Woman as Water: Madhu Nataraj the Whimsical Goddess of Dance

  • Schonali
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  • Working Women
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  • 18 Jul 2016


Bubbling brooks cut paths through mountains with indefatigable patience. And so it is when we encounter a water body... our bodies and minds slip into a soporific calm; poised for rejuvenation. 

I sit with Madhu Nataraj on her sun-flood-lit balcony - steaming cups of dark kaapi squat on rough-hewn log coasters before us and monsoon gales blustering through the trees outside - relaxing into my low, wide chair... all senses on simmer-down from the traffic-clogged world outside.

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It is always this way with Madhu; even more so in the tumultous tranquility of her home. Frida Kahlo and Dali keep company with Kariyappa Hanchinamani’s reds, bronzes and charcoals on the walls, while set into doors are Kanjeevaram borders of her mother’s old saris to bless each room. A Shekhawati treasure chest circa 17th or 18th century commands a corner as a standing bar.

Madhu Nataraj is, among other things, a Kathak-contemporary dancer, a choreographer, an entrepreneur, an arts educator, one of India Today’s 50 Young Achievers, an Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar recipient from Sangeet Natak Akademi, a Mohan Khokar awardee for excellence in dance... The kaleidoscope of her collective avatars, awards, and achievements - legacies in the making - is quite, quite intimidating.


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She is also the daughter of the illustrious Dr. Maya Rao, who was a national export for Kathak under the Nehru government, and the first and only Indian of her time to study dance & choreography at the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, in the 70's. Her repertoire endowment is tremendous and continues to reverberate throughout the classical dance world. 

JobsForHer wanted to know what it took to pioneer and lead as an entrepreneur in an area not naturally considered the realm of business, at a time not kind to those who took risks...

So Madhu told us...

When I started STEM [Space|Time|Energy|Movement] Dance Kampni, I was almost ostracized because I had created Karnataka’s first contemporary dance company. You might have had an individual or two performing contemporary dance, but not a Company.

This meant that at the age of 22-23 I was an entrepreneur without realizing the fact until 10 years later... Responsible for so many people’s dancing and careers, including my own...

All my life, I have danced from anywhere between 5-6 hours a day. A couple of months ago, I came to a point where I was so overwhelmed with all the OTHER stuff happening around me – administrative work, fundraising, handling people, etc. – that I was dancing less and less. Finding time to dance was becoming an ordeal, which I thought was not a good thing. So for a month I took a break from it completely. This was the only time I took away from dance.

The firefighting goes on every single day, with a career like mine.

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When I started STEM the purists were after me and my mother because she was my Guru and my mother.

“Why does a good Kathak dancer have to stand on her head or deal with social issues and talk about sexuality etc., etc...”

Without realizing that it’s all there, in all our classical forms; eroticism is an important part of our cultural and religious inheritance. But, I was doing more social issues-based work, and so for a long time, I was not even thought of as a “serious” dancer. But here I was, fighting against time, against the odds, and the establishment, to create this Company.

Then, of course, the moment of truth arrived when I put up my first production.

The audience absorbed it like a sponge.

For them, it was dance becoming accessible – stage-performance ART, becoming accessible, not Bollywood, Salsa etc. And when that happened, a whole lot of classical dancers around India began jumping into the contemporary bandwagon, because it IS the need of the hour.

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I think that we balance tradition and modernity in life every single day. You do your pooja or you go to church, and then you’re in your car, or an auto, you’re wearing a watch with your sari... We are already, constantly, as Indians, balancing the two. 

It is an organic transition into dance, which reflects life.

Another challenge I had was money, of course. For the first 6 years of my career, I didn’t take anything out of STEM. Even if I did it was Rs. 200, or something like that. I had NO money most of the time. Till today, the tradition remains that after everyone is paid, I get my cheque.

Since the year 2000, any dancer who walks into STEM as a performer is paid from Day 1. Because I felt that the struggle that I went through... You know, it’s very nice to say “I struggled”, and the generation before us likes to say it, too. But, I felt, why should they struggle?  If an engineer doesn’t have to struggle, then why should a dancer struggle?

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I thank my parents for teaching me independence, as an only child. And, for taking me along wherever they went. Whether it was travelling by 3rd class train or 1st class plane to foreign events, I grew up in green rooms, and travelled through forests for shows with them. I had a very varied and bohemian upbringing.

