarao, Sri Kantarao, Smt Anjalidevi, Smt Bhanumati, Smt Savitri and many more Tamil ,Telugu and Kannda artists and gave them stardom.

Vedantam Raghavaiah

He showed the path for reforming Kuchipudi style of dance (Yakshagana genre of Kuchipudi) in the film “Rahasyam” with the dance ballet “Girija Kalyanam” wherein he performed and choreographed with Vempati Peda Satyam. This was probably one of his last contributions in dance.

Some of his disciples in Kuchipudi dance are

  • Sri Bhagavatula Yagnanarayana Sarma (vijayavada)
  • Sri Bhagavatula Ramakotaiah (Hyderabad)
  • Sri Vedantam Parvatisam (Kuchipudi)
  • Sri Pasumarthi Sitaramaiah (Viskhapatnam)
  • Padmabhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam (Chennai)

Vedantam Raghavaiah

The level of his accomplishments is breadth taking and leaves one wonder struck for it was achieved in an era which was bereft of the advantage of leading edge technology and only way to become famous, well known, appreciated, revered truly rested on the merits of the individuals. Implicitly, the success story of Vedantam Raghavaiah is quite interesting and tailor made for making a film of the film master and the Dancing Avatar, so to say for the least. His career which spanned through four and half decades was glorious. An eventful and fully packed life of Raghavaiah enhanced the glory of Kuchipudi dance form; but his sudden and untimely death on 18-11-1971, at a relatively young age of 52, was bereavement to Kuchipudi which cannot be compensated.

— With contributions from Guru Vedantam Ramu, son of Vedantam Raghavaiah, complied by Sudha Sridhar, Founder Director, Panchamvedam Foundation.

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