Honored with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Padma Shri (the fourth highest civilian award in India) Smt. Rani Karnaa, one of the greatest contributors to Indian Classical Dance, was born in Hyderabad, Sind, now in Pakistan. She was trained under the legendary Gurus Nrityacharya Narayan Prasad, Pandit Sunder Prasad, and Pandit Birju Maharaj. Rani Karnaa is hailed among India’s foremost exponents of Kathak. She has enriched and amalgamated the great traditions of Jaipur and Lucknow Gharanas with a unique sense of aesthetic adventure. Her creative repertoire comprises of integrated compositions of Sahitya (Literature), Sangeet (Music) and Nritya (Dance). Together with Dr. S. K. Saxena of Delhi University, her work on the aesthetics of Kathak is much acclaimed. At the peak of her accomplishments, she learned Odissi under the tutelage of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and in turn has contributed immensely to the old and rich heritage of this dance form. Rani Karnaa has traveled far and wide taking her passion for Kathak to the U.K., Russia and many European and East Asian countries. A recipient of numerous honors, awards, and accolades she received the Vice-President’s Gold Medal in 1954. The Queen of Laos honored her with the “Order of the Queen” in 1964. In 1977, her alma mater Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi, honored her with the title “Sangeet Varidhi”. In 1990, the Indian International Friendship Society, New Delhi, awarded her the “Vijay Ratna” for her contributions as a Cultural Ambassador for India.
As she shares her memories of childhood, Rani Karnaa recalls the incident when she first heard the jingle of ghungroo and became attracted to dancing as a child in New Delhi. Along with Kathak, she also took lessons in Bharatnatyam and Manipuri while simultaneously pursuing her higher studies. This resulted in a strict regime of practice. Her first opportunity of a major performance came during the Youth Festival and her practice timetable became more intense. It turned out to be a lifelong lesson regarding the value of discipline and practice as a performing artiste. She further talks about, explains in detail and demonstrates the various technicalities and nuances of different forms and how each of them contributed to her own compositions in terms of tala and anga.
Despite her passion for Kathak, Rani Karnaa seems to have a certain distaste for the overly verbose descriptive tendencies in the tradition. The detail of customs, rituals, gestures, and explanations finally leading to the Kathak performance didn’t appeal to her much. She believes in practical application, in performance. The composition itself and its performance should be self-explanatory. The preceding rituals should be minimal. In a way, this pushed her towards making compositions drawing upon elements from various classical dance forms such as Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, etc. She also acknowledges the contribution of Dr. Saxena who taught her to be self-critical and analytical. And now when she is teaching her students, she seems to have evolved a method and technique of her own where she is always on the lookout for details and involves a proper understanding of the literary content instead of merely learning things by heart without engagement.