Danc-in’ Bangalore!

Noted critic, columnist, scholar, historian & publisher Ashish Mohan Khokar, platforms and profiles the history of dance & dancers in Bangalore through his regular column.

Nothing in dance can be rarer than a distinguished career where both your seniors and juniors respect you; where you work long innings and leave a stamp for posterity; where both the public and the patron support you; where you are loved for your art and heart; where your gurus bless you and shishyas love you. Such an honour in the dance world is rare and this honour in Bangalore (as this is a Bangalore-specific mag) goes to Maya Rao, who turned 75 in May!

75! Born on 2 May 1928, Maya Rao initially learnt Kathak from Pandit Sohan Lal of Jaipur but it was her exclusive tutelage under Samrat Shambhu Maharaj in Delhi, that made her art shine brilliantly. This sounds easy and simple but for girls from “good families” to learn dance and that too Kathak associated so closely with the kotha-culture of the Mughals and courts of nawabs in the north, it was not so easy especially in the 1950s! India was a young country and had lots of priorities to attend to after getting freedom from foreign rule and many gurus were trying hard to revive dying art forms and classical traditions.

The training itself began most innocently. In the basement of Lala Shriram’s bungalow (which today is the Hindustan Times building in Delhi), the great guru would come and teach Maya, his first pupil. “Those days there was not even money for taabla accompaniment, so the guru just beat his thigh blue keeping rhythm!” recalls Mayaji. “But what such a guru gives is not mere training but a foundation, upon which able students can build an edifice,” she holds.

Such a solid training led her to be selected as the first Indian to be sent to Moscow in 1961 to study Choreography. Today, the word choreography is used for food and fashion! But then it was very serious arrangement of space and scenography; music and steps for the stage. And the Russians (or Soviets) were the leaders in this field, as they were in many others. Maya Rao shared this rare distinction with fellow dancer, Prof. N.K. Sivasankaran, hailing from Kerala, trained under Uday Shankar the great.

Back in Delhi, Maya Rao founded in 1964, the Natya Institute of Choreography (and Kathak) and this continues till date. Almost 40 years! She also became the director of Kamla Lal’s Natya Ballet Centre and choreographed lots of unusual productions like Tulsi Ke Raam, Vision of Amir Khusro and Surdas. In addition she continued adding to the production Krishnaleela which was the NBC’s mainstay.

Maya Rao (and her dancer-sister Chitra Venugopal) hailed from Karnataka and after a long innings, her heart desired to return to her roots, to Bangalore, a city where there was less politics (in dance) and a better climate to live and let live. Her husband Natarajan sir, himself an accomplished maestro-composer and connoisseur of arts and literature, helped her throughout her career and their beautiful daughter Madhu was growing to be a sincere dancer.

Today, Madhu has sprouted wings and is a leading dancer of the city. Her husband Amit Heri is a talented jazz musician and composer in his own right and often, though shyly, chips in with Madhu’s productions as chief music director.

Many awards have come Mayaji’s way, including Mysore State Akademi award in 1968, the Sahitya Kala Parishad Samman in 1985 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1989. She was also the chairperson of Karnataka Sangeet Natak Akademi and guided many dance-related festivals in Belur-Halebid and other temple-tourism sites. Maya Rao worked a lot for the arts and profile of Karnataka, as well as for Kathak.

After long years spent in north India, when she decided to return to her roots, Bangalore welcomed her and old friends and fans made her feel special, including the then Chief Minister Hegde sahib. Mayaji’s genial personality, kind nature, supportive spirit, sincere work and loads of talents have assured her a place not only in Bangalore but also in the hearts of many in India. Truly, she is a Karnataka Ratna! And there is nothing illusionary (maya) about it! Happy Birthday, Mayaji, from all of us. When critics (like me) can become fans of yours, what can be said of others? May you continue to guide youngsters and bless them with your heart and art.

When you are fifty, you’re neither young nor old; you’re just uninteresting.
When you are sixty, and still dancing, you become something of a curiosity.
And boy! if you hit seventy, and can still get a foot off the ground, you’re phenomenal.

-Ruth St Denis