Maya Rao - The Cultural Czarina of Garden City
- Veejay Sai
Photo credit: From Maya Rao’s autobiography
September 7, 2014
Once in a lifetime great people walk this earth and when you witness their presence, you thank your lucky stars for having lived the times they lived in, for having breathed the same air and for being associated with them. Maya Rao was one such epic woman!
The new management was more interested in cinema and dance and theatre did not appeal to them. But I was already commissioned to travel across the country and had gathered enough and more research material. I thought I was extremely fortunate to spend time with some of the legendary masters in the field of arts across India. From theatre veterans like Vijay Tendulkar and Habib Tanvir to dance gurus like Kalanidhi Narayanan, Vedantam Satyanarana Sarma and Kumari Kamala, musicians like Bismillah Khan saab in the north to Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer in the south, film music directors like O P Nayyar and Naushad, Manipur to Kerala, Punjab to remote Andhra, I was traveling across the country meeting legends and so many others. It might have been a unique stroke of luck that I was fortunate to interact with these maestros in great detail, stay in many of their homes, receive their hospitality and be a recipient to their generosity when it came to sharing their immense knowledge.
CUT TO: I took up an editorial assignment in Bangalore and moved to the city a decade later. I finally paid my long-overdue visit to Maya Rao, ‘Maya Didi’ as she was fondly addressed by everyone. I still remember my first meeting with her. We spoke of Kathak over a sumptuous dinner of Konkani Saraswath food (which was to become a regular affair as years went by) and some gin and tonic. I gift her a DVD copy of the tele-serial I had written featuring Pt Birju Maharaj.
A few days later I had a call from her and I went to visit her. She spoke in great detail about the concept of ‘Ashta Nayikas’. From that time, eight years flew by like minutes. Eight long wonderful years filled with the finest memories. It all seems like it happened the other evening! Be it attending a concert together with her and her daughter Madhu or traveling to a remote villages in Karnataka to observe her project ‘Aseem Kala Yatra’, seeing her ideas formulate on any theme to them being actualized in her wonderful choreographic works on stage, years flew by and every little time spent with her stays fresh in my memory. She and Madhu became family and she readily agreed to my addressing her informally as ‘Maa’ rather than to the more formal ‘Maya-ji’. Countless meetings, lunches and dinners, ideating sessions, chatting over favourite books or music we liked in common, an event or incident from her past, any ongoing production of Natya, celebrations of Basant Panchami or Jhoolan Yatra and much more. There was never a dull moment with her around. She was a charmer and anyone who met her, took to her instantaneously. She generously shared her knowledge and experience. Her sense of wit and her large wisdom stay alive in a thousand anecdotes.
Ashish Vidyarthi, the celebrated actor and a close family friend of Maya-ji came in on several occasions with bright ideas. For him she was ‘Maya Masi’ and his inputs to the book were equally exciting. Later, photographers Sanjeev Nair and Shamanth Patil joined the project and shot some wonderful images of Maya-ji. Shamanth, a photographer mentored by Sathyan, put together a wonderful photo-essay on her. Initially we had another plan to have her friends and collaborators give quotes for the book and I got in touch with Zohra Segal and Pt Ravi Shankar and both of them had the most wonderful things to say about Maya-ji. However we didn’t use them as the later design change differed from the earlier ideas. After all this, another three and half years passed! Governments changed, department heads changed and much more happened. In the meantime Maya-ji won few more awards and choreographed new productions. She wasn’t one to wait for anything. For her, her work was the most important and till her final day she made sure she went to office and worked. A true Karma Yogi!
A couple of months ago, after much chasing around, the department of Kannada and Culture finally brought out the book. ‘Maya – A Lifetime in Choreography’ was launched in a grand affair at the ITC Windsor Manor Sheraton in Bangalore by Girish Karnad and actor Anant Nag. Friends of Maya-ji from all streams of life gathered to celebrate her. Natya dancers put together a wonderful presentation. In the acknowledgement section of the book she generously thanks me and the countless cups of chai that witnessed our grueling work! After that on the 9th of August 2014, a packed Chowdiah Hall saw Maya-ji’s massive choreographic work ‘Kathak Through The Ages.’ From costumes to music, stage lighting to ideas, the show was a huge success and reflected on Maya-ji’s meticulous research, perfect choreography and her passion for Kathak. This was a production close to her heart and truly her swansong of sorts. I was profiling the forgotten dance legend Tara Chaudhri and on mentioning this, Maya-ji gave me inputs and remembered her interactions with Tara. The profile was published in The Hindu’s Friday Review page.
It is difficult to accept that she isn’t around anymore. No trip to Malleshwaram in Bangalore would end without a five minute meeting with her. When one rang her doorbell, a firm voice from inside would ask ‘Yaaru’ in Kannada. That isn’t going to be the same anymore. An old cane chair in the corner of Natya Institute beside a little altar is going to be vacant forever. She would sit there and hold forth, supervising classes as her gurus and mentors Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Pt Shambhu Maharaj, Pt Sunder Prasad and Anil Biswas peeped over the proceedings from their respective photo frames. With her around, a distinguished aura always kept everything going in NIKC.
Maya-ji has left us physically but remains with us in memory. There is an old saying that when a good human being passes away, somewhere in the world a special flower blossoms from the earth and the soul of the departed person soars high in to the heavens to shine like a bright star. Somewhere in the world, she will return to spread the fragrance of her art in a thousand ways. Her artistic brilliance will continue to dazzle like a thousand stars and keep us all inspired. Knowing her zest for life and enthusiasm for work, somewhere in the heavens, she must be choreographing the divine dancing damsels to present something exciting for the gods and her gurus! Alwida Maya-Ji! Fir milenge!
Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.
View Slide shows
Maya - A Lifetime in Choreography - Book Launch, Bangalore
Photos: PeeVee Pv and Shandilya Srivatsa
Kathak through the Ages
August 8, 2014, Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bangalore
Photos Courtesy: Natya & STEM Dance Kampni
This is awesome ... thank you so much and last 2 paras brought tears in my eyes .. so much heart touching .....
- Tushar Bhatt (Sept 8, 2014)
Heart warming.... It was my deepest desire to perform at least once in front of her.
- Manoj Dupati (Sept 11, 2014)
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