“She was the queen of choreography,” says dancer Madhu Nataraj, daughter of dancer and choreographer Maya Rao, warmly remembering her mother, who passed away on Monday. She was 86.
Ms. Rao often said: “Don’t just think that Kathak is all about ghungroo and taking the rotations.” Apart from her trademark abhinaya that caught global attention, she initiated her students into having a holistic approach to the art.
Her senior student Nandini Mehta says that Ms. Rao believed that a dancer needed to explore the nuances of music, stage, design, style, lighting, costumes and ornaments as being integral to the study of choreography.
“She was the only dancer with a master’s in Choreography, which she got in the 1960s from the U.S.S.R. In her autobiography, she has written how difficult it was for her to reach this stage as she had to take it up from a point when girls in the early 1940s were forbidden to taking up dancing as a profession,” says Bharatanatyam dancer Sathyanarayana Raju.
Born into a Konkani-speaking family in Bangalore, her family said that when she was 12, she had watched the celebrated dancer Uday Shankar perform. Her architect father Sanjeeva Rao was so impressed that he initiated his daughters into dance.
“It was to Karnataka’s benefit that dancers from across India stepped into Didi’s 27-year-old Natya Institute of Dance and Choreography at Bangalore to understand the nitty-gritty of choreography,” says another senior student Nirupama Rajendra.
“The institute is the only one in India offering a bachelor’s degree, affiliated to the Bangalore University. Didi lives on forever, for, she diligently worked on the three-year syllabus,” she added. Student and principal dancer, Natya institute, Keerti Kumar says one of her landmark mega-productions was her recent ‘Kathak through the ages’ with a 20-member troupe. It explained the history and evolution of Kathak that travelled from the temples of Rajasthan and U.P., the invasions it suffered during the Rajput and Mughul rulers to its present-day revival on stage.
As the chairperson of the Karnataka State Sangeeta Nritya Academy (1987–1990),she initiatedthe National Performing Arts Festivalsat the Heritage Monuments of Somanathapur, Pattadakkal and Halebid. Many awards came her way, the latest being the Tagore Ratna Award in 2013.
Ananya Raghavendra of Ananya Cultural Academy says: “She not only encouraged people to take up newer perspectives in dance, but she observed and asked each one to introspect and see where they were correct and wrong.”