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When Pandit Birju Maharaj played the nayak and the nayika with equal ease

Indian classical dancers have immersed themselves in Shringaar ras for years. Are male dancers today caught between gender stereotypes and a need for instant applause?

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
January 23, 2022 6:20:16 am
Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Birju Maharaj legacy, Pandit Birju Maharaj dance, Pandit Birju Maharaj Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj skill, Pandit Birju Maharaj bhaav, Pandit Birju Maharaj news, Pandit Birju Maharaj dance performances, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express newsPt Birju Maharaj and Ustad Zakir Hussain at Shanmukhanand Hall, Mumbai in 2012. (Photo credit: Express Archives)

In a lecture demonstration in 2019 as part of Manodharma Festival in the Capital put together by Delhi-based Odissi exponent Sharon Lowen, Pandit Birju Maharaj presented a thumri in raag Desh. It’s a composition by his grandfather Kalka Maharaj, who along with his brother Bindadin Maharaj, is known to be the architect of the present-form of Kathak from the Lucknow gharana. Pt Birju (nee Brijmohan Mishra) sat cross-legged and rhythmically improvised on the poetry – Jaane de maika o sajanwa (Let me go, O beloved). And in that single phrase, he encompassed numerous expressions, taking on male and female roles with indistinguishable ease. While his sensual Radha pouted and appealed, even got angry, his Krishna was relentless and mischievous. Beneath the subtext of the venereal and adoration, and while showcasing the delicacy of expression, he effortlessly blurred gender divides.

“Maharaj ji could play a woman better than a woman, without being effeminate. As Krishna, he was delicate yet manly,” says Kathak exponent and Birju’s student Shovana Narayan about his exceptional ability to present shringar ras (representation of romance and eroticism in the arts). It was not just a bequest of tradition and lineage but also a work of his formidable mind that took from tradition and transformed it.

Pt Birju’s passing at 83 years last week was a reminder of what exceeding the limits of artform can sometimes offer, making us understand that gender roles are not rigid.

Kathak originates from the idea of storytelling. In villages, when there weren’t any schools, kathakars used to tell mythological stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to educate the audience. These travelling musicians were also fixtures at temples and significant during the Bhakti movement in the 15th century. Kathak had thrived when it entered the Mughal courts and found patronage.

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As for shringar ras, it has been one of the mainstays of the Lucknow gharana. And the story was often from the point of view of the woman. According to Indore-based senior Kathak dancer and Pt Birju’s contemporary, 82-year-old Puru Dadheech, “Nayika-pradhan (women-centric) pieces have always been significant in the Lucknow gharana because it was preferred in the courts of Awadh. The nazakat (poise) and nafasat (finesse) in Kathak come from there”.

It’s been well documented in Ma’danul Moosiqui (‘The Mine of Music’), a compilation by Hakim Mohammed Karam Imam, courtier of Lucknow’s last nawab Wajid Ali Shah that the nawab was a major patron of the arts, and was a poet himself. He, too, preferred shringar ras more than any other. He even saw himself as Krishna and would dance with his wives, asking them to be gopis for the evening. He wrote and composed a number of thumris – one of which, Babul mora, naihar chhooto hi jaaye (O father.. my home is slipping away from me), which he wrote in exile, is still sung at concerts.

Not just Pt Birju, but many senior dancers such as Odissi maestro Pt Kelucharan Mohapatra and Kathak guru Pt Lachhu Maharaj immersed themselves in shringar, lasya (gentle movement) and bhaav (expression) for decades. But for many male dancers of Kathak today, the dominating themes come from the world of taandav, representing masculine energy. The preoccupation with veer ras (heroic) and raudra ras (anger) is more because it’s more acceptable to the masses. The focus is on footwork – how fast, how innovative and how technically sound it can be. “But where is the expression on the face – one of the mainstays of dance? These people are brilliant and talented but the concentration is on virtuosity,” says Delhi-based Narayan, 71.

Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Birju Maharaj legacy, Pandit Birju Maharaj dance, Pandit Birju Maharaj Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj skill, Pandit Birju Maharaj bhaav, Pandit Birju Maharaj news, Pandit Birju Maharaj dance performances, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news Pandit Birju Maharaj with his students. (Photo credit: Express Archives)

Dadheech says that hardly any thumris were written from the perspective of men. “But that does not mean that men will now be monkeys on stage, going from one part of the stage to the other, with no sense of chaindaari (calmness),” he says.

