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Remembering Nataraj
- Madhu Nataraj, Bangalore

October 16, 2008

Silk Nataraj, they called him.
Shark skin suits, flamboyant silk shirts, expensive perfume, stylish moustache, casual saunter, oozing charm and a surprisingly warm demeanor.
He was irresistible.
Picture him playing the Banjo or mandolin (among 10 other instruments he played adeptly) as a star invitee at one of the city's women's colleges in the 1940s, cheered on by an adoring, love struck audience
Keeping film producers and script writers waiting endlessly as he went in search of that elusive cup of filter coffee or dosa that one got only at a certain hotel in Chickpet.

Very different from the white kurta pajama or dhoti clad Gandhian, M S Natarajan, who rallied for the impoverished folk artistes of Karnataka, created literary organisations like the 'Kannada Chaluvalli' along with poet laureates, ran the Saraswati orchestra and was one of India’s most dynamic dance impresarios.

The Saraswati orchestra started out playing music live from the stage pit for silent movies. Nataraj, then started creating music for great dancers like the legendary Ramgopal, Dr. Maya Rao (who he married after a 20 year courtship) to name a few.
His bungalow in Gandhinagar doubled up as a rehearsal and ideation space for the country's most revered personalities like M F Hussein, Mrinalini Sarabhai, U S Krishna Rao, Chandrabhaga Devi, Mohan Khokar, A N Krishna Rao, K K Hebbar and S K Ramachandra Rao.

"Nattu maamma" as he was fondly called, played host to a sweeper and the chief minister with equal élan.

One of his greatest contributions to the dance world was rehabilitating abandoned palace dancers and the then ostracized Devadasi community.

Along with Maya, he set up extensive research and documentation projects for them as well as for the dying folk dance forms of Karnataka.

As the head of the Government’s cultural academy, he would personally accompany folk dance groups, which he had revived from remote corners of the state to the Republic Day parade in Delhi.

He shared a warm camaraderie with the presidents, prime ministers of the country and hobnobbed with dignitaries the world over.

And then, he gave it all up.

He was a jack of several trades but resisted becoming the master of any one.
This added to his versatility but also spelt his doom as he never stuck or nurtured any one career.

A walking encyclopedia, philosopher, musician, activist, he would suddenly get obsessive about gardening, cooking, setting up social vigilance groups or bursting 2 suitcases full of firecrackers with children!
He was loyal only to his books. Till his end he sourced, distributed and reprinted rare books worldwide.

K K S Murthy of the Select (an old Bangalore institution) bookstore reminisces "of the many eminent people visiting our bookstore, I cannot at any cost forget the influence wielded on me by Natarajan."

Mayavaram (renamed Mysore in allegiance to his adopted state) Subramaniam Natarajan died of a massive heart attack on the 13th of September 1998, a very dejected man, despite his many awards. The mediocrity of the arts and the marginalization of the folk arts in our society distressed him endlessly.

Any attempt on my part to get him to watch a performance in the '90's would be met with a, "When I have tasted high quality almonds, why are you forcing me to eat peanuts?"

As renowned scholar Late B V K Shastri aptly put it, "Nataraj was the renaissance of the performing arts movement in Karnataka."

At a time when dance in India lacks support systems, funding agencies, government recognition, promoters & impresarios...,
We remember Nataraj.

Madhu Nataraj is a Kathak / Contemporary dancer and choreographer, Director, Natya Stem Dance Kampni and a perennial dance activist!.