Text: Paul Nicodemus
“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness,” wrote Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher. Dr Sobha Naidu has tread that road and reached the heights of greatness. The determination she showed in her journey to master the art form of Kuchipudi is fascinating. The girl from a small town in Andhra Pradesh became a leading exponent of Kuchipudi. Her performances won accolades not only in India but also around the globe. She devoted her life in pursuit and promotion of dance. For her service towards Indian Art and Culture, the Government of India honoured her with Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards.
Shobha Naidu was born to Venkanna Naidu and Sarojini Devi in Anakapalli, Andhra Pradesh. Rajahmundry was her native place. Her father worked as an executive engineer and because of his mode of work, they moved from one place to another. “Before I completed my eighth grade, my father had 12 transfers within Andhra Pradesh,” she says. Right from the age of 2, she had a sense of rhythm; lying in the cradle, baby Sobha moved her hands and legs to the rhythm of music being played on the radio. When she wanted something she asked for it with an expression on her face. She started learning dance from the age of 4, the first from her family. She hails from a conservative family where a lot of things were forbidden for girls, dance and music were a part. It was her mother, who believed children should pursue their passions and convinced her reluctant father.
Her father constructed a house in Rajahmundry. Though he had frequent transfers, her mother stayed in Rajahmundry for the sake of children’s education. Especially for Shoba’s dance training. PL Reddy, a local dance teacher was her first guru who visited her house every day in the morning to train her. “Reddy garu used to come home early in the morning to teach me to dance. Sometimes, he woke me up, made me drink milk and taught me to dance. It was during this period I developed a fondness towards dance,” she reveals. He taught her dance with utmost care and love.
One day, there was a robbery in her house and someone stole all her dance jewellery made of gold. Her father bought it for her. It quite upset him and asked the family to move to Parvathipuram where he was working. It was a difficult phase for her, she had to leave her dance and guru. Within a short time, she had another jolt when her guru passed away with a heart attack. It was a lot to take for a 6 years child.
Sobha gave her first performance at 5. She performed at Lion’s Club, Ramalayam and other temples in Rajahmundry. The dance she learnt was a mixture of Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam. “My guru told me he is teaching whatever he knew and asked me to learn from his guru Pasumarthi Krishnamurthy. He wanted me to go to Chennai and learn from him,” she says. After the death of her teacher, she lost interest in dance for a brief period. It was her mother who encouraged her and reminded her of the guru’s wish to see her a good dancer. Today, Sobha Naidu is who she is because of her mother, who stood by her side. “She took me to programmes, did makeup and always encouraged me. I am what I am today because of my loving mother,” she says. It was her mother who supported her to go to Chennai for learning dance. Sobha was in her 7th grade and her mother told her it is time to leave. Her father did not agree and later agreed to let her go on the condition she would return home after the arangetram.
Sobha moved to Chennai and initially stayed with her grandfather Keshav Rao, a Deputy Commissioner. They could not find the address of Pasumarthy Krishnamurthy and that was the time Vempati Chinna Satyam was becoming popular among the art community in Chennai. Her grandfather suggested her to join master Vempati. Those days, he was choreographing for films and taught Kuchipudi. After visiting Kalakshetra and Adyar Laxman and they visited Kuchipudi Art Academy. She was impressed by the kind of teaching they master was delivered at the Academy. Later, she watched Krishna Parijatham by Kuchipudi Art Academy. She was thoroughly mesmerised by the performance and fell in love with the character of Satyabhama.Her grandfather served as the secretary of the academy, so he invited Vempati to his house. Sobha was asked to perform whatever she learnt. She did not know how to sing and asked the master to sing ‘Madhura Nagarilo’; he sang, and she danced for two minutes. He told her grandfather that she had good rhythm and expressions but lacks perfection. He agreed to teach her. That was how her journey of becoming a doyen of dance began in 1968. Every day she travelled from Annamalai Puram to T. Nagar in Chennai. She studied at the Saradha High School near the academy. She reached her school at 8 am and after the school, she attended dance classes at the academy. She had a dance class from 6 pm to 8 pm. She had to travel in a bus and reached home at 9 pm. Day by day, her grandparents grew concerned about her safety. That was when she wrote a letter to her mother, explaining the situation.
Sobha’s mother left her other children, husband and the entire household and came down to Chennai to help her daughter realise the dream. It was a sacrifice that her mother made for her and both of them stayed in a room. She took care of all the chores and even sat with her in the class. She accompanied her to the programmes, sat in the front row and became her best critic. Her father was not convinced with the idea of them staying in Chennai and wanted them to come back. He also felt that it was becoming expensive. Sobha in a combative tone asked him to send only Rs 1000 per month. Master Vempati did not charge fees from her as he believed in her talent. Vempati’s wife even served her breakfast whenever she missed it in a hurry to attend school.
