Both as a stage performer and as a teacher, she introduced Kathakalli and Bharathanatyam to people abroad

Dance is a way of life 92-year-old woman who broke the internet with Bharatanatyam performance
Features Sunday, January 17, 2016 - 20:01

Watching Bhanumathi Rao speak is like getting a private dance performance – sans the make-up and costume. Her hands almost take on the shapes of the mudras and movements as she talks about her life what dance means to her.

Bhanumathi’s memory is fading, but her spirit still remains intact. Last December, the 92-year-old dancer gave a private performance in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to the song “Krishna nee begane baro”. Captured on video, the 45-second dance performance went viral on the internet and catapulted her into the limelight.

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Born in Kozhikode in Kerala in 1923, Bhanumathi first trained in Kathakalli and later in Bharathanatyam for close to two decades.

“Although Kathakalli was a male-dominant art form, it was my mother who pushed me to learn it. My guru would come home to teach me. What I really loved about it is that every single part of your body is used to enact the story. I later went on to learn Bharathanatyam too,” she told The News Minute.

When she was 24, she left for the UK to study library science. There, she joined a dance troupe headed by her guardian’s friend, Ram Gopal. Her non-Indian audiences across Europe were awestruck.

She stayed with Ram Gopal’s troupe until she moved to New York in the 1950s with her husband Krishna Rao, an international law expert. “He used to sing for me,” she says, but can no longer recall the names of the songs.

In the US, she performed with renowned dancer Bhaskar Roy Chowdury for a long time.

Bhanumathi experimented with her style, blending the body movements of Manipuri dance forms with the facial expressions of Kathakali and other elements of Bharathanatyam while performing for audiences abroad.

Both as a stage performer and as a teacher, she introduced Kathakalli and Bharathanatyam to people abroad.

Bhanumathi has taught dance to strangers, but she said that her daughters learned from her by watching her practise and perform.

“After my mother came back from work, all of us would clear the hall space and practice till late in the night,” recalls Tara Rao, Bhanumathi’s younger daughter, who works with Amnesty India.

While both her daughters learned Bharatanatyam, her older daughter Maya went on to learn even Kathakali.

"My mother taught me dance for some years. She was my first teacher, and choreographed dance piecs for which I performed," said New Delhi-based Maya Krishna Rao, Kathakali performer, teacher and Theatre in Education practitioner

 

Bhanumathi withdrew from the stage in her forties but played an active role in promoting Malayalam theatre in New Delhi until early 90s. By using elements of Kathakali in Malayalam theatre, she was instrumental in setting a trend for south Indian art forms in New Delhi.

Tara says: “She would choose stories from Malayalam literature, write scripts, produce, direct and act in the plays. In many ways, she set a standard for Malayalam theatre up –north. She was always on her toes.”

Of all the genres, comedies were her favourite. “Compared to all genres, comedies need a lot of facial expression and that came naturally for me as a Kathakalli dancer,” she says.

Even though Bhanumathi has spent her whole life except childhood with dance and theatre, she still continues to engage with dance. She still dances with a friend once a week.

“Calling dance a hobby reduces its importance as one can have many hobbies; calling it a career maligns it. It was more a way of life for me,” Bhanumathi says. 

 

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