Born in December 1912, Krishna Rao took to dance seriously in 1939 and married U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi in February 1941.
Whenever I visit Bengaluru, I miss the dancing couple of late professor U.S. Krishna Rao and his wife U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi. I met U.S. Krishna Rao and his wife Chandra (U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi) during the All India Dance Seminar held at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi in April, 1958. That was a historic conference with a weeklong dance festival in the evening at Talkatora Gardens. I was a greenhorn, up and coming scholar interested in dance. I had gone from Mumbai to attend the seminar, thanks to professor Mohan Khokar’s suggestion, as all leading lights of dance world were to meet there.
Chairman Justice Rajamannar, vice-chairman Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, legendary dancers Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi, great Sanskrit scholar Dr V. Raghavan, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kitappa Pillai, Swaminath Pillai, Kalakshetra dancers, including Sanjukta Panigrahi (nee Mishra),who was studying Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, Chinna Sarada, Pushpa Sundaram (nee Makhijani), musician D. Pasupathi, Kitappa’s student Padmalochani from Bengaluru, Elappa Pillai, for whose presentation young Yamini Krishnamurty had given a demonstration, were prominent figures in the field of Bharatanatyam. E. Krishna Iyer was to attend but because of his indifferent health, he could not come. Kamala (Laxman) and Ramaiah Pillai could not come as Kamala was touring Japan. On the opening day in the morning session I remember the Travancore Sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini had come for a while. Among this galaxy of Bharatanatyam exponents were U.S. Krishna Rao and his wife Chandrabhaga Devi. Young Sudharani (Raghupathy) had also accompanied them.
Krishna Rao was to present his paper on “New Trends in Bharatanatyam”. I had read about him in Ram Gopal’s biography Rhythm in Heavens as his friend and a young companion. Ram Gopal and he used to learn dance and Krishna Rao used to take Ran Gopal on his bicycle. After the performances were over, (which were held privately without Ram Gopal’s parents’ knowledge), some organised by the yuvaraj, the prince, Krishna Rao used to accompany him. As I learnt later on, it was due to Ram Gopal that Krishna Rao took to dancing, though essentially he was to support himself, in the future, as a professor of chemistry in Bengaluru University.
Those were different times. Dance was still being looked down upon as an art worthy of practice by “the women of ill fame”, Devadasis, who were considered “low women” in society. In the late thirties, very few ventured to learn dance. Therefore, it indeed was remarkable and courageous on the part of Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi to take to dance and go to Pandanallur village to study Bharatanatyam under Meenakshisundaram Pillai. It was of course on account of Ram Gopal and E. Krishna Iyer that both went to study there under the great nattuvanar and guru of Bharatanatyam Meenakshisundaram.
Born on December 31, 1912, Krishna Rao studied chemistry and received first rank in M.Sc in 1934 in Mysore University. He took to dance seriously in 1939 and married U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi in February 19, 1941. Krishna Rao, along with his educational career, managed to devote time to perform as a dancing couple and started training students in Indian classical dance. Among their well-known students are Indrani Rahaman, Kumudini Lakhia (she studied for sometime Bharatanatyam and also used to partner Ram Gopal in Bharatanatyam), Kamadev from London, Sonal Mansingh, Prathibha Prahlad, Mamata Niyogi Nakra (from Montreal, Canada) and Sudharani Raghupathy, Revathi and Asha Gopal and several others.
I recall in his erudite paper, which he had read at the seminar, Krishna Rao had elaborated upon various varnams — varnams in Tamil, Telugu and also the need for compositions and padams in Kannada, bringing in a variety of literature and music. He also referred to the contributions of the Mysore school of Bharatanatyam and mentioned Kolar Kitappa and his disciple Gundappa, who had an intimate knowledge of both the Tanjore and Mysore traditions. (Prof. Krishna Rao’s paper is included in my edited book of the 1958 Dance Seminar papers, published by Sangeet Natak Akademi).
Krishna Rao had spoken with enthusiasm, vehemence and excitedly. He was indeed very pleased to be among a galaxy of great nattuvanars and legends like Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi, Dr V. Raghavan, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay and others. He mixed with one and all and I remember when he sat on his knees in front before Shambhu Maharaj when Prime Minister Pandit Nehru joined all artistes for a group photograph. Some of these rare photographs are in the archive of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi.
When I met him he had also met the Jhaveri Sisters, the Manipuri exponents from Mumbai, and we all talked excitedly about the circling on the floor on knees in Manipuri, which were similar to movements as seen in Yakashagana. The seminar provided all participants a lot of information. As a matter of fact, it was like mapping the country in the post-independence years about the wealth of classical and folk dances. It was an exercise in what now in the present context and dance discourse is called “nation building activity”.
The seminar brought to the fore lesser-known dance forms like Odissi. We saw Guru Deba Prasad Das demonstrating the salient features of Odissi (then known as Orissi). He was teaching Odissi to Indrani Rahman, who had also studied Bharatanatyam under Krishna Raos. We feasted our eyes on the Kuchipudi, Yakshagana and Sattriya dance forms of Assam, which got recognition only in 2000. (My book on the Sattriya dances of Assam was published in March 2013 by Marg Publications.)
