Madhu Natraj – The Contemporary Kathakaar

Being the daughter of illustrious Kathak exponent, Guru Maya Rao, your entry into the world of dance was naturally expected. What do you have to say about that??

I agree that dance is in my family. My association with Kathak seems inseparable from my existence as a dancer.

I remember absorbing bols and the sounds of the ghungroos and tabla as a child and doing the padanth more like a tongue twister game than as an activity involving technical finesse.

But between 14 to 19 years of my age, I was quite put off by what I saw around me that could be described as an artist’s life. It seemed like hard working and sincere artists had to struggle all the time; so I decided not to dance and did everything other than dancing, that is, theatre, acting, designing, degree in commerce, PG in journalism, etc.

A very interesting workshop that I had attended in Delhi, organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, provoked me to get back to dancing. I called my mother and asked her if I could do the degree in choreography. My mother just spoke one sentence: “You will have to choose between monetary benefits and creative satisfaction”. I decided to dance and from then onwards I have done nothing but dance. I made my debut as a Kathak dancer when I was 24 (that is late according to south Indian standards) by which time my mother had already trained 2000 students and I was no different.

Your initiation into contemporary dance?

For me dance is not about how much you perform but how much you can create. I took training in contemporary dance in some of the well-known institutions in America and having been there for five years, I realised the importance of the indigenous movements of India. Indian dance forms are so vast and there is no lack of inspiration here, so I decided to come back.

Under the constant guidance and encouragement of my Guru Maya Rao, I have assimilated my dance training in Kathak, yoga, Limon technique and Indian martial arts. With these as my source materials, I have been attempting to evolve a vocabulary that can be termed as Indian contemporary dance. There are 800 dance forms in India and we have so much to explore.

Contemporary dance, according to me, is a personal ideology. It is a balance between the spontaneous and the cerebral. It is a state of mind or an attitude.

My dancers come from various dance backgrounds and the regimen (training) followed at our centre focuses a lot on the technical and expressional aspects of Kathak. I do not belong to the school of thought that rejects tradition. In fact, to me, traditional dance, especially Kathak is a necessary part for the evolution of what can be called contemporary.

I have integrated elements of footwork, upaj (improvisation). I have also experimented with rhythm, and abhinaya, the essence of Kathak for storytelling, in all my choreographic endeavours.

I choose real issues like feminism, sexuality, and drug addiction and collaborate with designers, painters, visual designers, musicians and filmmakers to integrate their creative thought processes in my own work and come up with entirely new possibilities in my presentations. For instance, the excerpts from ‘Khoriya’ – Wider than Echoes, a production which deals with facts of feminism, feminnity and sexuality is a piece which features stories of women told by women in a vibrant, racy style – the Kathakaar resurfaces!

Which do you enjoy more – performing Kathak or contemporary dance?

I enjoy Kathak in its purest form which I learnt from my mother. But both the styles have a very strong emotional hold on me.

Have things come your way easily because you are Guru Maya Didi’s daughter?

No, it has been difficult. It is very hard to live up to everybody’s expectations arising from the obvious comparison. Actually there should not be any as my mother is in a class by herself with so many years of experience.

As a matter of fact, when my mother was holding an important post in the Sangeet Natak Akademi, I was not even dancing.

I’m not complaining, but if it comes to talking up dancers, but my mother will talk about six of her other students, before thinking of me.

It is to come out of my mother’s shadow that I created STEM.

Your future plans for STEM and yourself as a dancer?

Well STEM will go on with its activities. I have been leading the group but personally as a dancer I would like to learn more. Do more research, take dance to the people rather than always bringing them to the auditorium.

What is your take on the dance scene and performing opportunities for youngsters today?

Challenge to dance was the motive in my mother’s time, which later changed to experimenting. Today fighting mediocrity should be the main aim of a dancer. In the pursuit of instant fame, the true essence of dance is lost. Youngsters should possess a strong base of dance and classical dance does not come instantly. It needs many years of training and practice.

How much of the legacy of your mother can you carry forward?

My mother’s real legacy is her 2000 students who are spread all over the globe, each one practising what she taught them. Wouldn’t it be fitting to say that each one of her students has the responsibility of carrying forward her legacy? And, I count myself as just another of her students.

Apart from being on the panel of important design and academic institutions, she has been invited on many occasions to design programmes and choreographic works for prestigious cultural organizations like Arts Council of Britain, Indian Cultural Heritage Center, Dallas, London Arts, Shrishti School of Art, Design & Technology, Crafts Council of INdia, IIT, to name a few. Madhu believes that tradition and modernity need to co-exist and that reflects in her dance ideology.