Narayan says the reason is the need for instant gratification and lack of meditative approach to dance. “The pace has picked up and the grace and thehraav (steadiness) is gone. It’s because people are looking for instant applause,” says Narayan. And the assumption is that instant applause is what you get with technical virtuosity. “Abhinaya (acting) has to come from your heart. It’s something that you have to feel and I think now they don’t feel as much. They just want to throw their hands and feet. Do they read literature? Very few,” she says.

Kolkata-based Kathak dancer Sourav Roy says that the issue is also related to the attention span of the audience. “If there is nothing eye-catching at the beginning, the audience is bored. During the pandemic, with so many online concerts, how many dancers had bhaav? If they did, people would just scroll past. If they weren’t doing pirouettes or tihaais or not showing virtuosity through footwork, there wasn’t going to be many views,” says Roy, 37. He reveals that the danger of coming across as effeminate or being mocked at socially also makes young dancers avoid shringar ras.

Pt Birju’s technical brilliance in terms of his footwork is feted. At the same time, his abhinaya resonated with immense energy and nuance. “It was never one over the other,” says Narayan. Pt Birju also never took many spins in his own performances. “When I was a student, he made me do 27 pirouettes and 33 pirouettes (they are time-cycle related), but he’d say do it once and that’s it. Concentrate on bhaav,” says Narayan.

When Roy was learning dance in Kolkata, his guru Malabika Mitra, who learned under the aegis of Lucknow and Jaipur gharana, asked him to attend a workshop by Rajendra Gangani, a senior guru of Jaipur gharana. The gharana is known for superb footwork, swift movements and virtuosity. “I was asked to see how a man dances with strong postures and bold moves,” says Roy, “Jaipur had warriors and the courts preferred virtuosity, which is what you see in the work of that gharana. For nazakat, they preferred to watch courtesans and not men presenting bhaav,” says Dadheech. But unlike the Mughals they frowned upon the idea of women dancing in courts until it actually happened. For a long time, only men performed Kathak in this gharana.

But what is not understood by many is that shringar ras isn’t just about Krishna-Radha, or lovers yearning for each other. It is deeper than that. Pt Shambhu Maharaj, Pt Birju’s uncle and another colossal name from Lucknow gharana was known for presenting a shringar ras style that transcended the physical, besides a more strenuous form of the repertoire. Then there is a dancer’s own interpretation of it. “It’s Krishna and Radha but you also take them as symbols of aatma and parmatma. The yearning is shringarik (romantic). But it needs to be understood that the concept of thumri is not at a mundane level. Through Jaidev’s Geet Govind, we do not portray it at a mundane level, but you are in dialogue with this lord,” says Narayan.

After his father, Achhan Maharaj died, a young Pt Birju was taken under his uncle Shambhu’s wing and taught vigorous movements and pieces. He then left for Mumbai briefly, where he trained under his other uncle Pt Lachhu Maharaj, who choreographed some of the most elegant choreographies in Hindi cinema including the iconic pieces in Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972). Lachhu asked his nephew, “Kya sikhaya chhote ne(what did my younger brother teach you)?”. He was appalled when he saw elements of taandav. He asked him, where is the abhinaya, and taught him the same piece delicately. When Pt Birju returned to Lucknow, Shambhu was unhappy with this “girly dancing”. Pt Birju was so confused that he decided to take the best of both worlds.

But the lack of bhaav in today’s generation led to a shift in the way the dance form exists at the moment. Roy does not think so. “These are also technologically sound times. Many like Birju Maharaj have left us with numerous performances and interviews explaining shringar to us, and for the younger generation to observe. They have also passed on their art to numerous students who will teach the form further,” says Roy. Narayan says that there are issues, yes, “but the younger generation is talented, they just need a nudge in the right direction.” Dadheech wants mutual respect which will lead to a better understanding. “Why is there still so much rivalry between Lucknow and Jaipur. The students don’t even extend pranaams to the gurus from opposite sides. Once we tackle the fundamentals, teach values besides the art, the dance form will be fine,” he says.

Narayan recalls Pt Birju saying that stage spotlights were only external things to create an atmosphere. “If I was performing in the winter and the piece was set in the summer, the audience had to feel the hot and dry summer winds, he’d say. Such needs to be the power of expression,” says Narayan.

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