Staying away from home in a different city came across as a big challenge for her. There were times when she did not have money to purchase rice. Her father would have immediately come down to her rescue but she endured it with fortitude. After a while, her mother requested master to finish her arangetram so that they can go back. Master agreed and she completed her arangetram at Rama Rao Kala Mandapam in Chennai. Rukmini Arundale attended the occasion as a chief guest. Those days, Rukmini did not have a good feeling about Kuchipudi and it made Sobha pretty nervous. She just prayed and performed seven items for 3 hours. Rukmini went in and praised her performance and told her that she would receive many films offers and asked her if she too came down to Chennai to get into films like many others? “I told her I am here only to learn dance. To confirm, Rukmini took me to the corner where sculptures of gods were placed and asked me to make a promise. I gave her a word without any second thought,” she says. Rukmini blessed her and told her that she would have a bright future. Those words had a deep impact on her. The next day morning most of the newspapers in Chennai showered praise on her.
Master Vempati pointing at the news coverage once again asked her to reconsider her decision of leaving Chennai. When she told him about the word that she has given her father. Master called on him and informed him about the upcoming programmes and asked him to extend her stay. She got an extension and continued to perform. As time passed, her father once again wanted her to come back and he personally came down to Chennai to take her home. “Along with my father we went to guru’s house and he told him about the opportunity that she got from ICCR to tour abroad. He told him that nobody would leave such an opportunity.” Her father agreed on the condition that she would return upon completion of the tour. It was the first time that she travelled abroad. She toured South America. “After coming back from South America, we travelled to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other places in India. It was for the first time that I visited these places. I have realised that it is not a good idea to go back when everything is coming together. I told my father that I have just started getting the recognition. I assured him that I would come home but after completing all the good programmes,” she says. Her mother stood by her side like a strong pillar.
Sobha got a chance to play the character of Sri Krishna in Krishna Parijatham, the ballet which inspired her when she first arrived in Chennai. After three shows, master felt that her walk looked feminine and changed her character to Rukmini. “We performed the ballet in Krishna Gana Sabha. It was attended by Subbudu, a renowned cultural critic who was known for his slapstick criticism. Even established dancers stayed away from dancing in front of him. He attended our show. I did not know about him and performed as usual. Later on, I have learnt the popular character in the film Sagara Sangamam portrayed by Kamal Hassan was developed based on him,” she says. The next day, a headline in The Indian Express newspaper read, ‘A Boneless Wonder’.
The review by Subbudu while mentioning good things about Vempati’s ballet concluded with a suggestion that the girl playing the character of Rukmi should play the character of Sathyabhama and vice versa. The critic also praised Sobha for her flexibility. “My guru after reading the review gave me the character of Sathyabama. That was how I secured the character. It is my favourite character and I am still playing it,” she reveals. Irrespective of the ballet, she has always done a great job – be it Krishna Parijatham, Menaka Vishwamitra or Chandalika.
She completed her intermediate from Queen Mary’s College. At a time when she wanted to leave Chennai to pursue her degree. It got delayed because of foreign tours. “After we completed our foreign tour, our guru went to Hyderabad and met Chenna Reddy, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. He explained him the situation of the Academy and requested him to provide a building grant or a yearly grant. Chief Minister suggested him to come down to Hyderabad and establish an institution as the Government of Andhra Pradesh cannot fund an institution in Chennai. Guru told him that it is not possible for him to come down.
That was when Chenna Reddy suggested him to send someone who became popular to Andhra. While Guru began to think, Chenna Reddy recollected my performance in World Telugu Conference in Malaysia and advised my guru to send me to Hyderabad. He did not know what to say and said okay.
Then and there I was made the principal. My father was contacted over the phone and he became happy as I would be closer. I was surprised because I am not used to teaching. All that I knew was practising and performing. I told the guru that it is not possible but he chided and said that now we have to grow. That was how I came down to Hyderabad as a principal in 1981,” she reveals. Until then she was a performing artiste without any responsibility and after coming down she had additional responsibilities as a teacher and administrator apart from being a regular performer. “By God’s grace whatever I did turn out to be a success,” she adds.
Through her academy, so far she has trained hundreds of students in the art form of Kuchipudi. She is a purist who wants to keep the tradition alive while experimenting judiciously.She represented India and performed in the USA, UK, USSR, Syria, Baghdad, Kampuchea, Turkey, Hong Kong, Bangkok, West Indies, Mexico, Venezuela, Tunis, Cuba and West Asia.