Trailing a pathway to promise: Natya Institute's cultural ventures 
- Veejay Sai, Bangalore

November 25, 2008 
There are few institutions that make an extra effort to go out of their way when it comes to social service through their art. More so if they are cultural institutes that teach performing arts. Traveling along with Natya Stem Dance Kampni to the remote town of Davangere in Karnataka, this journey showed the effort and commitment that one barely sees in the chaos of an urban space. 

Davangere, a little town on the banks of river Noyaal and on the national highway 4 is situated at the foothills of the Western Ghats. It is about 260 km away from the capital city of Bangalore. Having had its history masked from the Chalukya and Pandya era, in the late 18th century, this town was gifted by Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore state to the Marathi leader Apoji Ram who encouraged a lot of traders and merchants to settle there. Earlier a part of the Chitradurga district, it was announced as a separate district by the government in 1997. Known as the 'Manchester of South India,' this little town was one of the heartlands of cotton mills, weavers, handlooms and more and was a major player in the markets from the early 1960's till the pre-globalization era. It is also one of the major granaries of the state which gave rich produce year after year. It was these mills and granaries that gave rise to generous businessmen who would patronize the arts and crafts and promote local artisans time and again. “In the earlier times, this was a cultural hub. Many artists were famous from this place. My husband would often take artists from here to Delhi and other places on cultural tours,” said the legendary Kathak guru and choreographer Dr. Maya Rao remembering her husband Mr. Nataraj who was one of the best cultural impresarios Karnataka has ever had in its history. 

Davangere is also known for its Benne masala dosas and other foods that come from North Karnataka like Jowlada rotti and has made its presence felt on the culinary map of south India. Davangere's date with the nationalist struggle was when Mahatma Gandhi visited the town to lay a foundation stone for a high school on 2nd March 1934. This probably triggered off the reasons this town is now a center for many educational institutions, engineering and medical colleges and is rated as one of the top most centers of learning in the state. 

Dr. Maya Rao is not a person who needs to be introduced to the world of arts. Having won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the prestigious Shantala Award for her phenomenal contribution to dance and choreography, her institute 'Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography' remains India's oldest and probably the only institute to train artists interested in making a profession out of choreography. In an effort to take dance awareness amongst the rural areas, the Natya Institute introduced what they called an 'Aseem Yatra,' a journey without boundaries. A self-funded project in its initial days, this activity was the brainchild of Dr. Maya Rao and her child prodigy and renowned contemporary dancer Madhu Nataraj. “You never know if the next best choreographers and dancers might emerge from our satellite towns,” says Madhu. This idea being appreciated by the Government of Karnataka got them the Sangeet Natak Akademi to pitch in as co-sponsors later. We drove from Bangalore at ten in the night and six hours later we were in Davangere passing some of the most interesting towns in Karnataka like Sira, Chitradurga and others which are rich with mythological and historical narratives. 

We were directed to Harihar, once renowned for its Harihareshwara temple on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, now a landscape filled with 3- star hotels and restaurants. We got up next morning to be welcomed by Deepa. She worked as a journalist with a local television channel and now coordinates the cultural activities in this district through her organization 'Chirantana.' “We try and pick one such cultural coordinator in every district. They help not only in the arrangements, but also in gathering the locals to participate in our project,” Madhu Nataraj said earlier. As a part of 'Aseem Yatra' the Natya Institute has already toured about five districts in North Karnataka, Shimoga, Suratkal, Chikmagalur and Bijapur. 

Chirantana did a commendable job by not only gathering the local press and district heads, but also mobilizing over fifty youngsters interested in dance. The day-long workshop was conducted by Madhu and her team of expert dancers from her Stem Dance Kampni. Stem stands for Space, Time, Energy and Movement, the four pillars on which the very art form of dance thrives. The dancers Janardhan Raj Urs, Ponamma Deviah, Suryanarayana Rao, Keerthi Kumar, Prathama and Sunaina are not only well-trained dancers at Natya Institute, but are also expert teachers and have traveled and performed all over the world as a Kampni repertory. The session opened with lighting the traditional lamp and a prayer. One Mr. Kulkarni was present at this occasion. His father was a well-known figure of his time, who not only patronized dance and other folk artists, but also conducted festivals time and again. His son came there specially to meet Dr. Maya Rao who told him to continue the good work his father was known for.

The kids, who participated, were made into groups and taught their first basic lessons of contemporary dance after a brief round of introductions. One could see the eagerness and anxiety in the participants who were all ready and willing to be trained by these experts. The hall resounded with music amidst instructions as the participants of all sizes, age groups and varied interests moved in tandem motion with brief intervals. There was some charm about these participants which one does not find in the urban children who grow up with a thousand other distractions. There was a certain sense of purity and innocence with which these children were absorbing each and everything being taught to them. Many participants traveled as far as twenty kilometers from remote villages to be a part of this. By the end of the workshop all the children were made into three groups. Each group had its trainers from the Natya Stem Kampni. The trainers along with the participants were given a theme to choose, and trained to dance movements around the theme to bring about a certain narrative and a presentation. From nature and rains to mythology and history, just the selection of themes that were discussed showed the creativity these children had and talent that was waiting to ripen if the right kind of knowledge was given. If you thought dance was only meant for girls, you would have been taken for a complete surprise to see the number of boys who came to participate in this workshop. All through Dr. Maya Rao sat supervising the workshop, giving her inputs as and when required, as the parents of these children sat there in awe of her and thanked their good fortune to see their children train under her team.

The evening was set for a cultural extravaganza that Davangere had never witnessed. The Bapuji hall, one of the biggest auditoriums in the district was all decked for this event. District heads, former ministers, panchayat leaders, parents, children who had participated in the day-long workshop and the citizens came in all their fineries to fill the hall to the brim. A small speech ceremony was arranged after a prayer, some of the most fascinating tales were narrated. Manjunath, a participant from the workshop narrated how, he being a patient with weak bones and arthritis had to discontinue his dance practice till then and how he was now willing to take up any ailment but wouldn't get discouraged from dancing. Another participant, a medical doctor by profession treats her patients though dance therapy, which she says helped them a lot more than any medicines did. Hearing a tirade of these speeches, you could sense the achievement of a project like 'Aseem Yatra' and how much all of India needed more such projects to be catered to their doorstep. 

A fantabulous concert by the Natya Stem Dance Kampni showcasing some of their best productions was like the icing on the cake that Davangere just required. Post that, we headed to the famous town center circle to relish the famous Davangere Benne Masala dosas, the Benne paddus and the masala mandakki. Good music, great concert, excellent hospitality and great food, what else would one need to propagate the culture of India back to its roots and neglected rural areas? In days when hoards of corporate sponsorship go in to bring rock concerts from overseas to filthy-rich and often-thankless urban audiences, a little effort and support to projects like 'Aseem Yatra' would go a long way in nurturing awareness on Indian cultural arts like dance and music. Hope this arduous journey taken up by Natya paves newer ways of growth for performing arts in these turbulent times when there are very less patrons. For all you know, some of the world's best choreographers and dancers from our country might have just enrolled in one of these workshops and matured over such expert guidance. Stay tuned along the track! 

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and critic from Bangalore. He may be contacted at