Birju Maharaj ruled the realm of Kathak
At a concert several years ago, some school children were sent to welcome a Kathak legend with flowers. He bent down smiling, and asked gently, “Do you know anything about Kathak?” An eight-year-old girl replied, “Yes, it is the dance that Pt. Birju Maharaj does!” Meeting him for the first time, she hadn’t realised it was the stalwart himself standing in front of her. Laughing, he said, “Yes, but he doesn’t do the dance, he lives the dance.”
For the last half century, Kathak has been synonymous with Birju Maharaj, fondly called ‘Maharajji’. He embodied the aesthetics of the dance form, expanding the creative possibilities of the Lucknow gharana. Most importantly, he saw immense possibilities of weaving daily life tales into the dance, ranging from the flight of a bird to the movement of a bureaucratic file, from lunch menu to a maths sum. His style demystified abstract art into everyday moments. This offered imaginative possibilities to the informed dance lover, and allowed the uninitiated to find an easy connection. With the maestro’s passing away, a rich legacy will continue to inspire innovation.
A perfect balance
Eminent dancer Shovana Narayan remembers learning from him in the 1960s. “As a guru he would go into painstaking detail while teaching and said that each nazar (look), each movement should express something. He placed a lot of emphasis on finesse and the ability to dance at a slow tempo with grace.”
She says that he maintained an unassuming air till the end, and people were deeply touched by his humility. “In the 60s, he was a young rising star, but he would happily accompany me and my mother to choose material for the costume from Chandni Chowk (in Delhi), or do my make-up!”
Speaking about his love for music and singing, she reminisces, “He had this desire of singing on All India Radio and in 1967, he finally got the chance to sing his grandfather’s thumris and dadras. But he developed a sore throat just two days before the broadcast and was devastated. We tried all kinds of nuskas (remedies). It turned out to be a beautiful recording and he was delighted.”
Birju Maharaj emerged as a prodigy from the Lucknow tradition of the Maharaj brothers, Achhan Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, who were descendants of Kalka Prasad and his brother Bindadin Maharaj. Narayan believes that one of his greatest contributions to the field of Kathak is a perfect combination of skilful virtuosity and subtle abhinaya. “He emphasised that any presentation should be a balance of both. Specially his performance as bal-Krishna, the naughty child, remains unforgettable.”
In the 50s and 60s, Birju Maharaj explored new dimensions of the form with a series of group choreographies and dance-dramas that were rare in the predominantly solo presentation structure of Kathak.
Revered guru and choreographer Kumudini Lakhia remembers performing with him in those early decades in duets and dance-dramas. One of the productions, ‘Kumar Sambhav’, at Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi featured Birju as Kamadeva and Kumudini as Rati. It received much critical acclaim. “Till then Kathak was primarily about the solo dancer’s repertoire; we brought in elements of design, costume and choreography that proved to be a turning point in the dance form’s history.”
Despite the difference in their respective approaches, Kumudini speaks of how receptive he was to ideas, criticisms and constructive disagreements, which made it deeply enriching to work with him. “I was not a ‘gharanedaar’ artiste like him, but that did not matter to him. He respected my opinion and was open to suggestions and discussions. He was not only a great dancer and musician, he was also a great human being.”
Eminent dancer-choreographer Aditi Mangaldas remembers her early experience of the maestro’s creative genius. “I had met him as a young girl in Ahmedabad. He had a baithak at my home, where he sang and did abhinaya through the night. The predominant gathering of industrialists were awestruck. So was I. He became the cowherd, the shy maiden, the coaxing friend, the jealous lover; transforming in body and expression, all in the blink of an eye. You just sat there, in the moment, mesmerised.”
His prolific and multifaceted oeuvre is rare and unmatched. Aditi says, “Guru, dancer, choreographer, music composer, percussionist, singer; if that was not enough, he wrote poetry and painted. He was luminescent, an inner light that continually glowed.”
Rajendra Gangani, one of the leading interpreters of the Jaipur gharana of Kathak today, says his bond with Maharajji went beyond the difference in their styles. “Living in the same compound of the dance school, I have seen him teach and dance even when I was a child. He would analyse the different aspects of dance beautifully. We would have enriching conversations, not just about our gharanas, but about expanding the possibilities of the dance form.”
“His greatest contribution to Kathak is that he became this bridge,” says Rajendra, that brought the classical to the masses. “He maintained the depth of Kathak while interpreting it with a simplicity that touched the heart.”
Maharajji’s popularity with the audience was also fuelled by the iconic songs he choreographed in films. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) was his earliest foray into Hindi cinema with the memorable ‘Kanha main tose haari’. He won the National Film Award for Best Choreography for ‘Unnai kaanadhu naan’ in Vishwaroopam performed by Kamal Haasan. Over the years, his choreography for Madhuri Dixit dazzled audiences.
Rajendra says that his presentation of traditional thumris in a new andaz (style) was another notable contribution. “Like we have ragamalika in music, I remember he once choreographed a thumri-malika (sequence of thumris) presented by a group of dancers. This was such a different and new presentation!” Remembering another imaginative presentation, he says, “Maharajji imagined jugalbandi as a language of abhinaya. He once portrayed the ghungroo as nayika, and the tabla as the nayak, and the sam of the taal cycle was the place where they met.”
Rajendra taught at Kathak Kendra in Delhi and often his classes were just next door to Maharajji’s. “His sense of humour was amazing. I had a lot of male students and for one of his ballets he needed more boys for certain roles. He asked me if my students could participate. Then, laughing, he said, ‘Tum ladke wale ho, main ladki wala hoon’.” (You are the groom’s party, I am the bride’s.)
Rajendra recalls the veteran’s dance philosophy and says it has been his greatest learning — nritya ko karo mat, nritya ko jiyo (don’t do the dance, live it).
Pranshu Chaturlal remembers accompanying him on the tabla on various occasions, including his last lec-dem. “Despite being such a great artiste, he still had childlike wonder and curiosity; it helped him explain the most difficult concepts with simplicity. His innovative tihaais offered the layperson a chance to get involved in the intricacies of rhythm.”
The young tabla player was deeply inspired by Maharajji’s love for learning, “He found new gadgets thrilling and was a multifaceted genius.”
Benaras gharana Kathak dancer Vishal Krishna deeply cherishes the way Maharajji inspired young dancers like him, sharing wisdom and views and encouraging them to find their own path, “He was generous with sharing his knowledge and insights about the dance. I recall a special composition he choreographed last year for me, where he imagined Shiva joining Krishna in Holi celebrations. He inspired me to explore my individuality in dance. Unhone mere nritya ko sajaa diya (he decorated my dance).”
The author is a Delhi-based arts researcher and writer.