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Maya Rao: Memories of a great teacher
- Prasanna Kasthuri

September 10, 2014

It was 1986. Roads of a quiet suburb Malleswaram in Bangalore now called Silicon city of India were far calmer than what they are today. I used to ride on my bicycle thrice a week to learn something new, but never had an opportunity until Guru Maya Rao's second act of her life happened. It was Kathak. Kathak was very fascinating to me. I had seen probably one or two shows and many pictures of the Kathak dance style in Marg publications. It was a great boon for me and others such as Rathna Supriya, Nirmala Madhava, Nandini Mehta, Shubha Dhananjaya, Rajendra, Nirupama, Ashok, Charu, Suparna, Suma MP and Syed Salluddin Pasha - who were all in our twenties attending Kathak classes. We were all geared up to learn. There were some voices of discontent among leading Bharatanatyam gurus of Bangalore that someone is getting all attention from government, starting from chief minister of those days, Mr. Ramakrishna Hegde. But, all those who were interested in Guru Maya Rao, were very much curious to learn an untapped knowledge.

Lots of us got in and got out of her dance school, but most of us felt it was a unique experience. The guru of our imagination was really manifest in Maya didi. She was very caring and passionate about dance. Her amazing love for those who seek knowledge was a greatest attraction for us. This love is what she leaves behind for all of us. It taught us to care for those who came in search of learning dance. In the dance classes, she mentioned about her dance students being recruited by many academic schools because they had gotten through the choreography diploma, which helped them economically and also made them take up dance as a career. I for one, very much in love with dancing, was not very sure where it would lead. When I saw a future in dance and those who are living on dance with example, it filled me with elation.

The greatest gift Maya didi gave us is to look at dance as a partner in life. Dance, although many styles exist, were all reflections of life. It was very evident in her productions. Also, the way she adapted to different scenarios to bring out these themes was delightful. I liked almost all her productions, whether it is the mesmerizing entry of Sonar Chand in the dance drama 'Amir Khusro' or the panel entry of 'Hoysala Vaibhava.' All of them dazzled us. Sonar Chand was Maya didi's most trusted lieutenant and led the role of Allauddin Khilji in Amir Khusro. My vision of this great emperor, who had brought down all Hindu kings in entire Indian subcontinent by his great general Mallik Kafur, changed just because he was passionate about poetry and music of Amir Khusro. This evidently showed the power of arts amidst war and chaos. It was a spellbinding performance by the Natya group at Nithya Nrithya1984, which was organized by my Bharatanatyam guru Lalitha Srinivasan. The same production was repeated some years later in Bangalore's Ravindra Kalakshetra auditorium with Nirupama Rajendra who was very excited to get an opportunity to perform the main role. Maya didi made sure there was absolute perfection in Nirupama's performance. This was mandatory in all her productions.

Sai Venkatesh, Shakuntala Prabhat, Nandini Mehta, Rajendra, Sathyanarayana Raju, Dr. Maya Rao, Prasanna Kasthuri, Subhashini Vasanth, Nirupama Rajendra, Pulikeshi Kasthuri, Mr. Iyengar

My most reverent memory is the work of Maya didi with Jnanapeeth awardee Maasthi Venkatesh Iyengar's literature for Maasthi's centenary. I remember Prabhat Sudhindra and my brother Pulikeshi danced in the guru and shishya roles where Shubha Dhananjaya acted as a beautiful woman lost in the forest in "Onduhaleya kathe" (One old story). Nirupama and Rajendra's involvement with "Gowthamihelida Kathe" (Gowthami's story) and Sathyanarayana Raju's acting as a lost guy in the third story "Kaamada Habbadaondu Kathe" (story of festival of holi) was very beautifully choreographed. Shankar Shanbhog's marvelous singing made the emotions flow uninterrupted. Maya didi's beautiful choreography made the three stories of Maasthi shine and it was a rare experience for me. Maya didi brought out the truth that "both men and women need to be equal to have a successful life" very effectively in this production. The original message of Maasthi Venkatesh Iyengar was put into physical form very gracefully. Weaving all his three stories into the production was a challenging one, but Maya didi accomplished it with grace and ease. This was a great learning experience for me and others on how to convert a layman's story into a dance production. I tried it out myself on certain works such as mathematician 'Arybhatta' and another on behavior of general human tendencies with 'Vismaya.'

Most of the dancers wish to dance without learning music; it was not so with Maya didi. I vividly remember I was conducting nattuvangam for a dance program. I was very fond of singing, albeit not completely understanding the sensitivity of shruthi (which took another 20 years for me to understand by the grace of great scholar Ustad Imrat Khan saab). I still remember Shankar Shanbhog was singing for Russian Festival in Bangalore for Maya didi's performance and I voiced in between off pitch. Maya didi, who was sitting with the musicians, looked at me with displeasure. I understood the look in her eyes and kept quiet. Later she explained in a gentle tone, how it could be irritating to hear a voice in a bad pitch. She advised me to avoid such mistakes in front of hundreds in the audience and why learning music is important for all dancers.

The greatest gift Maya didi left to mankind is her students and her way of approaching the content for the dances. Another greatest gift is bringing Kathak to south India, especially to Bangalore thus making this city more vibrant with more dance styles. The love and passion she built for Indian dances - both classical and folk - is her gift to all of us. It is very hard for devout students like me who took her message and teachings abroad to ever forget her. She lives on in our memories. Her marvelous way of making dance festivals in Somnathpur and Pattadakal inspired us to conduct Shanthala Dance Festivals in rural areas of Karnataka as well as internationally, the St. Louis Indian Dance Festival in St. Louis, Missouri, which is thousands of miles away from India.

We hope we have strength and wisdom to pass on this beautiful knowledge and creativity to our next generation. I guess that's the best Guru Maya Rao is asking from her students.

Prasanna Kasthuri is the Artistic Director of Soorya Performing Arts, St. Louis, Missouri.


Dear Prasanna, you made me remember the days at Natya especially the choreographic production of Masti Venkatesh Iyengar's work. With the magic (maya) of Didi, the wood can dance and stone can express. We lost only physical presence of Didi but her eternal love, care and concern for her students is immortal.
- Dr. A.V. Satyanarayana (Oct 2, 2014)

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