Monday, September 1, 2014

Memories of a Great Teacher

(A humble remembrance of Dr. Mayarao)
By Guru Prasanna Kasthuri,
Artistic Director, Soorya Performing Arts,
St. Louis, Missouri, United States of America.

It was a 1986. Roads of a quite suburb in now called Silicon city of India, Bangalore – Malleswaram were far calmer than, what they are today. I used to ride on my bicycle thrice a week to learn something very new, but never had an opportunity until Guru Maya Rao’s second act of her life happened. Kathak was very fascinating to me. I had seen probably one or two shows and many pictures of the Kathak dance style in Marga 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   – who were are all in our twenties to attend Kathak classes. We are all geared up to learn. There were some voices of discontent among leading Bharathanatyam 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. 
Life of Guru Maya Rao is a story by itself. It’s a long train journey. Lots of us got in and got out. But Most of us felt it was a very unique experience. The Guru – who has been in our imaginations, was really a great fit with Maya Didi. She was very caring and heavily passionate about dance and forgiving to our mistakes. Her amazing love to 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 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 diplomas, which helped them economically and also made them take up dance as a career. I was for one, very much in love with dancing, but not very sure where it leads. When I saw a future in dance and those who are living on dance with example – it had an elevated feeling in me.
The greatest gift – Maya Didi gave us is look at the dance as a partner in life. Dance – although many styles exist, but all were reflections of life. It was very evident in her productions. Also, the way she adopted to different scenarios to bring out these themes. I liked almost all productions – whether it is the mesmerizing entry of Sonar Chand in Nithya Nruthya in Ameer Khusro or the Panel entry of “Hoysala Vaibhava”. All of them dazzled us. Sonar Chandji was Mayadidi’s  most trusted lieutenant and lead 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 spell bounding performance by all Natya group on that “Nithya Nrithya-1984” day, which was organized by my Bharathanatyam guru Lalitha Srinivasan. The same production was repeated some years later in Bangalore’s reputed Ravindra Kalakshetra auditorium with our own Karnataka talent - Nirupama Rajendra – who was very excited to get an opportunity to perform the main role and she devoted heavily. Maya didi made sure there was absolute perfection in Nirupama’s performance. This was mandatory in all her productions.
My most revering memory is the work of Maya did with 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 Dhannanjaya acted like a beautiful woman lost in the forest. Nirupama and Rajendra’s involvement with “Gowthami helida Kathe” and  Sathyanarayana Raju’s acting as a lost guy in the third story was very beautifully choreographed. Shankar Shyanubhog’s marvelous singing made the emotions flow uninterrupted. Mayadidi’s beautiful choreography made the three stories of Maasthi outshine and it was a rare experience for me. Maya Didi brought out the truth – “both Men and women needed to be equal to have a successful life” - very effectively in this production. The original message of Jnana peetha awardee Maasthi Venkatesh Iyengar, was put into physical form very gracefully. Making all his three stories into the production was a challenging one, but Maya didi accomplished these with grace and ease. This was a great learning experience for me and others– which taught us how to convert a layman’s story into a dance production. I tried out myself works on mathematician – “Arybhatta” and another on behaviors of general human tendencies with my “Vismaya” production.
Most of the dancers wish to dance without learning music; this was unlike 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 Shyanubhog was singing for Russian Festival in Bangalore for Mayadidi’s performance and I voiced in between,off pitch. Maya didi – who was sitting with 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 mentioned to avoid such mistakes in front of hundreds of audience. She was very much to the point and she mentioned why learning music was important for all the dancers. This I remembered very well, when me and my wife Seema – sang and performed dances simultaneously in our first Indian opera of the USA – “Gokula Nirgamana” in 2008.

The greatest gift Mayadidi left to Mankind is her students and her way of approaching the contents 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. Love and passion she built for Indian classical dances is her gift to all of us. It is very hard for devout students like me who took her message and teachings to abroad forget her ever. She lives on and on in our memories. Her marvelous way of making dance festivals in Somanathapura and Pattadakall inspired us to conduct “Shanthala Dance Festivals” in rural areas of Karnataka; as well as - Internationally - “St. Louis Indian Dance Festivals” in St. Louis, Missouri, USA – which is thousands of miles away from India. We hope, we have strength to pass this beautiful knowledge and creativity to our next generation. I guess that’s the best Guru Maya Rao is asking from her students.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Becoming a Child 

Just recapping on the events of Composers day (5/10/2014). Looking at our students - we are just amazed how they grow up. Teaching a small kid the "swar Gnanam" (knowledge of music notes) is a journey by itself. Although, I am dance teacher - I am also fond of teaching music. I feel it completes me. A journey to figuring the wavelength of sound - and calling this a "SA" is an intriguing one. Singing all the notes to perfect pitch OR dancing to movement to perfect geometry always gets us close to nature - which is already mastered such perfections. We are all made of the same dirt and elements like any other thing in this universe, yet it fascinates me to see the beauty of emotions and feelings. These feelings and emotions which emancipate from a lifeless element which makes all of us including all animals is an cryptic work by itself. 

