Gracious Guru Maya Rao 
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore  
Based on archival materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection 

Click on images for enlarged version 

April 29, 2009 

May 2 ushers in the birthday of one of the most gracious gurus of all times, Maya Rao. Having met many and seen how they truly function, operate and project reality vs. illusion, it is easy to describe her as one of the finest human beings to have become a dance guru. Let me qualify and quantify, since, for some of you readers, such thoughts and contexts must be new. 

What is a guru? Forget the literal meaning some are so keen to expound upon, using Sanskrit roots and stating “remover of ignorance; giver of light” and all that. These are mere words, if not truly understood and implemented.  A guru, especially of dance must inspire, guide, correct, motivate and cultivate the right values, approach, attitude, complexion and not colour, bias, criticise others and generally be full of self-glorification. If lucky, one can find such a guru once in a lifetime, else go to a true guru Maya Rao, like many have and benefited in the process. 

She was born on May 2, 1928 to Hattangadi Sanjeev Rao (1892-1946) and Subhadrabai (1900-1959). Maya was their first daughter after brothers Manohar Singh (1919-1984) and Ramesh (1922-1993). After Maya came three other siblings, brother Shivram (1932-) and sisters Uma (1934-) and Chitra (1936-). 

Maya Rao-ji’s life is a very interesting tale of how a cultured family girl learnt dance on the sly, not telling her family as it was not the done thing those days and how she was lucky to come under the tutelage of a great guru like Shambhu Maharaj in Delhi and how she was the first Indian dancer to go to Moscow to properly learn choreography and how she was the reason Kathak came to Bangalore and today is ranked as the second most important style in the city/region. 

As a child, she was a bit of a tomboy by her own admission. Till date, her face is adorned by a mischievous smile that is pleasant yet meaningful. Her eyes have seen over eighty winters and springs and her marriage to musical genius Sri Nataraj enhanced her artistic journey and together they created unforgettable productions. Their most enduring production of course is their daughter Madhu, whom the stork left on Feb 24, 1971.  
Maya Rao and Nataraj
A student of literature, daughter of an engineer, wife of a musician, Maya-ji had all ingredients to make a wholesome artiste. And as luck and life would give to good people, the right guru came her way: Shambhu Maharaj. Although, she had to be in Delhi to meet the great guru and also tell him that she had left her all to learn art when he once chided that he had left his nawabi Lucknow to come to Delhi to teach city girls, Guru Shambhu Maharaj gave her his art. 

A chance to teach English at Jaipur in 1951 had brought her to north India and from there Delhi was just a step away. A small ad in 1953, for scholarship in Kathak brought her to Delhi. Her cousin Sundar Rao from Kasargod, then posted in Colombo, invited her to spend time in Ceylon learning Kandyan dances from Chitrasena-Vajira, the great exponents of the form.  
Left to right: Maya Rao, Guru Shambhu Maharaj, Chitra, Naina Devi and a young Birju Maharaj
The interview call came while she was in Ceylon and thus her trip to Delhi itself became an expedition; the end result of it was happy as she was selected to learn under the great Master, Guru Shambhu Maharaj. She ranks as his principal disciple, although others like Kumudini Jayakar (later Lakhia) too learnt for a short while under the master, as did Rina Singha, Chitra, Birju, Bela, and sundry boys like Keshav Kothari and Vinod Chopra who tried to acquire some patina of this great art form.  

The institution, Bharatiya Kala Kendra existed then only on paper! But great art comes in difficult circumstances sometimes and so Maya Rao learnt in right earnest. Later, the Kathak Kendra emerged out of shadows and space of Bharatiya Kala Kendra and today is a national institution. 

Maya Rao’s years spent in Delhi added both to her knowledge of dance and enhanced the dance scene. Though not one to push herself much, she remained a gracious artiste, who did her work quietly, without fanfare. She was also selected in 1960 to go to Moscow, then the cultural capital of dance in Europe, to learn choreography. With NK Sivasankaran, an ace student of Uday Shankar, she set about to add yet another feather to her crown. That stay made her learn a lot and she can truly be called the first lady from classical background, who properly learnt choreography. Her three year stay there, remains most memorable for she saw masters at work; she travelled to nearby countries like East Germany, England and France. 

Upon return, local politics made her key patrons change priorities but a closed door at Bharatiya Kala Kendra became an opportunity for her to start her long association with Natya Ballet Centre in 1964, with Kamala Lal, another important patron of dance and music. Her association led to creation of many ballets like Hoysala Vaibhav, Surdas, Amir Khusrau, Ramayana Darshana, Tulis Ke Ram, Venkateswara Vilasam, and Krishnaleela. Leading dancers of today like Raja-Radha Reddy got a break in such ballets in Delhi.  

In 1986-87 two events made her move back to her Bangalore: the cultured CM of Karnataka, Shri RK Hegde, made her in charge of SAARC festivals and the equally cultured Culture Secretary, Shri Chiranjeev Singh, made her in charge of the folk festival part. Rajiv Gandhi attended it in 1986. 

From 1988, her Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, was affiliated to Bangalore University until recently and through her course, many students have benefitted. Today, if Kathak and choreography as a discipline have grown manifold in stature in this region, it is thanks to her efforts. She has been the lone candle whose light has dispelled darkness. 

Many friends and patrons like Vimla Rangachar have supported her art and institutions in practical ways and Maya-ji has a huge circle of fans and family who cares for her genuinely. Her own students, from seniors like Sai Venkatesh, Vijaya Marthanda, Satya Charkha, Shakti Roberst, Sonar Chand, Syed Pasha to younger talents like Madhu, Satya Raju, Niru-Raju, Nandini Mehta, Ashok Kumar, Tushar Bhatt, Ramya, Brinda Jacob, Janardhan Urs, Ponamma, Anitha Santhanam, Arpana have shown what good training and a great guru can do. An art form has survived because of Guru Maya Rao. As she strides into her eighties, she can be satisfied she has done a lot for dance, genuinely and affectionately. 


Ashish Mohan Khokar is a qualified dance historian, who majored in History (merit-lister, Delhi University). With over 30 books to his credit, his is a very valued voice in the dance field backed with solid, sincere work. His yearbook – attendance - serves as study material and reference guide to many dancers, connoisseurs, institutions, libraries and Ph.D candidates. The UNESCO Dance Council has hailed it as a model dance journal. He is uniquely placed to further the cause of dance history, having inherited India's largest dance archives created by his father.