There are moments in one’s life when destiny smiles in the face of adversity. One such moment came in my life when I had an accident in1969, which left me with a permanent injury and brutally cut me off from performing Bharata Natya. Some of my well-wishers helped me to overcome the initial shock and despair by encouraging, to the point of coaxing and goading me , to teaching Bharata Natya in Montreal. “What a formidable task to undertake” I thought at the time; but, as if by divine intervention, my gurus, U.S. Krishna Rao and U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi (Guruji and Amma to me) appeared on the horizon just when I needed them most, to provide guidance and inspiration and above all, to help regenerate my passion for dance.
The Rao couple was on a visit to North America in the spring of 1980 and accepted an invitation from me to come to Montreal. They gave a scintillating lecture demonstration on Bharata Natya, organized by the India Canada Association of Montreal, to a packed auditorium of over 500 captivated listeners. On that occasion, not only did they enlighten the Montrealers present, on the intricacies and aesthetics of Bharata Natya, but also endorsed, with warmth and generosity of spirit, my humble efforts to start a dance school by agreeing to return to Montreal for an extended stay. It was a wonderful way to re-establish our contact and renew our ties which dated back to the late fifties when I had gone to Bangalore for advance training in Bharata Natya after having earlier studied the art in Patna from one of their disciples, Guru Balakrishnan.
Their return to Montreal took place in September/October 1982 to coincide with a three-day symposium on Indian Classical Dance, sponsored by Kala Bharati, in collaboration with the dance department of the University of Quebec at Montreal. Guruji delivered the keynote speech at the inauguration of the symposium. They both conducted workshops and presented papers at the various sessions along with many other dancers who had come to attend the conference from all over North America. Their participation at the conference made an important impact on the local dance milieu. This was a widely acclaimed and well attended event of which Dance Magazine, a leading American Dance journal, noted: “Even taking into consideration the enormous achievements of last year’s Dance in Canada Conference here (Montreal), the Indian dance meeting was by far the most challenging event to be held in the city’s 35 year history of professional dance. Kathakali, Kathak, Bharata Natya and Odissi experts shared the secrets of their dance forms with about hundred students and over 550 who watched the single public performance, which helped break down the fear that Westerners often feel toward dance from the East.”
During this two-month stay, Guruji and Amma conducted special classes, in which they taught several items to the senior students of Kala Bharati. These items remain a valuable part of our present repertoire.
In 1985 Kala Bharati was once again privileged to welcome the Gurus to Montreal for a period of four weeks. This time they were accompanied by their grand daughter Anjali. In addition to the evening of lecture demonstration on the training of the Bharata Natya dancer, they gave special classes to the senior students of Kala Bharati, which enabled us to add some new items composed by them, to our repertoire.
The contribution of the Raos to Kala Bharati has come full circle, so to say. In the initial stages, they were here to encourage and inspire us when the foundation was being laid. Their untiring work during the second visit strengthened the base of Kala Bharati and also helped and guided us in building a solid and credible structure. In 1985 their presence and contribution instilled a sense of confidence and was a sign of affirmation of faith in the work of Kala Bharati.
Although Guruji and Amma did not travel outside India after the 1985 visit, the imprint of their contribution has been a lasting one. Kala Bharati has been carrying on the Pandanallur tradition of the great Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, handed down to us by The Rao couple. Over the years we maintained constant and close ties with them. They, in turn, took pride and joy in the successes of various Kala Bharati achievements. Most of the dance students who have given their Ranga Praveshes received their blessings through personal letters from them. The acclaim and accolades that greeted the performance by La Troupe Kala Bharati during its tour to India was a source of great joy to both of them. In a letter dated 23rd Sept. ’89 Amma wrote:
“We went through all of them (reviews by Indian critics) in detail with breath- taking appreciation
What superlatives-what kudos and what acme of perfection - according to all the critics who have with ONE VOICE so to say praised the show to the skies.
To me there are no words left to describe because all the adjectives and praising words are used by ALL the different critics at different places- in different papers- I can only hug you tightly (Bear Hug?) across miles and countries-to congratulate you from the bottom of my heart for the great – unsurpassed stupendous success you have had. I share your joy and fulfillment.”
The capitalization and underlining of parts of her letter reflected Amma’s emotional involvement in sharing her “joy and fulfillment” at La Troupe’s success.
I had the pleasure and privilege of being part of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Maha-Maya to mark the outstanding contributions of Guruji and Amma to the world of dance and Bharata Natya in particular. Held in August 1992, for four days, it was a momentous and glittering occasion, attended by many important personages including leading dancers, scholars, teachers and critics from all over. Guruji and Amma’s heartwarming remarks in a letter acknowledging my presence, is a testimony to the special bond and relationship between Gurus and their disciple:
“In this connection we would like to mention that your presence in Bangalore during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of our “Maha-Maya” school of dance from 1st to 4th August, 1992 was indeed a great event. You took part in all the proceedings and recitals we had arranged for the Jubilee function. In fact the prestige of the festival had gone up due to your presence here.”
Such expressions of love and warmth leave me humble with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, just as I was when I found that I was one of their two disciples, (the other being Guru T.S.Bhat of Bangalore) among a group of sixteen Gurus from different styles of Indian Classical dance forms they had chosen to honour on the occasion of their Golden Jubilee. There is no greater award for me to aspire for or treasure when my own Gurus have shown such faith and approval of my modest contribution to the art of Bharata Natya.
