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‘He was truly the Maharaj of Indian arts’: Artistes remember Pandit Birju Maharaj’s inimitable legacy

From Shovana Narayan to Uma Sharma, renowned classical dancers remember the 'ultimate Kathak guru'.

By: Lifestyle Desk | New Delhi |
January 17, 2022 2:10:20 pm
birju maharajBirju Maharaj's legacy is beyond words, artistes say (Source: Kalasharam/Instagram)

Pandit Birju Maharaj passed away Morning; a news that came as a shock to the entire art and culture community.  The 83-year-old, who passed away at his home in Delhi, had been suffering from a kidney ailment and was under dialysis treatment. He also had Covid-19, his friend and disciple, kathak exponent Uma Sharma, informed indianexpress.com.

“I am in tears and shock. Only three days ago, I spoke to him when he told me about his dialysis, and that he also got Covid-19. I remember scolding him for not taking care of himself. He was an artiste par excellence; not just a dancer but also a vocalist. He could even play so many instruments with ease. He was truly the Maharaj of Indian arts. It is a great loss that I have no words to describe,” said Sharma, 80, whose association with the exponent began when she was just 11-12 years old.

“He was the ultimate Kathak guru,” she added.

uma sharma birju maharaj Uma Sharma with Birju Maharaj (Source: Uma Sharma)

Born as Brij Mohan Nath Mishra on February 4, 1938, he was popularly known as Pandit Birju Maharaj. An exponent of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Kathak dance in India, he was a descendant of the Maharaj family of Kathak dancers — which included his two uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, and his father and guru, Acchan Maharaj.

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Recalling her association with the legendary artiste, kathak stalwart Shovana Narayan, who was at his residence for the final rites, said, “Not just a good friend, I was also his disciple — probably in his second batch way back in 1964. We have spent a whole lifetime together. He used to teach me for 3-4 hours each day at my home, and never charged a penny. His only ‘guru dakshina’ was a plate of rabdi and paan. In fact, his wife did my haldi when I got married,” Narayan, 71, told this outlet.

She also recalled her last conversation with him. “I spoke to him just three days ago, on Makar Sankranti. He was sounding better than when I had seen him a week ago, around January 8-10, at his residence. He was an institution who brought a new dimension and artistry to the age-old form of classical dance of kathak. He then went on to overhaul kathak with his beautiful intensity, grace, movement. It was amazing to watch him perform,” Narayan added.

According to Kalasharam, Birju Maharaj’s Delhi-based institute, his first major solo performance was at Manmath Nath Ghosh celebrations in Bengal in the presence of stalwarts of music. He received recognition as a young dancer with great potential. He never looked back after that, his career graph rising steadily.

Not only in India, he is recognised world over. The Kalasharam site also mentioned that even in the early years of his career, he was part of cultural troupes sent abroad by the Government of India to represent India at various festivals. He has extensively toured all over the world i.e. Russia, U.S.A, Japan, U.A.E., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Burma, Sri Lanka, etc. for performances as well as lecture-demonstrations.

beenu rajpoot Beenu Rajpoot on Birju Maharaj (Source: Beenu Rajpoot/WhatsApp Status)

A recipient of the country’s second highest civilian award – Padma Vibhushan – Pandit Maharaj will always be remembered as a living legend and an institution, artistes said.

Kathak dancer and filmmaker Beenu Rajpoot also said, it was a “big shock”. “Words fall short for expressing my sorrow”.

“Pandit Birju Maharaj was a role model for all dancers not only with his expertise but also for creating a path which taught dancers to move with the times. His passing away is a great loss to the fraternity of Indian classical dance. Today, we should remember him as a great genius of creativity and celebrate his immense contribution through which he will live forever,” said Sattriya dancer Prateesha Suresh.

“What to say… (have) no words. Maharaj Ji is no more with us. My hands are shivering writing this because everybody knows what he was and what he meant for us — maa, for my sister, and for me. So shocked, shattered and saddened,” guitarist Utkarsh Srivastav said on Instagram.

In a conversation with indianexpress.com, he said that his “mother, Sangeeta Sinhaiji is the only student of Maharaj ji in Varanasi, and also the oldest one”. “She has been organising a big festival named Kathak Mahotsav where Maharaj ji used to come every year. Few years back, we celebrated the 25th year of Kathak Mahotsav where I also had the opportunity to perform in front of him with my sister. He has seen us growing up, from childhood till present. When I bought my first electric guitar, I went to take Maharaj ji’s blessing when he was here in Mumbai few years back. It’s all so precious,” he said.

The exponent received the Sangeet Natak Academy Award when he was only 28 years old. He then went on to earn several other prestigious awards like – Kalidas Samman, Nritya Choodamani, Andhra Ratna, Nritya Vilas, Adharshila Shikhar Samman, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Shiromani Samman, Rajiv Gandhi Peace Award.

According to his website, he had also been conferred with Honorary Doctorate degrees from Banaras Hindu University and Khairagarh University.

 

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A post shared by Sharat Prabhath (@sharatprabhath)

Harikatha exponent, Kathak dancer and Carnatic vocalist Sharat Prabhath wrote on Instagram, “Saddest day of every artist’s life! Maharaj ji was a world citizen, a complete artist and a beautiful soul. Wish you come back to give a new dimension to kathak, very soon!”

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