Maya Rao’s contribution to Kathak and choreography is as important as Rukminidevi’s to Bharatanatyam or Vallathol’s to Kathakali.

Remembering Maya Rao South Indias First Kathak QueenMaya Rao teaching in Moscow
Features Friday, August 28, 2015 - 18:27

It is taken for granted that Indian classical dance, just like classical music is strongly divided by geography. North Indians learn northern forms and southerners stick to south. While it has taken a long time for musicians to break barriers, dancers have successfully crossed boundaries. So how and when did Kathak come to south India?

In the 1930’s, Bangalore was a part of erstwhile Mysore State. The Mysore royalties were great patrons of music and dance. Under their patronage the Mysore Baani of Bharatanatyam flourished with seniors like Jetti Thayamma, Mooguru Jejamma, Sundaramma and so forth. The Mysore Darbar patronized several north Indian artistes. Ustad Faiyyaz Khan, the stalwart of the Agra Gharana earned the title ‘Aftaab-e-Mousiki’ from here. Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta spent her last years and died in Mysore. This way, several artistes made Mysore their home. Ram Gopal, a popular dancer patronized by the Raja of Mysore brought Guru Sohanlal of Jaipur Gharana down to his studios in Mysore and Bangalore to teach. This was probably the first time ever that Kathak came to South India, in its hundred year young modern history.

Sohanlal lived in Bangalore and trained Ram Gopal and the dancers in his troupe.  Very little is known about his life in Bangalore. Those were the years when a girl from upper caste families taking to dance was unheard of. Music was ok. Dance was clearly not. Either way, performing in public was a strict no-no. Down south in Madras, Rukminidevi, an upper caste Brahmin woman had already created news by dancing Bharatanatyam. But Kathak, till the mid-1940’s was always considered a domain of nautch girls and courtesan cultures, often patronized by royal courts in north India, where women were objects of entertainment. In such times, young Maya, born into a conservative Konkani Saraswath Brahmin family began taking fascination to dance. This amplified when she saw the performances of Uday Shankar and later his film ‘Kalpana’. She enrolled and began her training with Guru Sohanlal in 1942 and learnt till he decided to move to Bombay for a career in the newly blossoming Hindi film industry. Alongside Kathak, she also learnt Hindustani classical music and playing the Dilruba. Through the 1940’s Maya danced and created dance productions in Bangalore in collaboration with several famous artistes like poet A N Krishna Rao and others. She also met her life partner M S Natarajan, who was one of South India’s first cultural impresarios. He was also the music director for South India’s largest music orchestra.



Maya Rao in a music class with her Guru Pt Shambhu Maharaj of the Lucknow Gharana

Armed with a Honours degree in English Literature, in 1952 she landed in Jaipur to continue her training in Kathak. Her MA degree would get her a teaching job in Maharani Gayathri Devi College that gave her enough money to sustain herself. However this ambitious venture didn’t work as planned and a timely call from her brother in Ceylon enriched her dance journey further. In Sri Lanka she learnt Kandiyan dance and rituals from the great dancer Chitrasena and his wife Vajira. She spent couple of years in Sri Lanka before she got an invitation by the Indian Govt, offering her a scholarship to learn dance. Impressed by her passion for dance, Nirmala Joshi (secretary of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi) and veteran Guru Mohanrao Kalyanpurkar gave her a scholarship to learn Kathak in Delhi.

Those were turbulent years in Indian classical dance history, especially in the north. After princely kingdoms merged into the Indian union, many artistes were left jobless. They had settled down to retired lives in their villages. The Bharatiya Kala Kendra was just being set up in Delhi. Maya’s scholarship won her a seat as the first student and Pt Shambhu Maharaj was brought in from Lucknow as a Guru. This Guru-Shishya bonding was to change her life forever. Under his mentoring, Maya blossomed into a fine dancer. The great Shambhu Maharaj was so impressed with her progress in Kathak that he even agreed to perform on stage with her! This was no mean achievement! In those years, if a Guru could agree to dance with a student in a public performance, it spoke volumes for the merit of the student. In addition to this, Shambhu Maharaj also choreographed, for the first time ever in Kathak, the songs from Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam. Maya was his canvas and together the Guru and Shishya broke new grounds in the field of Kathak. Spending time surrounded by stalwarts from the world of music and dance like Sarod maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan from Gwalior, Thumri exponent Naina Devi, senior Dagar brothers, Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan from Rampur Gharana, Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan from Agra Gharana and many others, Maya’s knowledge increased in every area of arts. She even trained under the Jaipur Gharana Kathak stalwart Pt Sunder Prasad for a while.


Maya Rao in performance

In the 1950s, the Govt. Of India was actively cultivating cultural ties with the USSR. Maya was the first scholarship winner to study choreography. She spent several years in Russia mastering various theatre arts like lighting design, sound engineering, dance and choreography. During her training period in Russia the Riga theatre invited Maya as a Consultant Choreographer, at the behest of the legendary composer Sergei Balasanyan. She helped in choreographing Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntala’, which became a grand success and made international headlines. During her years in Russia, Maya met and interacted with the who’s who of the ballet world like Margot Fonteyn, Maya Plisetskaya and Rudolph Nureyev. Maya became India’s first and only Indian with a Post Graduate certificate in Choreography from the USSR.

She left for Russia on the terms that after her return she would be made the head of a new choreography department at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. The politics in Delhi made sure this didn’t manifest. However, with the guidance and help of Smt Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya she established the ‘Natya Institute for Kathak and Choreography’ (NIKC) in 1964 in Delhi. Under the aegis of the Natya Ballet Center and UNESCO, the NIKC ran successfully in Delhi under Maya Rao’s directorship. On her board of advisors was everyone from Pt Ravi Shankar to music director Anil Biswas who also gave all the music for her ballet productions. She pioneered in some of the finest dance-drama choreographies for the next twenty-five years. In addition to her dance, choreography and teaching, she also began writing frequently. Her well-researched articles and interviews with veteran artistes that were published in The Illustrated Weekly and Marg are used till this day as reference points.


South India's first Kathak Queen

At the behest of the then chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde, the NIKC moved base to Bangalore in the mid 1980’s. It got affiliated to the Bangalore University and is India’s only institution to offer a professional degree in Kathak and choreography. Ever since, thousands of students have graduated from the institute. Maya Rao was appointed the Chairperson of the Karnataka State Sangeet Nritya Academy and in her tenure created several festivals at world heritage sites like Halebidu, Somnathpura and Pattadkal. Numerous awards came her way. The Karnataka State Rajyotsava Award, Shantala Award, the Nritya Vilas award, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award, the Tagore Ratna award, the Purandharadasa award and so forth. She wrote her autobiography ‘Maya – A Lifetime in Choreography’, which is a collector’s edition. The book is full of wonderful images and anecdotes that track the history of Kathak in modern India.

On Septeber 1, 2014, Maya Rao breathed her last in Bangalore at the age of 86. Till her dying day she went to her office and worked. In that sense she was a true ‘Karma Yogi’. She never marketed herself and herlarge contribution to the world of dance was a witness to her life. No famed Padma awards came her way. Despite all odds, she worked ceaselessly to spread the message of dance. Her daughter, dancer Madhu Natraj now runs NIKC and her own contemporary dance company STEM. Maya Rao’s contribution to Kathak and choreography is as important as Rukminidevi’s to Bharatanatyam or Vallathol’s to Kathakali. She was an institution builder, a pioneer and will always be remembered as South India’s first queen of Kathak.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at

Images courtesy- ‘Maya- A Lifetime in Choreography’