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.