Photo Credit: Andres Sebastien

Yamini Kalluri & the Carnatic Ensemble

Kuchipudi dance New York, New York
Photo Credit: Andres Sebastien
Photo Credit: Andres Sebastien

As cultural traditions take root in diaspora communities, new connections between generations and cultures are both necessary and revitalizing. In New York City in 2019, acclaimed young dancer Yamini Kalluri, a master of the Kuchipudi dance of her Telugu forbearers, began a collaboration with the Carnatic Ensemble, an intergenerational trio of outstanding musicians of Tamil heritage. Their performance at the National Folk Festival braids together these two strands of South Indian tradition into a spellbinding presentation of their shared heritage.

Kuchipudi dance is named for the village where it originated in the state of Andhra Pradesh. One of India’s nine classical dance forms, Kuchipudi emerged out of the ancient tradition of Hindu dance-dramas called yakshagaana. For three centuries an ensemble form featuring male dancers, modern Kuchipudi crystalized nearly a century ago with the introduction of a solo dance tradition and the training of female dancers. Among Kuchipudi’s signature elements is its emphasis on dexterity and vigor, exemplified by a final act danced upon the rim of a brass plate.

At just 21, Yamini Kalluri has already established herself as a brilliant Kuchipudi performer, choreographer, and teacher. Born in the United States, Kalluri grew up in Hyderabad, India, where she began studying Kuchipudi dance at age seven. The form, known for its heightened used of abhinaya (expression), was a perfect outlet for Yamini. She was only 12 when her guru, the famed Padmasri Dr. Sobha Naidu, honored her talent by elevating her to the role of teacher. Yamini Kalluri has performed across India, England, and North America, and now lives and teaches in New York City.

As a dance form devoted to graceful and theatrical storytelling, Kuchipudi depends upon the skillful interplay between dancer and singer. Vocalist Shaaranya Pillai deftly renders these traditional epic dramas with a nuance and emotional clarity immediately accessible to modern audiences. Pillai, a New York native in her 20s, was first introduced to Carnatic music by her mother Smt. Kiruba Pillai, who began instructing her through song when Shaaranya was still in the womb. She studies now with guru Smt. Kiranavali Vidyasankar.

Carnatic percussion and melody instruments are the other essential complements to Kuchipudi dance. The mridangam, played by Bala Skandan, is the defining instrument of Carnatic music. This double-headed, barrel-shaped drum undergirds the music’s complex rhythmic structure. Skandan started his music training at age 6. Noted for his “superb musical accompaniment” by the New York Times, Skandan has accompanied established international musicians and dancers, and is the lead musician and composer for Akshara, an Indian percussion ensemble based in New York. Completing the Carnatic Ensemble is the skillful playing of young California-born violin master Parthiv Mohan. Carnatic musicians play the instrument in a unique seated position, producing a melodic expressiveness that carries the abhinaya of the dancer and singer from stage to audience.

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