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Kathak Guru Dr. Maya Rao turns 86 today!

May 2, 2014

Photo: Sanjeev Nair

Internationally reputed dancer, choreographer, teacher, writer, academician and dance curator, Dr. Maya Rao is synonymous with dance. She was the first Government of India scholarship holder to study Kathak under the guidance of Guru Shambu Maharaj of the Lucknow Gharana. She also trained with Guru Sunderprasad of the Jaipur Gharana. Maya Rao initiated the need to codify and create a repertoire for Kathak in the 1950s. Her solo recitals and dance dramas imbibe both Jaipur and Lucknow styles, winning much acclaim in India and overseas.

Maya Rao was born on May 2, 1928 in Bangalore to Hattangadi Sanjeev Rao and Subhadra Bai in a family consisting of 3 sons and 3 daughters. In 1945, Maya Rao finished schooling and joined Maharani's College, choosing History, Economics and Logic as her subjects. Although she had a flair for dancing, Maya Rao was born and brought up in an orthodox middle class family, where elders did not permit their daughters to learn dancing. When she was 12 years old, she watched Uday Shankar perform with his large troupe of musicians and dancers at the BRV theatre in Bangalore and this performance left an indelible impression in her young mind. Initially, she was taught Hindustani classical music - vocal and instrumental (dilruba) - from Rama Rao. Impressed himself with Uday Shankar's troupe, her father permitted Maya Rao to take up dancing. "I started dancing when dance was taboo and to the progress we see in the dance scenario today, I feel proud to be part of this evolution where dance is seen as an important component of modern India and has percolated down to every household," recalls Maya Rao.

Maya first learnt Kathak from Sohanlal for two years from 1942. In 1951, Maya went to Jaipur to continue with her Kathak dance, also teaching English at the Maharani Gayatri Devi's school for 2 years. In 1953, she went to Colombo as suggested by her brother Manohar who knew Chitrasena, and learnt Kandyan dance. In Oct 1954, she attended an interview in Lucknow for dance scholarship and was selected to study Kathak at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi under Shambhu Maharaj, the nephew of Maharaj Bindadin, who joined as its first guru in January 1955. Maya Rao was his first student in Delhi and spent four memorable years training under him. She was the first Indian lady to be selected by the Govt. of India for the USSR Cultural Scholarship in Choreography. Since the training was not conducted in English, Maya Rao had to devote about 6 months of the training period in learning Russian. Everyday two hours were allotted for Russian language class and two hours for Ballet dance training. After 3 years in Russia, Maya Rao returned to India in January 1964 but she had no assignments in Delhi for nearly 3 months since the Department of Choreography for Bharatiya Kala Kendra did not materialise. That was when Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Vice Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi, motivated Maya Rao to start an institution for Choreography in Delhi. On August 17, 1964 the Natya Institute of Choreography was launched in Delhi with Maya Rao at its helm, under the aegis of the Bharthi Natya Sangh (Indian Center of the ITI - International Theatres Institutions Trust - affiliated to UNESCO). In Dec 1964, she married musician Nataraj. In 1987 at the behest of former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography (NIKC) was established in Bangalore with the assistance of the Government of Karnataka. Since its inception, the NIKC has been providing a forum for dance education in India. Its uniqueness lies in using traditional dance methodology alongside modern pedagogy techniques, keeping in pace with the global trends in dance education.

Slide show
Photos courtesy: Madhu Nataraj

Maya Rao has led cultural delegations to over 30 countries, creating an awareness and sharing the rich dance heritage of India worldwide. She was the chairperson of Karnataka Sangeeta Nritya Academy, has been on the general body of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Advisory Committee of Kathak Kendra and an important jury member of several national and international award panels. The only Indian with a Post Graduate certificate in Choreography from the former USSR, she was a consultant choreographer and a Jury member for international projects. She runs India's only degree college of choreography - The Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. Maya didi, as she is fondly called, has trained over 3000 students in a lifetime offered to her passion and mission - dance.