Also, they inculcated in me a love for reading and curiosity. I remember so clearly: they could have been having a raging argument and I’d wander in with my book as an 8 year old and point to a word to ask its meaning. They’d drop the fight, get a dictionary, sit with me, locate the word and explain its meaning. Then they’d go back to their argument!

My father would go every Sunday to the second-hand market and bring me armloads of books – Enid Blyton, comics, Charles Dickens... everything. That experience, those moments of learning, gave the impetus to so much...

Continuity and fluidity are my mantras. I want to leave a legacy with every project.

It is very great to say I pioneered in something, but the challenge is in continuing that – whether it is a business, or something you start from home, even relationships!

As women we are like water, we achieve equilibrium naturally... Water, when put into a pot, or a bottle, or any uneven surface, finds its way to fill and fit... We find our balance. Of course, hard work notwithstanding.

Therefore, as women, our hardest task is to achieve that ephemeral work-life balance. 

To stay focused, my advice is to set some sort of rules for yourself and to get creative.

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I’ll give you an example, as a woman: I have renovations going on at home, I have guests coming for dinner, I have a performance this evening, and in the morning I have to finish writing some articles... What you WANT to do at that moment is just have a cup of coffee and read a magazine! Because you’re so FED UP already, right? So I would say to myself, I’m not going to have my lunch unless I finish this. And, when you multitask, things move very fast.

Sometimes when we set up our day, one appointment is delayed and like a domino effect, the whole day could fall apart. How do we get creative, how do we firefight? Eg. I might have to write a synopsis, which I’ve done hundreds of times. But, I have to write a NEW one, with an edge to it. So, I would call in a youngster working in the office and bounce it off of her, and she’d always have something different to say.  Or, I call up a friend. Or, I read up on what someone else is doing now. But I always find ways to get a fresh outlook.

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On Being an Artist who Leads other Artists in a Day-to-Day Business...

I've always believed that to be a good leader you must create leaders around you, and know that different people have capacities for different things. So, you can’t have one ground rule for all.

My Core Team is about 4 people. Apart from dance, which is a bit erratic as a performance space (one month you have one show, one month you have 5 shows, one month you have nothing), the Core Team supplements their income by performing administration jobs and tasks.

One person has more management skills, is good with marketing, fabulous to talk to clients. Another is good with diverse people and has to talk to gurus, students, and academics to fix up routines etc. Another is fabulous at teaching, and dancing, but cannot sit in a meeting. These are some of the verticals that we have on the team, and when they work within their areas of expertise, then they do what they’re best at. Therefore, the Kampni runs on a neat business module so that our artistic dreams become a reality, and we have portfolios such as Creative Heads, Directors for Coordination & Administration, Heads of Projects, Rehearsal Masters, Liaison Directors, etc. so that our dancers can have dual roles in both the creative & managerial realms. 

You have to really take the time to feel the pulse. 

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And somehow, you can become Mother Superior, you know, as women. Innately you want to look after people. And, somewhere you have to put your foot down and say,

“No. Even I am here, despite a fracture, despite fever, despite the fact that my husband is away and I can’t be with him, because I’m here to WORK. I don’t care, you come and focus too!”

I was divorced and on my own for 8 years before meeting my soul partner. What I would say to any woman who is going through the pain of that experience right now, is to take time out for YOURSELF and be alone with yourself, for some time. Right now, you are vulnerable, and you are hurting, emotionally. Society feeds off of that negative energy and can be vicious. Enjoy your solitude and treat it as quality time with a very special person – YOU!

Whether you go get your nails done, or a massage, or take off to another city and stay with a friend who will stay out of your way while you’re there, allowing you to be alone with yourself – just do it.

Grieve, find closure, heal & energise your being and your life.

Scientists have discovered that the moments of greatest creativity come in moments of stillness. That’s why you get your best ideas in the shower, or just when you’re dropping off to sleep... Stillness is so important for our lives.

Do not feel the need to dive into another relationship just yet. All the pain and hurt that you left your marriage with will attract you to the wrong person at this moment, and you will find yourself back in an exact replica of the unhappiness that you chose to discard.

The best way to move forward is to dive into something for yourself, and my personal recommendation is work.

Work can take your mind off of everything else that the world wants you to be on top of, remember, do, and get done, for others.

Work was always my solace, and I’m lucky that my work is dance...

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