After the dance seminar, we kept in touch through letters. I visited Bengaluru after two years and met Nataraj, husband of Maya Rao and the scholar and critic B.V.K. Shastri, known as BVK. I stayed with Krishna Rao and on account of my interest and research in dance, our friendship was strengthened. Nataraj, BVK and I used to meet very often and I learnt a lot about the dance scene in Bengaluru, watching classes conducted by Krishna Rao. He was a strict taskmaster and till he was satisfied, he would not take rest, nor would allow the student to take rest. He had also a great sense of humour and lightened up the mood if he had made the student feel dejected or depressed on account of his remarks.
Jovial, full of humorous stories and accounts, Krishna Rao would regale me with anecdotes about dancers and also gurus. Nataraj, BVK ,Krishna Rao and I used to have a whale of time enjoying these anecdotes.
When I met Sonal Mansingh (nee Pakvasa) in 1964, she was studying Bharatanatyam under Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi. Sonal and I used to attend performances at Bhulabhai Institute in Mumbai where the trustee, Soli Batliwala, used to arrange many performances. For one of Sonal’s performances, Krishna Rao visited Mumbai and we had arranged a lecture demonstration by him at Bhulabhai Institute, which was well attended by the local dancers. He had explained the salient features of Pandanallur style. Anjali Merh (nee Hora) was also among the audience. And there was a very lively discussion among the two on the dance styles taught at Bengaluru and the style as taught at Kalakshetra where Anjali Merh had studied Bharatanatyam under Rukmini Devi. It was always a pleasure to listen to Krishna Rao, who often provoked the other person to argue!
On account of my friendship with Sonal, Krishna Rao and I came closer. Every visit to Bengaluru meant evenings with Krishna Rao and BVK and also with Nataraj. When Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi went on a tour of Europe, Canada and America, I happened to visit Bengaluru and stayed at their residence. Their son Jayadev looked after me. During those years, I came to know Vimala Rangachar, Lalitha Srinivasan, Leela Ramanathan and other artists in Bengaluru. Of course, Shanta Rao was another prominent figure, having studied under Meenakshisundaram Pillai. But she kept herself aloof and inaccessible in those years.
During the time I was working on my book on Bharatanatyam published by Marg (First edition 1979), Krishna Rao often gave me useful information. He was generous in giving information and sharing knowledge. Chandrabhaga Devi was a gracious host and always welcomed me whenever I visited Bengaluru.
I had met legendary Gurus of Bharatanatyam like Kitappa Pillai, Elappa Pillai, Ramaiah Pillai, Swaminath Pillai, my own Guru, Kalyanasundaram Pillai of Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir, Mumbai, and others. As a non-traditional guru not belonging to any dance family, professor Krishna Rao was different. Whereas with other traditional gurus one was always under their awe and hesitated to talk, with Krishna Rao it was easy to talk freely. He had a large community of students at the university level and he dealt with their problems in a friendly manner. He was more like a friend. And we could discuss various personal issues with him. He advised us appropriately and assured us of his affection and was extremely cordial.
Krishna Rao has many publications to his credit, including Dance in Modern India in Kannada and Lasya Ranjana, a translation with illustrations, based on one of the palm leaf manuscripts on Indian dance, A Panorama of Indian Dances and other books. The couple was honoured by the Mysore government with a state award and with a Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Many awards have been conferred upon them, which they richly deserved. They have trained a generation of dancers in Bengaluru, including their granddaughter Anjali Jayadev.
I met him last when he had turned 90. I had called him before going over to see him at his residence. I was late and he was quite upset and admonished me. He then got his sense of humour back and warmed up as usual and recalled several incidents of his career. He recalled when we had gone together to Nrityagram with Ram Gopal and met Kelubabu, Kalyani Kutty Amma and Protima Bedi there. That was the last photograph taken at Nrityagram, which Protima had sent to me. He admired Protima’s efforts to establish Nrityagram. He also remembered the Poovaiah Sisters (Kathak exponents from Coorg), who had settled in Bengaluru from Mumbai. We used to meet them also.
Six years ago, celebrating professor U.S. Rao’s birth centenary in Bengaluru, there were three-day dance festivals and a seminar was held in his memory. H.N. Suresh, director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, has made a rare documentary Smt and Professor U.S. Krishna Rao, which was screened on that occasion. It is a rare documentary in which the couple has described the trials and tribulations they had to undergo for performing in public as a Bharatanatyam-dancing couple. But their dedication won over the public and in their institution, “Maha Maya”, a whole generation of young dancers studied Bharatanatyam. Well-known playwright and director, Mahesh Dattani, was also their student studying Bharatanatyam.
After the centenary celebrations in 2012, within three years, Krishna Rao’s son Jayadev passed away. His daughter Anjali lives abroad in Manchester carrying on the couple’s legacy. Maha Maya school has been closed. The precious collection of Krishna Rao’s books, memorabilia, photos and costumes all have been given away to Rashmi Hegde which is maintained by her institution in Bengaluru.
I shall always cherish the happy memories of U.S. Krishna Rao and U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi. Brilliant performers and teachers. As a couple they were legendary figures in the dance world in Bengaluru.
The writer is an eminent dance historian
In my previous column (Feb. 5) on the 14th Drishti National Dance Festival, inadvertently it was mentioned that Anuradha Vikranth, the Bharatanatyam dancer and organiser of the festival, was invited by Rakesh Sai Babu to the Festival at Bengaluru. The mistake is regretted.