Key projects initiated by Dr. Maya Rao:
- Professional training in Choreography.
- Natya Institute of Kathak and choreography, India's first and only college offering a 3 year BA Degree in Choreography, affiliated to Bangalore University. 14 batches of students have graduated.
- She has been imparting the art of Kathak from her centres in New Delhi and Bangalore for the past 6 decades.
- Natya Institute's composite performing unit,the Natya STEM Dance Kampni, which has a unique repertoire with over 90 productions that includes both the traditional and the contemporary dance idioms has performed in 30 countries worldwide.
- As the Chairperson of the Karnataka State Sangeet Nritya Academy, she initiated National Performing Arts Festivals at Heritage Monuments - Somanathapura (1988), Pattadakkal (1989) and Halebid (1990).

In publications and archiving, Guru Maya Rao has created syllabi and text books for Karnataka Secondary Education Board's Kathak examination. NIKC's library houses more than 3000 rare books on the performing and fine arts. There is an audio visual collection of choreographies. Digitization of archival dance photographs spans the last 7 decades. Maya Rao has conducted extensive research on Kathak, Raas and Bhagwata traditions, Yakshagana and other operatic dance theatres, the Natya Shastra, world history of dance, folk and ritualistic forms. She has written numerous articles on dance and choreography for several leading regional, national and international publications. Her lecture demonstrations on choreography, dance and its history have been put together in the form of a DVD titled 'Maya to Matter.'

She is the recipient of several awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1989) for her contribution to the field of dance and choreography. Some other awards she has been honored with are:
World arts festival, Helisinki's Gold medal for excellence in Kathak (1962), Emeritus Fellowship for Eminence in Dance from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India (1999), Karnataka State Sangeet Nritya Academy Award for dance (1968), Rajyotsava Award from Karnataka State for spreading awareness of Indian dance and culture in the State (1986), Shantala Award, Karnataka's most coveted award for Excellence in Art (2000), Delhi State Sahitya Kala Parishat Award (1985), Distinguished Konkani Award from the T.M.A. Pai Foundation, Manipal (1993), Nritya Vilas from Sursingar Samsad, Mumbai (1977), Natya Kalaratna from Gayana Samaj (2003), Honorary Doctorate from the Bangalore University (2006), Tagore Ratna from Central Sangeet Natak Akademi (2011), Attendance Award (2012), Doordarshan / Chandana Award (2012), Lifetime Achievement Award from Kartik Fine Arts (2012) and Telugu Kala Saudha (2013).

Says Maya Rao: "My first inspiration was the iconic dancer Uday Shankar way back in the 1940s. My gurus, especially Shambhu Maharaj, who opened my eyes to the subtle nuances of Kathak. He was an ocean of knowledge. He shaped me as a good dancer... His smile, his demeanour, his wit, his inimitable genius and fatherly affection are unforgettable. My family, especially my elder brother Manohar, who was like a rock and supported me in all my endeavours. Anil da... The celebrated music director Anil Biswas who supported and lent his beautiful music to all my important choreographic pursuits. My husband Nataraj, whose multifaceted artistry and encyclopedic knowledge of the arts often partnered my artistic nature. Many others come to mind - my friend and consultant on numerous projects Govind Vidyarthi, the Dagar brothers who gave me an insight into the world of Dhrupad for dance, my guru from the Jaipur gharana Sunder Prasad ji, Kamala Lal of the Natya Ballet Centre where I was the resident choreographer and the great Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, a guiding spirit in my life. And now, my daughter Madhu and my dear students, who help to take my dance out into the world."

"Dancer with Golden Feet" - Maya Rao
- Times of India

"A rare combination of a traditionalist and an uninhabited innovator, Maya Rao is set on a never-ending voyage of choreographic exploration"
- The Hindustan Times

"Maya Rao is an unofficial cultural ambassador of India"
- Times of India

"Maya Rao - Building bridges through dance"
- Hindu

"Maya Rao - Grand dame of Kathak"
- Hinduism today, U.S Edition

"Natya Institute - An artistic fulfillment"
- Economic Times

"NIKC- a place with the heavenly smell of Sampige flowers and the beautiful sound of Ghungroo"
- Deccan Herald

"What is striking about Maya is her broad mindedness and generosity with which she encourages the students to compose and grow into full-fledged performers"
- The Hindu.

"Maya Rao whose ballets cover a wide sweep of experiences"
- The Hindustan Times

"Maya Rao- a leading name in the country's dance firmament"
- Articulations

"Maya's name is synonymous with Kathak and choreography"
- Deccan Herald

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