January 18, 2021

Madhu Nataraj Kiran on her mother the iconic Maya Rao

An interaction with Madhu Nataraj Kiran makes one realize the blessings and the connect she has with her ‘Ma’, the late Maya Rao, noted and iconic Kathak dancer & choreographer.


Mums and stories shares glimpses of this awe-inspiring story of Maya, Mayichka as fondly remembered in Moscow, of Maya didi and most importantly as ‘Ma in the eyes of her daughter, Madhu Nataraj’.

“I was born quite late to my mother. She was 43 years when I came into her life. Incidentally I was the second child. The first one too was born on the same day a few years earlier but my parents had lost the child due to health reasons.

I remember Ma and me used to have this early morning walk ritual. We were in Delhi at that time and she would walk me to school everyday and we would get that time to talk and share our day’s events. I was right from the beginning used to the sound of ‘ghunghroos’. Ma would tell me that she would make me sleep next to the tabla too when I was younger during her rehearsals. So I literally grew up in the green room.

Ma took care of me as a single mother as my dad always was away from home. I used to think he was like Santa Claus who visited us once a year and hand out the gifts to me. My mother seamlessly managed a lot of things in her life. Though we had a cook, a house help and someone to supervise me when I was a kid, Ma would come back from the Institute in Delhi to our home, in between rehearsals, to check on me if I was fine. She would get my homework done late in the evenings and cook too something of my choice.

She would take me with her wherever she went for her dance performances. So I had visited many countries in my childhood years. I had also realized that dance will be my demanding sibling and I very well understood that I had to share my mother with her disciples, fans and dance.

After a few years we had moved to Bangalore and Ma was busy with the setting of the Natya Institute in the city. People always would tell me ‘dance is in your blood; you have to carry on the legacy.’ But for me, it was an odd situation as I was always running away from dance. While I was getting trained, observing dance rehearsals, performances and do my own performances on and off, it wasn’t going to be my life, then. That’s what I had decided and perceived my life to be at that point of time. .

I had chosen commerce during my college and wanted to pursue Mass communication to get into journalism However while preparing for CAT exams, I was informed by Ma about this contemporary dance workshop in Pune. So I went there as a student and volunteer and during the workshop I questioned myself ‘Why was I running away from dance?’ It was a teacher who asked me a few questions and in responding to the teacher, I had actually cleared my own doubts if ever I had on embracing dance whole-heartedly.

So I called up my mum and said, I want to come back and get back into dance completely. So when I was back, she asked me to choose between creative satisfaction and monetary benefit. For me it was about limitless possibilities a phrase I had come across in the workshop and I truly believed dance was the answer. And then I just dived into the world of dance with a vengeance.

Soon I began with my choreography course, in addition to pursuing my journalism course in the evenings, teaching dance in schools on part-time through a newspaper affiliation and finally I had my solo debut in Kathak when I was 24 years of age.

I have always believed in managing tradition with modernity. In my final year of degree, I started STEM Dance Kampni. During this phase, I was literally ostracized by the purists who felt that I was deviating from the traditional form.

Thankfully Ma never felt or made me conscious of her thoughts if ever it had come across to her. She was very open minded. Whenever a student walked into the institute in quest of knowledge, she would say ‘don’t enter with any pre conceived notions. Keep your mind open to learn and embrace dance.’

Then I was travelling to several countries to learn on dance, I attended a lot of workshops but didn’t really find what I was looking for in quest or the final answer. Finally I decided to come back to India and pursue this passion further here.

While I have said earlier that it was the weather, people or various other reasons for me to come back, I realize now that it was just Ma, my main reason was for me to be with her; to get back to where she made the city her home.

I spent considerable time in bringing out a biography with the help of Government of Karnataka. The book traced my mother’s journey. Documenting, archiving photographs, getting shoots done all of this seemed very important and rightly so.”

In the book, ‘Maya Rao, A Lifetime in Choreography, Maya Rao describes “Saale budhape se nahin bachsakte” (One cannot escape this damn old age).said, my Guru Shambhu Maharaj remorsefully, as he looked at a photograph of his which was shot when he was in his 70’s, demonstrating the ghunghat nuance. He regretted the fact that his work had not been documented when he was in his prime.

Looking back, I feel fortunate that at every stage in my life, some kind soul kept documenting my work and a huge body of visuals from my teens till today bears witness to my dance, my choreography…my life.”

Madhu shares, “Me and Ma had this tradition of buying Kanjeevaram sarees as we both loved them and gifted each other. I would gift her one for her birthday and she would do that for Diwali every year. Her birthday initially was celebrated with much aplomb but soon she wanted me to take her to different cities or countries far away from any kind of celebration and we would spend the holiday beautifully.

She was my guru, my friend and my mother. It was like three people in my life vanished when she passed away in November 2014. It felt like a vacuum. I used to persuade her to work until the last day and I remember when she had this massive heart attack she before collapsing completely she asked me, “Who is taking the classes tomorrow morning?” I wanted people to remember her as a dancer, choreographer, an icon and not someone who had the fame days only in the younger age and was now relegated to just retirement or loneliness.

I do feel experience in life is very important. I recently told someone that I am the sum total of all my experiences. Ma made me travel kept me grounded and made me understand the value of money. I must admit I had to an extent put my own career aside to encourage her and showcase her talent forever. But it wasn’t a sacrifice. I used to do as much for her as she would do for me.

She never recommended my name for any award and am so proud of that decision of hers. Whatever I achieved or the awards I received was due to my own learning’s and experiences.

When she passed away among many frivolous messages that came trickling in without any emotions attached two of them stuck with me. One said, “Ma will come back to you, not necessarily in physical form but in your studio, your home at Ma’s place and you will find her. Now whenever I am pondering or looking for a decision to be made, it so happens that I do get my answers when I read a paragraph in a book or a statement someone has made. I do feel her presence.

In an award’s function when the anchor asked my mother, her happiest moment I thought she would say her award, or learning from her Guru or anything else. But she replied that it was when I called from Delhi and told her I wanted to be a dancer. It was a revelation for me too. She never ever pressurized me to take up dancing or let any comparisons come in between us. When I had grown up I had set up STEM and was already on my way to carve my own path.

Me and Ma shared many things in life. Dance to be our language, love for sarees and we had similar sense of aesthetics. I remember she would make me dress in the various traditional attires of the regions of the country like make me wear a ‘sharara’, a Naga jacket, traditional stole, typical south-Indian attire and so on and I just would love them.

On a note that goes back delving into her life and emotions, I do feel she deserved to have received the Padma Bhushan award in her lifetime, for the contribution to the city, society and dance evolution in the country. She wouldn’t really say it but I would find her reading a newspaper item again and again on her contemporaries and juniors winning recognizable awards. She kept telling her students love is the highest form of award for her and she stood by it until the last day.

Also I feel and wished she had received more love from her partner. After 18 years of seeing each other they were married but it was always a long-distance marriage.

It’s always been Ma and me together in thickest and best of times.”

Mums and stories is in awe of this beautiful story. We wish Madhu Nataraj Kiran to continue to be the inspiring dancer, choreographer and have many blessed moments in life.

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