Maya Rao – the woman whose “broken promise” brought Kathak to South India

FFor decades, the classical Indian dance form, Kathak, was apparently confined to the northern Vindhyas. The saying was that geographical and cultural barriers limited the expression of this art form in the rest of India. But Maya Rao, born in Bangalore on May 2, 1928, in the former state of Mysoreoverturned these dogmas with his zeal and his passion for dance.

Her journey with Kathak embodies the art’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries induced by geography in heterogeneous nation-states. As writer Shobha Narayan wrote in mint“If you ask people why Maya Rao is great, they’ll tell you one thing: she brought Kathak to South India.”

Rao was known for her command of “Abhinaya», the art of mastering expression while playing. She is considered one of the contemporary pioneers of classical Indian dance.


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A broken promise

In his autobiography, In a life of choreography, Maya Rao recalls the challenges she overcame to start learning kathak: “My father, Hattangady Sanjeeva Rao, a well-known architect, was so overwhelmed by Uday Shankar’s performance that he wanted to encourage the learning to dance also at home. However, this excitement was unfortunately not for me.

In their home in Malleswaram in Bengaluru, opposite a train station, Maya and her siblings were already learning Hindustani classical music. The family’s music guru, Rama Lal, upon hearing that Mr. Rao wanted his children to learn to dance, introduced the family to Sohan Lal, a kathak representative from the Jaipur Gharana.

However, initially only Rao’s younger sisters – Uma and Chitra – and his brother Ramesh were allowed to be taught by Sohan Lal. It took Maya two years of relentless pursuit to convince her father to allow her to learn Kathak.

Even then, she was only allowed to follow Kathak conditionally. Maya Rao recalls: “I was allowed to learn dance with the promise that I would not dance professionally or perform on stage, a promise that thankfully I did not keep.

At the age of fourteen, began Maya Rao’s tryst with Kathak.


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Mastery of Kathak under Shambhu Maharaj

While continuing to learn Kathak, Maya became the head of her school’s dance club, Kamalabai’s Girls School.

Unfortunately, in 1946 Rao’s father passed away and she decided to teach dance for a living. Taking the next logical step as a teacher, in 1947 she opened the Natya Saraswathi Dance and Music Center with MS Nataraj. Like The news minute catalogs, they would eventually marry and he became one of the first cultural artists in South India. impresarios.

Rao taught Kathak and other contemporary dance forms like ballet to the girls at the center. Always one to push back social barriers and question parochial practices, Rao defied societal conservatism preventing girls from privileged families from learning dance through the center.

Simultaneously, Rao continued to develop his skills. She left for Jaipur to be under the tutelage of the Kathak gurus of Jaipur Gharana. Like his sister Venugopal Rao remember, the pivotal moment in her life came in 1954 when she was awarded a scholarship by the Indian government to practice and research Kathak. This scholarship gave him the tutelage of the venerable Kathak maestro Shambhu Maharaj.

His mastery of Kathak under Shambhu Maharaj reached such a scale Heights that she performed with him on stage. A rare feat in the classical art forms of India where the ‘guru’ plays with the ‘shishya’.


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Moscow, NIKC and return to Karnataka

Rao’s passion for dance eventually brought her to Moscow, where she earned a three-year postgraduate degree in former USSR choreography and ballet. She remains among the few classical dance performers in India to have completed a degree in choreography.

Writer Vikram Sampath Remarks, that Indian productions like Shakuntala, which she performed in Moscow, won her high praise. According to The HinduMaya Rao’s performances such as Amir Khusro, Krishnadevaraya, Vijayanagara Vaibhava and Kaamana Billu de Masti represent some of her best works.

After Moscow began a new phase in the life of Maya Rao. From a student, she took over the role of teacher. In 1964, in New Delhi, she created the Natya Institute for Kathak and Choreography (NIKC). The institute would become the premier academy for learning kathak, ballet, and other dance forms. Mainstays of the Indian music and dance scenes like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Anil Biswas were among the school’s regulars.

The importance of the institute was such that in 1987, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, Ramakrishna Hegde asked him to move the NIKC to Bengaluru. Rao accepted, and soon hundreds of children were learning Kathak at the outsourced institute. The center soon became affiliated with Bangalore University and apart from Kathak even taught ballet.

As her legend in the dance world continued to grow and many were inspired to embrace Kathak after reading about her or seeing her perform, the move to Bengaluru acted as a boost to relevance. Kathak in the south. a whole new generation had access to it. Sai Venkatesha manager at NIKC, first started by attending a short Kathak workshop and eventually stayed with the institution for 25 years.


Read also : Uday Shankar: Father of modern Indian dance who never learned to dance


Teach 4,000 students

Maya Rao has won numerous awards for her Kathak and choreography throughout her career. The Sangeet Natak Academy Award, Shantala Award, Tagore Award, Kala Shri Award and a honorary PhD from Bangalore University stand out.

Through NIKC, in Delhi and Bengaluru, Maya Rao has taught and inspired over 4,000 students to learn kathak, ballet and other dance forms. With her magic and grace on stage, she transcended the geographical and cultural barriers that had chained the confluence of classical dance forms from India.

As she passed away on September 1, 2014, her legacy lives on through the NIKC and the thousands of people she inspired to learn Kathak. your their their tat.

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