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Past Forward with Guruji and Amma
- Mamata Niyogi Nakra
Photos courtesy: Kala Bharati

September 3, 2013

There are moments in one's life when destiny smiles in the face of adversity. One such moment came in my life when I had an accident in1969, which left me with a permanent injury and brutally cut me off from performing Bharata Natya. Some of my well-wishers helped me to overcome the initial shock and despair by encouraging, to the point of coaxing and goading me, to teaching Bharata Natya in Montreal. "What a formidable task to undertake," I thought at the time; but, as if by divine intervention, my gurus U.S. Krishna Rao and U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi (Guruji and Amma to me) appeared on the horizon just when I needed them most, to provide guidance and inspiration and above all, to help regenerate my passion for dance.

At Maha Maya with their awards

At the reception after the lec-dem (1980)

The Rao couple was on a visit to North America in the spring of 1980 and accepted an invitation from me to come to Montreal. They gave a scintillating lecture demonstration on Bharata Natya, organized by the India Canada Association of Montreal, to a packed auditorium of over 500 captivated listeners. On that occasion, not only did they enlighten the Montrealers present on the intricacies and aesthetics of Bharata Natya, but also endorsed, with warmth and generosity of spirit, my humble efforts to start a dance school by agreeing to return to Montreal for an extended stay. It was a wonderful way to re-establish our contact and renew our ties which dated back to the late fifties when I had gone to Bangalore for advanced training in Bharata Natya after having earlier studied the art in Patna from one of their disciples, Guru Balakrishnan.

Their return to Montreal took place in September/October 1982 to coincide with a three-day symposium on Indian classical dance sponsored by Kala Bharati in collaboration with the dance department of the University of Quebec at Montreal. Guruji delivered the keynote speech at the inauguration of the symposium. They both conducted workshops and presented papers at the various sessions along with many other dancers who had come to attend the conference from all over North America. Their participation at the conference made an important impact on the local dance milieu. This was a widely acclaimed and well attended event of which Dance Magazine, a leading American Dance journal, noted: "Even taking into consideration the enormous achievements of last year's Dance in Canada Conference here (Montreal), the Indian dance meeting was by far the most challenging event to be held in the city's 35 year history of professional dance. Kathakali, Kathak, Bharata Natya and Odissi experts shared the secrets of their dance forms with about hundred students and over 550 who watched the single public performance, which helped break down the fear that Westerners often feel toward dance from the East."

During this two month stay, Guruji and Amma conducted special classes in which they taught several items to the senior students of Kala Bharati. These items remain a valuable part of our present repertoire. In 1985, Kala Bharati was once again privileged to welcome the gurus to Montreal for a period of four weeks. This time they were accompanied by their granddaughter Anjali. In addition to the evening of lecture demonstration on the training of the Bharata Natya dancer, they gave special classes to the senior students of Kala Bharati, which enabled us to add some new items composed by them, to our repertoire.

At the Kala Bharati dance school (1982)

Congratulations from the Gurus

The contribution of the Raos to Kala Bharati has come full circle, so to say. In the initial stages, they were here to encourage and inspire us when the foundation was being laid. Their untiring work during the second visit strengthened the base of Kala Bharati and also helped and guided us in building a solid and credible structure. In 1985, their presence and contribution instilled a sense of confidence and was a sign of affirmation of faith in the work of Kala Bharati.

Although Guruji and Amma did not travel outside India after the 1985 visit, the imprint of their contribution has been a lasting one. Kala Bharati has been carrying on the Pandanallur tradition of the great Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, handed down to us by The Rao couple. Over the years we maintained constant and close ties with them. They, in turn, took pride and joy in the successes of various Kala Bharati achievements. Most of the dance students who have given their Ranga Praveshas received their blessings through personal letters from them. The acclaim and accolades that greeted the performance by La Troupe Kala Bharati during its tour to India was a source of great joy to both of them. In a letter dated 23rd Sept.'89 Amma wrote: "We went through all of them (reviews by Indian critics) in detail with breath- taking appreciation! What superlatives - what kudos and what acme of perfection - according to all the critics who have with ONE VOICE so to say praised the show to the skies. To me there are no words left to describe because all the adjectives and praising words are used by ALL the different critics at different places - in different papers - I can only hug you tightly (Bear Hug?) across miles and countries - to congratulate you from the bottom of my heart for the stupendous success you have had. I share your joy and fulfillment." The capitalization and underlining of parts of her letter reflected Amma's emotional involvement in sharing her "joy and fulfillment" at La Troupe's success.

I had the pleasure and privilege of being part of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Maha-Maya to mark the outstanding contributions of Guruji and Amma to the world of dance and Bharata Natya in particular. Held in August 1992 for four days, it was a momentous and glittering occasion, attended by many important personages including leading dancers, scholars, teachers and critics from all over. Guruji and Amma's heartwarming remarks in a letter acknowledging my presence, is a testimony to the special bond and relationship between gurus and their disciple. Such expressions of love and warmth leave me humble with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, just as I was when I found that I was one of their two disciples, (the other being Guru T.S. Bhat of Bangalore) among a group of sixteen gurus from different styles of Indian classical dance forms they had chosen to honour on the occasion of their Golden Jubilee. There is no greater award for me to aspire for or treasure when my own gurus have shown such faith and approval of my modest contribution to the art of Bharata Natya.