Equally heartwarming was Guruji and Amma’s thoughts expressed in a letter when Anjali Jayadev, their grand daughter ,came to Kala Bharati on the Oneil De Scholarship in August 1993. They wrote to say they were “extremely glad” as
“we know how well Kala Bharati is working for the progress of Bharata Natyam since more than a decade. We have seen the teaching methods at Kala Bharati during our three visits there. We have been deeply impressed by the strict and disciplinary way Kala Bharati is imparting this art in a traditional manner. The richness of this art is strictly practised and presented. Considering all the excellence of Kala Bharati’s achievements, we are happy that Anjali will get an opportunity to enrich her art under the banner of Kala Bharati.”
Maha-Maya was a regular stop we loved to take during our visits to Bangalore when in India. During one such visit, on Thursday, 26th December 1996, we visited Guruji and Amma. I had with me a video recording of Seasonscape, which I had choreographed and presented that year at Tangente, Montreal, to the accompaniment of an original score by the well-known Carnatic musician Shri T.N. Seshagopalan, who had been commissioned by Kala Bharati to compose it. We were gathered in their drawing room, when the discussion on the creative process of Seasonscape came up and Amma asked me to show them the piece. With much trepidation I put it on. As it turned out, I need not have had that feeling. Amma jumped out of her chair as the credits rolled on the TV monitor, came rushing towards me, arms outstretched, and gave me the bear hug she had referred to earlier. Not many words were exchanged but the tight embrace and just
“Oh, it is so wonderful, it must be seen by others here in India” spoke volumes for me. It was the last time I saw Amma in person. She passed away in April 1997.
As if by Amma’s prophetic acclamation, Seasonscape was indeed seen by many in India. La Troupe Kala Bharati was invited by CPC Prashar Bharati to record one hour of my choreographies of Bharata Natya items as part of a weeklong music and dance special programme to be telecast as part of the closing ceremony of 50 years of Independence of India. In this connection it was first telecast on the 13th August 1998, and then chosen to be re-telecast on the 15th August, Independence Day, immediately following Prime Minister Bajpayee’s speech to the nation.
What made this event most memorable was the fact that Guru ji so very kindly agreed to my request to come over from Bangalore to New Delhi to be with La Troupe Kala Bharati at the end of December1997 while the recording was going on. It could not have been an easy decision as Amma had passed away just that year and travelling alone by himself must have put its own constraints; but Guru ji’s largesse of spirit prevailed and he joined us in sharing this unique experience. During the whole period, Guru ji stayed in the same premises as the members of the Troupe; attended some of the sessions at the recording studio; spoke enthusiastically about La Troupe at the reception at India International Centre, Delhi and celebrated his 85th birthday on the 31st December with us. Guru ji, as always, was a vibrant and uplifting presence throughout, exuding infectious joy and good humour.
It was a happy coincidence that in the year 2002 , the year in which he celebrated his 90th birthday, Guru ji was the recipient of the Krishna Iyer award given by the Sruti Foundation for outstanding service to classical Indian dance. Dr.Pattabhi Raman, the founding editor of Sruti, called me from Chennai to inform me that I was one of the two disciples of Guru Krishna Rao he was planning to invite to speak at the award ceremony during the Music festival season in December.
There was an official ceremony in Bangalore to felicitate Guruji just after the Sruti event at which once again, I was asked to say a few words. I was delighted to be thus privileged and honoured to be part of Guruji's 90 th birthday celebrations in India, for which I wrote the following haiku:
sprouting among mapleleaves
age old-traditionen terre étrangère
bourgeonne parmi les érables
un art millénaire
During our stay in Bangalore for his 90th birthday celebrations I had the opportunity to bring up the work I was involved in the area of Dance and the Child and a child friendly Bharata Natya repertoire I was working on at that time. Approving my initiative he wrote: “ I was pleased to hear from you during your recent visit to Maha Maya on the occasion of my birthday, about your work on a Bharata Natya repertoire especially meant for children. I found the themes of the three pieces you read out to me ( letter to Lord Nataraj, Amar Putul and the Varna) very appropriate for children and I am sure the other pieces also will be in the same vein. I congratulate you for this imaginative approach and wish you all success in your efforts to complete this project.”
I was able to complete Shishu Sadhana on time and its publication coincided with Guru ji’s birthday on 31st December 2004. Shishu Sadhana, a book describing the creative process of a child-friendly Bharata Natya repertoire with a DVD containing the choreography of the items, has been dedicated to Guru ji and Amma as my ultimate homage to them. He received the very first copy of Shishu Sadhana at the end of Dec 2004 and was able to see the DVD on the 9th January, 2005. “ I was able to see the DVD in its entirety and I am happy I saw it. What you have attempted is a very new and perhaps an original concept. The repertoire is indeed quite innovative and covers the expanse of Bharata Natya, which holds unlimited potential to anyone who desires to compose and choreograph newer items in the styles propounded by our ancestors …..While the current trend among many dancers here in India is towards greater speed and attendant intricacies, you Mamata , have done quite the opposite and made it simpler with a tempo better suited to children of ages upto early teens. This is indeed a laudable effort….May Lord Nataraja bestow upon you His choicest blessings”. Two months after I received this positive feedback, Guru ji passed away on the 6th of March,2005 . I derive great solace from the fact that he had seen this DVD and sent me his blessings.
It is difficult to accept that Guru ji and Amma are no more and we will not be able to call on them personally to have their physical presence amongst us. But how can our Gurus’ presence not be there always with us, in everything we try to do to carry on, given the rich heritage and legacy they have bequeathed us, their students?
As Jules Renard has pointed out “The reward of great men is that, long after they have died, one is not quite sure that they are dead." This year being the centennial birth anniversary of Guru ji, we feel their presence among us, more than ever.
I consider myself fortunate to have had Amma and Guru ji as my teachers, mentors and guides in my service to the art of Bharata Natya. Their blessings and warm appreciation for the work being done to continue their legacy at Kala Bharati, will always be a source of inspiration and encouragement for me.