Maya – The reality of illusion(Interview with Smt. Maya Rao)

What places humans on the pinnacle of evolution? Much beyond the ability to reason and to enslave technology, it is the ability to imbibe the essence of art and culture that places humans on a notch above the rest of natures creations.

Maya Rao is not unknown to anyone who has embarked on this journey to comfort their beings in the ethereal joys of appreciation of the performing arts. The charts that unfurl the travelogue Maya Rao embarked on, at the age of fourteen, has spanned half a century plus.

Born to wake up to the illusions that reality was surrounded by, the innumerable pigeon holes that art was allowed to be appreciated through, yet equipped with a magical touch from her very name, Maya Rao sought to truly break barriers and harness illusions into reality.

Her every effort to culture herself as a performing artist transcended time. Her every performance has willed her determination to unfold unseen avenues of Kathak. Her every disciple has been blessed by her magical vision, bonding them to the truly fascinating journey of Kathak and Choreography. One that many have found enchantment in, beyond ephemeral indulges.
– Prakruthi N. Banwasi

Smt. Maya Rao is the only Indian with a PG certificate in Choreography from the USSR. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards including the National (President’s) Award for Choreography from the The Sangeet Natak Academy, The Karnataka State Award, The Choreo-Fest Award, The Shantala Award from the Govt. of Karnataka and The Emeritus Fellowship from the H R D Govt. of India.

Smt. Maya Rao was trained in Kathak under the renown Padmashri Sri. Shambu Maharaj of the Lucknow Gharana and Sri. Sunderprasad of the Jaipur Gharana. Her solo recitals and dance dramas imbibed both styles, winning much acclaim in India and abroad.

She is the founder of The Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, Bangalore. Smt. Maya Rao has choreographed numerable productions of great intangible value.

Every composition is backed with traditional repertoire, which are highly imaginative, innovative and impressive proving her sensitive and creative manner.

Q : When did you start learning dance & how was it learning dance in those days?

At the age of fourteen I began to dance but had to rebel against the elders to do so. My sisters Uma & Chitra were learning dance since they were 6 & 4 years old respectively. I was learning music; at that time music was allowed but not dance for me.

Q : Why did you choose Kathak & not any other style of dance?

Those days we only had Kathak & Bharathanatyam, but i knew that Kathak suited me better. I liked the spontaneity of Kathak, as you are not tied down by too many mudras and had an affinity towards Kathak as I had learn’t Hindustani music. In Hindustani music there is much more scope for individual expressions. I find the same in Kathak for, when we proceed with abhinaya or nritta or different aspects, we can put in our imaginative efforts. This is present in Bharatanatyam too, but very few exponents explore this.

Q : Who was your first Guru?

Sohanlal ji was my first Guru, he was Ramgopal’s student. My music teacher Katteram Rao brought Sohanlal ji to our house, my sisters started learning from him. But it took me a year to persuade my parents to accept my learning dance.

Q : Do you come from a background of artists? Where did you start the journey of dance from?

No, my father was an engineer, but he was very fond of music. My journey in dance began from Bangalore under Guru Sohanlal ji. Sohanlal ji went into films in 1951; I was in Bangalore till then, finishing my schooling & college. Having completed MA in Literature, I went to Jaipur and pursued my career as an English lecturer for two years.

I missed dance so much that I decided to set my heart back to it. I wrote to my brother in Ceylon expressing dissatisfaction in teaching Shakespeare and went to Ceylon for 2 years. I applied for the Govt. of India Scholarship in 1953, eighteen months later I got the interview letter, asking to appear for the interview within 3 days. I had to rush! It was great fortune for me that I even got the opportunity to learn from Shri Shambu Maharaj ji. The fact that I was the first one to do so was hardly in my thoughts then.

Q : You were the first Indian women to be sent to Moscow to learn the art of Choreography, how do you feel?

It was a rare opportunity, dancer Shivshankar was also with me, we were the only two chosen from among 1000 applicants and it was an eye opener for both of us. When I saw the timetable of the choreography class it was like turning the pages of Natyashastra.