At the inauguration of the golden jubilee celebrations

Honoring Mamata as a guru

Equally heartwarming was Guruji and Amma's thoughts expressed in a letter when Anjali Jayadev, their granddaughter, came to Kala Bharati on the Oneil De Scholarship in August 1993. They wrote to say they were "extremely glad" as "We know how well Kala Bharati is working for the progress of Bharata Natyam since more than a decade. We have seen the teaching methods at Kala Bharati during our three visits there. We have been deeply impressed by the strict and disciplinary way Kala Bharati is imparting this art in a traditional manner. The richness of this art is strictly practised and presented. Considering all the excellence of Kala Bharati's achievements, we are happy that Anjali will get an opportunity to enrich her art under the banner of Kala Bharati."

Maha-Maya was a regular stop we loved to take during our visits to Bangalore when in India. During one such visit, on 26th December 1996, we visited Guruji and Amma. I had with me a video recording of Seasonscape, which I had choreographed and presented that year at Tangente, Montreal, to the accompaniment of an original score by the well-known Carnatic musician T.N. Seshagopalan, who had been commissioned by Kala Bharati to compose it. We were gathered in their drawing room, when the discussion on the creative process of Seasonscape came up and Amma asked me to show them the piece. With much trepidation I put it on. As it turned out, I need not have had that feeling. Amma jumped out of her chair as the credits rolled on the TV monitor, came rushing towards me, arms outstretched, and gave me the bear hug she had referred to earlier. Not many words were exchanged but the tight embrace and just "Oh, it is so wonderful, it must be seen by others here in India" spoke volumes for me. It was the last time I saw Amma in person. She passed away in April 1997.

As if by Amma's prophetic acclamation, Seasonscape was indeed seen by many in India. La Troupe Kala Bharati was invited by CPC Prashar Bharati to record one hour of my choreographies of Bharata Natya items as part of a weeklong music and dance special program to be telecast as part of the closing ceremony of 50 years of Independence of India. In this connection it was first telecast on the 13th August 1998, and then chosen to be re-telecast on the 15th August, Independence Day, immediately following Prime Minister Vajpayee's speech to the nation.

What made this event most memorable was the fact that Guruji so very kindly agreed to my request to come over from Bangalore to New Delhi to be with La Troupe Kala Bharati at the end of December 1997 while the recording was going on. It could not have been an easy decision as Amma had passed away just that year and travelling alone by himself must have put its own constraints; but Guruji's largesse of spirit prevailed and he joined us in sharing this unique experience. During the whole period, Guruji stayed in the same premises as the members of the Troupe, attended some of the sessions at the recording studio, spoke enthusiastically about La Troupe at the reception at India International Centre, Delhi and celebrated his 85th birthday on the 31st December with us. Guruji, as always, was a vibrant and uplifting presence throughout, exuding infectious joy and good humour.

With La Troupe and the producer Kamalini Dutt at CPC, New Delhi

Being honored by Sruti, Chennai, 2002

It was a happy coincidence that in the year 2002, the year in which he celebrated his 90th birthday, Guruji was the recipient of the E Krishna Iyer Award given by the Sruti Foundation for outstanding service to classical Indian dance. Dr. Pattabhi Raman, the founding editor of Sruti, called me from Chennai to inform me that I was one of the two disciples of Guru Krishna Rao he was planning to invite to speak at the award ceremony during the Music festival season in December.

There was an official ceremony in Bangalore to felicitate Guruji just after the Sruti event at which once again, I was asked to say a few words. I was delighted to be thus privileged and honoured to be part of Guruji's 90th birthday celebrations in India, for which I wrote the following haiku:

During our stay in Bangalore for his 90th birthday celebrations I had the opportunity to bring up the work I was involved in the area of Dance and the Child and a child friendly Bharata Natya repertoire I was working on at that time. Approving my initiative he wrote: "I was pleased to hear from you during your recent visit to Maha Maya on the occasion of my birthday, about your work on a Bharata Natya repertoire especially meant for children. I found the themes of the three pieces you read out to me (letter to Lord Nataraj, Amar Putul and the Varna) very appropriate for children and I am sure the other pieces also will be in the same vein. I congratulate you for this imaginative approach and wish you all success in your efforts to complete this project."

