The world recently celebrated International Women’s Day. The official United Nations theme for the International Women’s Day 2015 is ‘Empowering Women-Empowering Humanity: Picture It’. Commencing March 8, and continuing through the year, the International Women’s Day seeks to recognise women’s achievements, understand the challenges faced by women in an ever-changing society and minimise the gender gap, so that every woman can compete on equal terms with her male counterpart. It is very difficult to pick a favourite from among the millions of women achievers over the past decades. It is no easier to choose a favourite (woman) from the field of Dance. Yet, despite this arduous task, there is one woman who does stand out: Maya Rao, a dancing legend in the field of Kathak dance and choreography. Regarded as one of the cultural icons of the twentieth century, she stands unrivalled in the field of Indian Classical Dancers. What makes this remarkable woman occupy a pivotal place in the pantheon of Classical Dance legends? The answer lies, uncomplicated and precise, in her autobiography titled ‘Maya Rao-A Lifetime in Choreography’, which was released a few months before her death (due to cardiac arrest) in Bangalore, in September 2014 (India lost another Kathak great, ‘Kathak Queen’ Sitara Devi, in 2014). Maya Rao, who was a Kathak dancer, choreographer and writer, was not only instrumental in making Kathak a predominant dance form north of the Vindhyas, but also a household cultural passion in South India. Not only did Maya Rao propagate Kathak as a dance form and a performing art, she is credited with institutionalising it as a theorised structured discipline.
The journey began in 1928, when Maya was born into an orthodox South Indian Saraswat Brahmin family of Bangalore. Her father was a well-known architect. The 1930s was a decade when dancing, especially for girls and that too in the public domain, was not considered appropriate. Initiated into Hindustani Classical Music from childhood, young Maya, undeterred by these ‘norms’, was destined to challenge society at large. After watching a performance of the great Uday Shankar, who had visited their city, her father was persuaded to allow her to dance, though the pre-condition was that she would not do so on stage. At the age of 14 she began learning Kathak from Sohal Lal of the Jaipur Gharana, and after two years (in 1944) she performed at the Town Hall, at a community function. Her father did not oppose her performance on stage. Unfortunately he did not live much longer, and Maya had to take up the job of a dance teacher to support her family. She was only seventeen then. In college, while graduating in English, Maya was instrumental in forming a dance club, which staged a ballet, ‘Sita Haran’. Many of the dancers in the ballet were girls belonging to poor families. Soon Maya took up an English schoolteacher’s job, but she continued to learn Kathak. In 1951 she trained under Guru Sunder Prasad of the Jaipur Gharana. A short stint with the legendary Chitrasena, learning the Kandyan dance of Ceylon, followed by an application for a scholarship to learn from Padma Shri Guru Shambu Maharaj at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, changed the course of Maya’s dancing career. Shambu Maharaj was one of the best exponents of Kathak, and Maya was one of his first students, in Delhi. In 1960 she was awarded the USSR Cultural Scholarship in Choreography - a very prestigious scholarship during those days. Maya spent 4 years in Russia, where she learnt (Russian) ballet. On return she was consumed with a passion to establish a dance institution. With encouragement and support from Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the then Vice-Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi, Maya Rao started the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography in 1964.
Maya married composer-flautist M.S. Nataraj, and Maya’s daughter Madhu Nataraj, who is an accomplished and established Kathak dancer and choreographer, carries forward the legacy. During her illustrious career, Maya Rao produced many ballets of acclaim, a few of them being Shakuntala, The Vision of Amir Khusrao, Ramayana Darshanam and Govardhan Leela. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academi Award, Tagore Ratna Award, Rajyotsava Award and the Emeritus Fellowship by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Maya Rao also served as the Chairperson of the Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Academy. Ramakrishna Hegde, ex-Chief Minister of Karnataka, encouraged her to establish a Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography in Bangalore – which came up in 1987. She was also the Member of the Advisory Board of the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi. Maya Rao led cultural delegations to 24 countries.
One can only marvel at what a woman of substance can achieve in a lifetime. Dancers like Maya Rao are born perhaps once in a century. Unfortunately, achievements of ‘classical’ cultural icons are rarely and briefly recognised by the media and society; the adulation is reserved for movie stars and sports stars... and even political stars. Maya Rao once famously remarked, “Even in the winter of my life, there are many aspirations and dreams I look forward to. God willing and energy permitting, I hope that my zest for life and dance will continue”. It would Maya didi, through your students, and the sheer joy you brought into our lives through your dance.
The writer is a renowned Kuchipudi danseuse and choreographer