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Maya Rao - The Cultural Czarina of Garden City
- Veejay Sai
Photo credit: From Maya Rao's autobiography

September 7, 2014

Photo: Shamanth Patil

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!

Maya Rao came into my life, way back in 1996 when I was scripting and researching a Tele-serial for STAR TV, based on Indian classical music and dance. The serial was anchored by none other than Ustad Zakir Hussain and was a grand success. The idea was to shoot 54 episodes on music and the next 54 on dance and theatre. In an era where there was no internet and mobile phone and technology wasn't as friendly, I was commissioned by the channel to go across the country, meet legends in the fields of performing arts and put the script together. We had planned a few episodes on Kathak and I began reading as a part of my homework. I came across a stunning image of Maya Rao in 'Kathak dance through the ages' authored by Projesh Banerji and the 'Marg' issue on Kathak at the NCPA library in Bombay. Both these books gave an overall view on the dance form and helped me understand the basics alongside visuals of beautiful images of legendary dancers. I knew she was settled in Bangalore and my meeting with her was inevitable. However, our music serial went on air, became a roaring success and won several national awards. When it came to the dance and theatre part, the channel's head changed and with the new person in place, the idea wasn't approved. We still managed to record a few episodes and the only one we did on Kathak was where Pt Birju Maharaj did a 'Baithak' and portrayed the 'abhinaya' of 'Ashta Nayikas' inspired by the Thumris of the Lucknow Gharana.

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.

Photo: Sanjeev Nair

Few years ago Madhu decided to embark on a new project of documenting her life and works in her own voice. I couldn't have been more fortunate to be the chosen one to help Maya-ji out in this process. Over a period of nine months, I sat with her every other day and recorded in her voice, the journey of her life. What an exciting and artistically rich life she had! There were sessions she would get excited about some event and continue talking beyond two hours. There were others where she would have tears in her eyes when she remembered her guru Pt Shambhu Maharaj and we would have to wind up earlier to continue the talk in the next session. For nine months this went on! Over endless cups of chai which she would herself make adding cloves, we went on with the book. Like a mother would take to deliver her child, Maya-ji took just about the same time to elaborate the story of her life. It took me a few more months of putting together the draft of the book. A few more months to shortlist images for the book. Natya's students Janardhan Raj Urs, Keerthi Kumar, Vandana Supriya, Ponnamma Devaiah, Ramya Nagraj and several others volunteered and ran around with the enthusiasm like this was another production.

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.

Veejay Sai, Madhu Nataraj, Guru Maya Rao
Photo: Shamanth Patil

I was invited to speak at the national seminar on dance organized by the Pune University on the 27th and 28th of August. I stayed on for couple of days more to meet friends and finish pending work. I landed up in Maya-ji's apartment on the 25th and spent the day with her. Long ago, while helping her with her autobiography I had promised her a book on poet saint Vallabhacharya's compositions. The book is out of print and I managed to gather an old copy from a friend in Kanpur. I presented the copy as a gift to her for Janmashtami. To surprise her, I also got a five-minute rare video clipping of a young Pt Shambhu Maharaj performing a Thumri. Her student Ramya Nagraj was around and Maya-ji insisted we watch it together on my laptop. First time we watched it in silence and in awe of Maharaj-ji. Another time we saw it as Maya-ji explained the Thumri and how Maharaj-ji would do his own variations of abhinaya. In the evening we had a sumptuous dinner. She requested to watch the video again. Going to and fro, we watched the same video seven times that night. Tears brimmed into her eyes as she said, "This is the Maharaj-ji no one has seen. They only show images of his when he was fatally ill with cancer. This video is precious!" She would repeat Maharaj-ji's immortal words "Saale budaape se nahi bach sakte!" (One can never escape from old age!). We decided to toast a drink to her guru and the guru's first student. It was past 11pm and she was buzzing with energy having seen this video several times. I requested her to retire for the evening and she wouldn't go before explaining another episode from her life and her gurus. That was my last memory of her. I took the morning flight to Pune and returned to Bangalore only on 31st night. At half past midnight. Madhu called to inform Maya-ji had made her final exit. It was a blessed peaceful one with no suffering. 31st August / Sept 1, 2014 will go into Indian dance history forever. Scores of her fans, friends, relatives, students, and followers gathered at Natya Institute to pay their final respects to Maya-ji and bid her an emotional farewell.

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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