I watched some kids who started at 5 years and still learning with us, but with an increased awareness of music. It just explains the marvel of human brain's learning abilities. Also its usage perception. I see more adults who bring their own kids are still unable to comprehend the beauty of raga, where a student comprehends and enjoys it. 

It was the same for me also. I always write "We are are artists when we are children". But I never realized the truth until now. It means - one have to be open minded like a child. A 2 - 3 year child grasps what ever it sees in its surrounding. It is this openness which allows it to learn learn faster. As we grow into adulthood, we just forget to be a child, when we face a new art or skill or trade. 

I applied the same rule of "open mindedness of child" - in my elaboration of keeravani raagam with Amba vani on saturday. It was an amazing experience. Believe it or not, I have not learnt the alapanam or swara vistara of Keeravani raga. But my listening to Bombay Jayashree's "Amba Vaani" - in teaching my dance students every class did instill the raga structure. When I sang in front of my students of music on Saturday - actually i became a student of my own thoughts and learning. I felt very humble in front of a principle. This humbleness has a strength which made my sing Keeravani raagam in praise of Goddess Saraswathi - whom I have never seen in person - but felt her in my heart all the times. Felt her energy through the universal components of learning. She is not in human flesh and blood or a photograph or an idol. Saraswati existed in every learning I felt. She guided me through a heartfelt - Keeravani Ragam - and exposed herself to my soul. Wow... it was a great experience - With me Shiv Sankalp was on violin and Ramakrishna Neti was on Mrudangam. Both were very very supportive and whole 25 minutes of singing came like an experience with God (i still don't know where the God is. But it is an Godly experience.).

Well, after the weekend's hectic schedule - my mind recapped this beautiful experience. I am just sharing with you all. Have a nice week.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Unseen - to seen.....

Living in St. Louis and not asking for a varying weather is impossible. It affects the moods of creativity also. A cold front - Polar vortex - which froze my whole city into -15 degrees fahrenheit,  broke not only many water pipes in the region but also froze all our artistic adventures to some time. As we say "Prakruthi Devobhava" - which directly means - "nature is god" - through this polar vortex Prakruthi (Nature) did show its other face. It put a mood of awe to my intellect. This kind of weather cycle comes like Brahma's sleep ( although in theory Brahma's day or night lasts billions of years). This special respect for nature always gave me inspiration and new thoughts. Sometimes, I wonder, how lonely we human kind are.... We are sitting on a piece of small spherical land-mass called "Earth" and sailing in an infinite darkness. We do not know where we all floating. As I heard in my divine scripts - it is "Ananthantha Anantha" - infinite of infinite. I was watching a documentary on PBS on an expedition to Antarctica. Just realized that it was the bottom of Earth. How funny it may sound,  you go to the bottom of something, yet you don't fall off. Thanks to gravity otherwise all of us would have fallen. Laws of physics which are used in every part of life, leading to irreplaceable laws of chemistry with which we are all made. The most funny thought occurs in my mind is almost all the time. Since everything is an element like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen etc.... how these same chemical which we consume in the form of food, create emotions and feelings ? Because we use the same feelings and emotions performing arts,which are of course always reflect the life. I just asked one of friends who is a Ph.D in bio-chemistry and doing some research on cancer cells. "Have the scientists found out how these feelings, emotions get created ? There is this beautiful brain with millions of neurons, made up of complicated chemical structures, and yet these structures create what we call emotions and feelings. Are these non-elemental in nature ? Are thoughts non-physical in nature ? Can we use some chemicals to create the "feelings and emotions" as an abstract physical object. My thought process was to pin on the issue, that those chemicals which induce these ideas, can they also be used to physically formulate the feelings. Like a feeling of love in the shape of heart, feeling of anger like a shape of fire etc. I also know, these feelings are portrayed in paintings, through music, through dance or through theater. By reasoning, I guess, suddenly I started answering my own questions. I do not know if they are the right answers. But it is lots of fun to start thinking like this. So, I still look out everyday with excitement and look at the nature how beautiful it is, look at the changing shapes of clouds, soft nature of wind in spring- but chilly and deadly nature of the same wind when "prakruthi" get really cold in the winter. I realize, there is "Purusha" who makes her(Prakruthi) respond for each of his moves. The beautiful game of universe, surprise me every single minute.