The difference between a Buddha, like the Sakyamuni or Amitabha and a Bodhistava like Avalokiteshawara is that the Buddha has received enlightenment and has freed himself of Samsara, while the Bodhistava after receiving enlightenment goes back into Samsara to aid other sentient beings in achieving their destiny. If the artist is the one who can be compared to the Buddha as one who has seen the inner truth, then there is a small community of arts aficionados who choose to serve the arts by supporting and shining the light on and for others. One such person in the arts today is Dr Usha RK, consulting presently with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and also an independent Arts Consultant.
Born in Mumbai to a middle-class South Indian family, she was put to learn music in recognition of her good voice and to balance the fact that her elder sister was learning dance. Apart from classical training, she was a big film buff and won the School contest sponsored by a popular cola brand with her rendition of ‘Jab deep jale aana’. “I couldn’t escape the lure of old film songs as I stayed in Shivaji Park which was the haunt of old film icons like Prem Nath, Bina Rai and Mukesh.I remember Mukesh would practice on the terrace of a sea front facing building and if I craned my neck I could see the top of his ‘tanpura’, but I could hear him clearly”, says Usha, with eyes lit up with the memory.
In her childhood, she would accompany her sister to the famed dance school of Mumbai, the Raja Rajeshwari School, and wait in a small anteroom for her class to get over. One day the great master saw a shadow dancing from inside the anteroom and caught young Usha imitating her sister. He insisted she show him what she was doing and the child ended up performing the entire piece that her sister had been taught. Impressed he offered to teach her free. “Mahalingam Pillai Sir had a strange way of teaching; he would never look at his students, but he caught every mistake we made”, recalled Usha. “Even though I was learning dance my mother would not allow me to go slow on music. In fact, I owe my cultural sensibilities to my mother”, admits Usha, “who would take me religiously to all concerts”.
One memorable programme was by a small and nascent organisation-Chembur Fine Arts. “It was a two day programme to help raise money for its auditorium, by Yamini Krishnamurthy, with one day for Bharatanatyam and the other day for Kuchipudi. That was the first time I saw Kuchipudi and despite all these years, I can’t forget her ‘Krishna Shabdam’. I decided to learn this as well, which I did from Guru CR Acharyalu who would come in to Bombay, from Mrinalini Sarabhai’s ‘Darpana’ in Ahmedabad, to teach.
In 1975, Usha’s father moved to Bangalore, which was home to many great Gurus “but was not the dance powerhouse it is today”, claimed Usha. She convinced Acharyalu Sir to come and do a month-long workshop with the idea of benefitting local artistes. Many came, including Vyjayanthi Kashi, Dr. Shridhar and Veena Murthy. For her own training she would also go to Chennai every month to learn from Vempatti Chinna Satyam, while in Bharatanatyam, soon realizing the discipline and pedagogy that Kalakshetra stood for, she began learning from Guru Adyar Lakshman’s monthly class in Bangalore.
“Learning all these dances and ‘banis’ or gharans, was a lesson in aesthetics and to figure how each bani fleshed its uniqueness. It was a great learning for someone who loved dance but did not want to be a dancer,” acknowledges Usha!
While very young, Usha gathered the courage to walk up to and then sit regularly, with the formidable critic of the Deccan Herald, SN Chandrasheskar. “As a result of our discussions he urged me to write, and I grabbed the opportunity to be guided by him. For days I would go to his house every day after college, changing two buses and reading from his extensive book collection. He would make me do test reviews. He trained me to be as tough as him, and when he retired he recommended my name”. Many recall how acerbic her writing was but Usha claims that her mother taught her to temper her writing by remembering at least five good things even about the worst dancer.
For days I would go to his house every day after college, changing two buses and reading from his extensive book collection. He would make me do test reviews. He trained me to be as tough as him, and when he retired he recommended my name”. Many recall how acerbic her writing was but Usha claims that her mother taught her to temper her writing by remembering at least five good things even about the worst dancer.
In 1980, Mysore’s Town Hall turned 100, and ITC supported the celebrations. Usha was a consultant and with them she went on to do several Music, Dance and Theatre events, and some lifestyle and sports events too, around their brands, inspired by their taglines. “This experience enriched me with Corporate learning in many ways. It gave me insights into how corporate thought. I learnt the rudiments of marketing and brand building, as I worked very closely with these departments”, recalls Usha. Because she was a freelance consultant, she was able to work with other companies as well, and one experience that stands out is the work she did in the classical arts, with Sunil Alagh, then CEO of Britannia. The first of these was against the background of the Bangalore Palace, featuring masters like Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi, Balamurali Krishna, Kishori Amonkar and a coup of sorts, in having the first family of Tabla Ustad Allah Rakha Khan, Zakir and Faizal to play together.
“I always tried to present young artistes as the opening act for seniors” admits Usha, who curated festivals around unusual themes. “For instance, in the 1990s I did raga intensives- five cities, five ragas, instrumental and vocal concerts in both Hindustani and Carnatic music. You cannot get these curatorial ideas till you know the arts”.
Festivals and cultural properties are intangible equities, but institutions like Nrityagram, in which she assisted Protima Bedi for five years prior to its inauguration, are examples of tangible wealth for a city. Recalling her time with Bedi, Usha admitted that it was amazing. “I used to call her CEO- an indigenous and non-Corporate CEO. She had a clean heart and never took away your glory. In fact at the inauguration, apart from her, I was the only other person on stage along with the Prime Minister”. In 1996, Usha did the opening and closing events for the Miss World Contest in Bangalore, with a hundred member orchestra that played a Global Peace melody composed by Dr L Subrahmanyam, which was telecast around the world. Soon after, she relocated herself in Mumbai. Here she worked with an Ad agency before moving to Dubai to kickstart the Dubai Summer Packages, inside the malls. “It helped grow Dubai’s tourism even though it was originally only meant to enrich the life of those who had stayed back in Dubai’s sweltering heat. She worked with local artistes. Regional artistes, Indian artistes and international celebrities like violinist Vanessa Mae.
Many other interesting stints later, Usha returned to Bangalore in 2006, “wanting to give back to her first love, dance, and concerned that mediocrity was flourishing and we were not creating the next line of great artistes,” said Usha. “So I created a model by which I selected 10-12 dancers of promise and then challenged them to do interesting work, while supporting them so that they were not distracted by the humdrum parts of performance and could concentrate on just excelling”. She herself was not earning any more, except through her consultancies, and yet she had taken up this challenge. By reducing her own personal expenses and through innovative collaborations she manages to keep the project going, first in Bangalore and now in Delhi.
In mock exasperation, Usha commented, “I should write a book about the ways I found to keep this going, but it is very satisfying as the dancers I reposed so much trust in are living up to their promise. In the process I have also created an audience that awaits my next programme and we get a full house even on holidays”. So what it has really taken is a passionate, experienced and determined catalyst, whose interesting life journey was leading her to her destiny of being a Bodhisattva in the Indian arts.