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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Age on Her Side

A video that went viral recently turns the spotlight on 92-year-old dancer and theatre actor, Bhanumati Rao.

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: January 4, 2016 5:27:44 am
Bhanumati Rao, dancer Bhanumati Rao, dancer, Bharatanatyam dancer, viral video, talk, art dance Bhanumati Rao, 92, in a grab from the video

A VIRAL video unearthed a forgotten dancer at the end of last year. Bhanumati Rao — silver-haired, wrinkled and wearing a pink sari and gold necklace — transformed on stage into a graceful mother calling out to baby Krishna in the classic Bharatanatyam piece, titled Krishna ni begane baaro. Bhanumati had turned 92 the day before, on December 4. The video of her performance at a dance school in Bangalore attracted almost a lakh hits overnight and continues to be popular even a month later.

“When she was shown the video, my mother said, ‘Is that Maya?’ Five days later, she had no recollection that she had danced,” says Maya Krishna Rao, Delhi-based theatre actor and Bhanumati’s daughter, who had uploaded the video on Facebook. Bhanumati’s hearing, sight and memory have weakened with age but what strikes viewers of the video is the lyricism with which she performs the piece.

In the 1940s, Bhanumati was part of Ram Gopal’s troupe that travelled all over Europe, performing and raising money as part of the war effort. “I have pictures of her dancing on the streets of Prague. My father, a serious man who was doing law, saw her on stage in London and fell in love,” says Maya. After her marriage, Bhanumati started to live in New York.

Her Bharatanatyam and fusion performances became a part of the Big Apple’s art buzz and she attracted foreign and Indian audiences in huge numbers — among them Jawaharlal Nehru — to her shows.

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When her husband returned to India after Independence, Bhanumati directed her energies towards teaching children — including her own — at her dance school in Delhi. The government recognised her efforts with an award of merit. She was part of Delhi’s Hindi theatre as well as a well-known comic character of the Malayalee stage.

“She would make all her costumes on her sewing machine. My mother never learnt Hindi in all her years in Delhi but, for theatre, she would memorise Hindi dialogues written in Malayalam. The stage was her home,” says Maya, “until one day in the 1990s, when she stopped dancing. Her last performance was a Kathakali piece.”

Bhanumati closed all doors and went off by herself to Chinmayananda Ashram in Sidhbari (Himachal Pradesh) for 10 years. The last few decades have been spent with her garden and home (she lost her husband early) in Delhi. “Almost two-three months ago, she visited my sister in Bangalore and began to take classes with a Carnatic music teacher. My mother is tone deaf, she can’t hold a sa but she was enthusiastic about learning music. Her music teacher began to show her some mudras and that jogged her memory,” says Maya.

When the teacher suggested that she perform the inaugural piece at their school, Bhanumati didn’t need convincing. She was ready. In the video, she turns into a young mother but, unusual for an adult, she folds her hands before Krishna. “I kept telling her, ‘Please don’t do that. This is a mother calling her errant son. She would call him with authority.’ My mother said, ‘What nonsense, I am not going to call him like that.’ For her, the piece is not about a mother calling a son, it’s about a woman calling god.”

Bhanumati’s movements were based on Bharatanatyam but with glimpses of Kathakali in moments when Krishna plays the flute. The performance has a meditative spell as Yashoda offers to tie Krishna’s pitambar, bracelets and anklets and feed him makhan.

“All her life, my mother said that dance was a way of soaking yourself in beauty and the theme doesn’t matter. Now that she has no memory, she soaks herself in dance again,” says Maya.

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