The “Maha-Maya” festival suitably commemorated the birth centenary of Bharatanatyam guru U.S. Krishna Rao

From insisting on ‘Bharatanatya’ for Bharatanatyam, to creating a sizeable repertoire based on Kannada literature and lyrics, late guru, Professor U.S. Krishna Rao (1912-2005) was a staunch torchbearer for the Karnataka identity. A rare instance of a full-fledged Master in Chemistry and professor in the university taking to Bharatanatyam as a full-time vocation from 1939, U.S. Krishna Rao — along with wife Chandrabhaga Devi (‘aunty’ for students) — became a trailblazer in the Karnataka classical dance scene, stoically bearing societal taunts with near ostracism for taking to an activity deemed ‘vulgar’ by the common man. Starting with the Mysore Bharatanatya bani under Kolar Puttappa, Krishna Rao later came under the Tanjore school of Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. A superbly organised three-day festival, “Maha-Maya”, was mounted by disciples of the ‘Master’ at Bangalore’s Rabindra Bhavan and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan recently. Led by Sharada Rudra and Mythrai K. Brahman, and strongly supported by Prateeti Punja, Rashme Hegde and others, the festival paid a nostalgic tribute to the guru on his birth centenary, with son Jayadev present all through.

Even as dancers of various denominations presented items choreographed and inspired by the guru, a morning session of speeches presided over by Dr. M. Suryaprasad, with experts in various fields recapturing moments spent with the Master, evaluated his contribution to spreading domestic and global awareness about the classical glory of Bharatanatyam. Ashish Khokar’s film with an extensive interview of U.S. Krishna Rao (the guru’s last) was screened, the guru’s responses making for crucial documentation material. A fine photographic exhibition of the dancing couple greeted visitors in the Ravindra Kalakshetra foyer. Several senior dancers and art writers of repute were felicitated on the occasion.

A deeply moving “Magdalena Mariam” based on the late Vallathol Narayana Menon’s work, presented in the Odissi style by Sonal Mansingh, one of Master’s senior students, provided the curtain-raiser for the dance recitals. Exemplifying the crisp complexity in simplicity of the Pandanallur school, which Krishna Rao represented, and preserved in old-world authenticity was Harish Raman of Sri Raja Rajeswari Nritya Kala Mandira Trust, Tumkur. The tana varnam “Eranata” in Todi presenting the Dhirodhatta Nayaka, “Gaanam, Veda, Kodanda Rama” and “Daasanaai vanda Maruti”, was professionally executed, the taut, punch-filled teermanams immaculately done in the age-old style. Suresh’s nattuvangam and Chennakeshavaiyya’s vocal support provided the right accompaniment.

Prateeksha Kashi’s Kuchipudi revealed exceptional talent in the breezy tarangam in Amritavarshini, Narayana Teertha’s composition showing Krishna overpowering serpent Kaliya, which was followed by rhythmic virtuosity on the brass plate. The earlier composition in Sriranjani, “Devate Ranga Devate”, the lyric composed by Krishna Rao, could tone down the sensuous lasya, making for a more strongly affirmative Goddess.

Nandini K. Mehta (a disciple of Krishna Rao) and K. Murali Mohan presented a neat Kathak duet, followed by their troupe of four dancers capturing images of Spring. Intelligently choreographed and communicative was a Marathi abhang, “Rusali Radha, Rusala Madhav”, sung and presented in ghazal style (without, in the process, destroying both genres of music).

Dr. D.S. Kamath, a disciple of Krishna Rao now working for the Performing Arts Department of Bangalore University, presented his students in a performance suite of alarippu in Sankeerna Triputa, Master’s specialty, followed by jatiswaram in Sree raga and Goplakrishna Bharati’s “Nadanam Adinar” in Vasanta. The dancers, notwithstanding clean lines, needed more conviction and punch in movements.

Prabal Gupta’s Kathakali stree vesham, after a not-very-exciting purapaadu, portrayed Nakratundi — first as the beauteous Lalita trying to seduce Jayanthan, and, on her advances being rejected, showing herself as the demon she is, an excerpt from “Narakasura Vadham”. Prabal has evolved with tutelage under well known Kathakali exponent FACT Padmanabhan, his enactment with a mobile, expressive face convincing notwithstanding the uninspiring taped singing; the slow-paced rendition of ragas like Todi and Kalyani left much to be desired.

Hema Panchamukhi set a hectic pace for her group of Sukruthi students in the pushpanjali in Tilang. With her own presentation of the javali in Kapi, “Sako ninna Sneha”, portraying the angry woman crossed in love, and the Harikatha style Narasimha stuti with tempo still frenetic, the spirited rendition — even when some movements remained unfinished due to the pace — roused audience attention and applause.

Nirupama and Rajendra, the electric duo in Kathak, presented one of the finest performances of the festival. Blessed with stage presence, the togetherness from over 20 years of performing invests their Kathak with a sparkle, drawing audiences. If “Om namo Bhagavate Vasudevaaya” with Praveen D. Rao’s music evoked stillness in quietude, the tisra, khanda and misra rhythms of Tarang, with footwork excitement accelerating, was a harmonious blend of grace and speed. The Meera bhajan in thumri style was a delight, the sensitive choreography emphasising further the two minds becoming one in dancing.

The students of Radha Sridhar, a disciple of the Raos and a fine teacher of Venkatesh Natya Mandir, after a neat nritta start to the song “Swagatam Krishna”, followed it with a ragamalika and talamalika Dashavatar, rendered with tidy, finished movements.

Kudos to Satyanarayana Raju for obligingly stepping in (with barely three hours to spare for the evening performance) for Prathibha Prahlad, another senior disciple of the Raos who withdrew at the last minute, for what was an outstanding varnam recital of Vena Seshanna’s “Devadi Deva Nataraja”. Presence, fine costume aesthetics, articulated araimandi, ability to cover stage space with the neatest of leaps, sarukkais, finished leg and hand stretches and veeshara adavu… here is a male dancer whose abhinaya prowess is beyond what is normally seen interpreting the musical line “Chidambara Nathane, Kanaka Sabeshane Jagadeeshane”. The way he used movements facing four directions, along with his deeply involved rendition, made the presentation a treat. As for the jati recitations by nattuvanar Shakuntala Prabha, vocal support by Kartik Hebbar, with S.C. Balakrishnan on mridangam, musical accompaniment moved in total synch with the dance.

Revati and Asha, old disciples of the Raos, gave a charming abhinaya-oriented presentation portraying glimpses of Govardhana Krishna and Sita’s swayamvara, the interpretative dance never erring by overstatement. But one wished vocalist Rama had stuck to more simple singing without excessive briga ornamentation.

Sharmila Mukherjee’s Odissi with good body balance began with the Devi homage, though choreography and the enthusiastic students need to evolve more.