The well-planted notion that even a producer should know all aspects of choreography (as Bharatmuni said) applied here. We had to attend music, dance and drama classes without being confined to a lone discipline.

This evolved a spirit of complete visualization in us. Thus it was a joy to learn the parallel thought in a foreign land that focused on what was embedded in ancient Indian scriptures.

Q : How do you best describe Choreography?

Choreography is to be revered in usage and ought not to be cast in a loose sense. Natyashastra dealt with the stage presence where the zonal divisions of the stage and the way to move were defined in detail. Bharata had drawn the mandalas (the nine division of the stage) where artists were made conscious of their movements.

Yet, many believe that choreography is just 30-40 years old as an art form. Somehow, choreography is only attributed to group dance. This is untrue; Choreography is derived from a Greek word ‘Xoro’ (dance) & ‘Graph’ (to write).

Since people watched the performances from a height in the amphitheater, on drew the pattern similar to how Physical Training Sessions are watched in school. As centuries passed, the term ‘Choreography’ gathered more connotation when patterns, lines and gestures were given meaning in a specific manner.

Choreography means visualizing an idea & translating it on stage with a balanced blend of music, drama and such other aspects. This is to evoke the ideas of the mind to visual reality of the stage.

Choreography is an integrated expression and not mere arrangement of dance. It need not exist only in plural as it is believed to be. A lone person also expresses his grace, method and style of dance through choreography. Again, composing, arranging or rearranging someone else’s composition is not to be confused with choreography.

A choreographer is responsible for everything, when one visualizes any dance, it is done with color, movement, style and many such aspects. A choreographer needs to know about all these aspects.

Q : You were in the best places that opened many opportunities, but yet came back to Bangalore? Why?

I went to Moscow from Delhi for 3 years, then I started the Natya Institute of Kathak & Choreography in Delhi and ran it for 23 years there. At that time there was so much need for dance to be brought out, there was no one other than Rampgopal doing so.

As the Karnataka Government was giving grants to set up institutions. I approached Ramakrishna Hegde for the same and he asked me to set up a dance institution in Bangalore, and due to his primary initiative I got the grant and started The Natya Institute of Kathak & Choreography in 1987, in Bangalore, a place that I have ever loved.

Q : Can you share with us some special moments of your dancing career?

There are so many! Learning from Guru Shambu Maharaj ji & Guru Sunderprasad ji and the opportunity to understand their approach to art are two moments I will ever cherish. Another was my having danced with Shambu Maharaj ji, not once but twice, because the first time was such a success that we performed again. Whenever I see Belur Halebid, I feel like evoking it in dance, it holds a special value for me.

When my daughter Madhu was hardly two, I would practice tatkars while putting her to sleep. She was never interested in dance as she had too much of it at home and refused to learn, but now she is into it seriously, this makes me very happy.

Q : After contributing so much in this field? Are there any dreams left unfulfilled?

I always felt we must have a big institution (like Chitra Kala Parishath) where more students can be trained. But the resources, other than just financial, are so extensive that I realise an involvement will drain all the time I hold for teaching and choreographing. I always wish that more students are trained and that they come up well.

Q : What difference do you see in the attitude towards art between your generation and the present?

Earlier we made use of the few available resources, we never thought of performance while learning. Whereas, when one starts learning now, parents are keener on knowing when their children can perform rather than concentrating on how much of this great art form their children would imbibe. Unlike our times there are so many openings now, we never thought that dancing on stage was the ultimate; we focused only on learning as much as we could.

Q : What do you feel about taking dance as a profession?

When one takes it as a profession the artist should be able to survive and again make use of the art to the best of his or her ability by dancing, creating, training etc. One has to advertise to some extent to be known, the advent of the electronic age see’s brochures, this is warranted only if it matches with your performance.

Q : Finally… Your message for young artists?

Be dedicated to art, don’t try short cuts for fame or do things to please someone. Your work should be recognized by talent or merit like any other profession. Let your art speak for you.