Mamata speaking on the occasion of the 90th birthday celebrations in Bangalore

I was able to complete Shishu Sadhana on time and its publication coincided with Guruji's birthday on 31st December 2004. Shishu Sadhana, a book describing the creative process of a child-friendly Bharata Natya repertoire with a DVD containing the choreography of the items, has been dedicated to Guruji and Amma as my ultimate homage to them. He received the very first copy of Shishu Sadhana at the end of Dec 2004 and was able to see the DVD on the 9th January 2005. "I was able to see the DVD in its entirety and I am happy I saw it. What you have attempted is a very new and perhaps an original concept. The repertoire is indeed quite innovative and covers the expanse of Bharata Natya, which holds unlimited potential to anyone who desires to compose and choreograph newer items in the styles propounded by our ancestors…While the current trend among many dancers here in India is towards greater speed and attendant intricacies, you Mamata, have done quite the opposite and made it simpler with a tempo better suited to children of ages up to early teens. This is indeed a laudable effort. May Lord Nataraja bestow upon you His choicest blessings." Two months after I received this positive feedback, Guruji passed away on the 6th of March 2005. I derive great solace from the fact that he had seen this DVD and sent me his blessings.

It is difficult to accept that Guruji and Amma are no more and we will not be able to call on them personally to have their physical presence amongst us. But how can our Gurus' presence not be there always with us, in everything we try to do to carry on, given the rich heritage and legacy they have bequeathed us, their students?

As Jules Renard has pointed out, "The reward of great men is that, long after they have died, one is not quite sure that they are dead." This year being the centennial birth anniversary of Guruji, we feel their presence among us, more than ever. I consider myself fortunate to have had Amma and Guruji as my teachers, mentors and guides in my service to the art of Bharata Natya. Their blessings and warm appreciation for the work being done to continue their legacy at Kala Bharati will always be a source of inspiration and encouragement for me.

Mamata Niyogi Nakra is the Founder-President of Kala Bharati, a Bharata Natya Centre in Montreal that is carrying on the legacy of the Pandanallur tradition bequeathed to her by Gurus U.S. Krishna Rao and U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi of Bangalore. She is pleased that through this article, Narthaki is giving her an opportunity to remember her gurus fondly and pay her respectful homage to them in this the year of Guruji's centennial birth anniversary.

What a respectful, heartfelt tribute to the legendary gurus of the Pandanallur School of Bharatanatyam, U.S. Krishna Rao and U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi by Mamata Niyogi Nakra. The blessings of her loving gurus will always be there for her. I have written to her a couple of times but this article makes me want to visit her in Montreal. I know the warmth and sincerity of her gurus will forever be seen in Mamata's productions and lessons she provides her youngsters. The blessings of the gurus are crucial to the success of each and every undertaking in life. I too have been doing similar work through my Nritya Sudha's Hindu Temple Rhythms established in Windsor, Ontario, Canada by my parents, and my dear husband in 1968 to 1978 with summer workshops in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada from 1980 till 2000. My activities later shifted to Oak Park, Michigan in 1978 where HTR has been doing pioneering work with the help of my parents and my daughters.

We too have been fortunate to receive the continued blessings of my esteemed gurus of Bombay's Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir with whom I began learning in 1945, and continue to gather more knowledge. I can relate to the love, respect, sincerity, and adoration Mamata has for her beloved gurus. In clear, simple terms she has eulogized the two beautiful souls that nurtured her passion for the art of Bharatanatyam and helped her establish her well known Kala Bharati Institute in Montreal. May your art prosper, dear fellow artist Mamata Niyogi, and may our paths cross soon. Thank you, Narthaki, for publishing this all important tribute.

Very best wishes,
Sudha Doraiswamy Chandrasekhar
Nritya Sudha's Hindu Temple Rhythms, Oak Park, Michigan, USA
(Sept 7, 2013)

Dear Mamata,
What a wonderful tribute, memoire and tribute to Amma and Guruji you have written. Your words clearly express the blossoming along your shared paths and thrill with the personal excitement of your relationship with that honoured couple which you have generously shared with the world. Your testimony has brought Guruji and Amma back to life in our memories. Nobody else could do that as brilliantly. Thank you for this sharing.
- Linde Howe Beck (Sept 10, 2013)
(Linde Howe Beck is a highly respected Canadian dance critic based in Montreal, who met and interacted with Gurus U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi on several occasions.)

What a nice article to read. Not sure if it is destiny, but somehow I was surfing Narthaki this afternoon and that is when I read this article. I liked the haiku and was much happy with the photographs. I remember you saying (whenever you were in Kolkata) that you do not have many good pictures of Guruji and Amma over here, but do have them at Montreal. Here I see some of them….
- Kalamandalam Goutam, Kolkata

What a wonderful walk down memory lane!
- Jayadev, Bangalore
(Son of the Rao couple)

The article is well-written: the balance between nostalgia and objectivity deserve special mention.
- Partha Bose
(Kolkata based sitarist)

Namaste Mamataji,
What a delight it was to learn about your long association and complete dedication to your gurus. Yes, you are truly preserving the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and are faithful to your gurus which is a rare 'commodity' these days.
We wish you all success in whatever you do and all the best.
- Rukhmani
(Professor Emeritus at Dept of Religion, Concordia University, Montreal)

You have written a wonderful article. I studied from Masterji and Aunty for nearly 14 years, since the age of five. I am so happy with your wonderful work.
- Deepti Diwakar, San Francisco

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