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Pt Birju Maharaj, storyteller who blurred gender norms to become one of the foremost masters of Kathak, passes away at 83

A rare combination of virtuosity and expression, grace and control, Pt Birju Maharaj’s oeuvre was also about his intrepid belief that dance could convey just about everything.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
January 17, 2022 9:19:05 am
Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Birju Maharaj news, Pandit Birju Maharaj deathKathak dancer Pt Birju Maharaj performs on the last day of the Old Fort Dance festival at Purana Qila in 2015. (Express File Photo by Ravi Kanojia)

Back in 2010, at a concert in Delhi’s Kamani auditorium, Girija Devi sang the lilting hori, Rang daarungi nand ke laalan pe, rang daarungi, a piece in Braj bhaasha about Radha’s explicit desire to colour Krishna. Next to her sat Pt Birju Maharaj, who embodied the Radha in the hori – adakaari in place, heart in tow. As Maharaj interpreted this one line in numerous ways, he articulated the desire of a woman, with all its sensuality. At the end of it, Girija Devi draped her shawl over Maharaj’s head. Maharaj acknowledged, turning the shawl into his veil. Tumultuous applause followed. “I can’t think of any woman dancer who can be a better Radha,” Devi would say often.

A rare combination of virtuosity and expression, grace and control, Pt Birju Maharaj, who became synonymous with Kathak, passed away in Delhi at the age of 83. He suffered from kidney ailments and had been on dialysis for some months. He contracted Covid a few days ago and had a heart attack on Monday morning.

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Maharaj’s oeuvre was not just about dazzling performances, choreographies, and that delicate glance of the eye. It was also about his intrepid idea that dance could convey just about everything. Gender, in all of this, rarely mattered as he sought to move beyond any constraints that his artform offered.

Born Brij Mohan Nath Mishra, Maharaj began dancing when he was four. Kathak was in the family — his father, Achhan Maharaj, was from the prestigious Kalka-Bindadin family of Lucknow. The narrow Lucknow lane where they lived would reverberate with the tinkle of ghungroos. “My father used to be happy and would tell my amma ‘Ladka bohot leyadaar hai. (The boy is extremely rhythmic)’,” he had said in an interview to The Indian Express in 2013. He began performing at concerts with his father before his first major solo in West Bengal. While still in school, Maharaj had said, he would use his notebooks to write the bols of Kathak, instead of taking down class notes.

Birju Maharaj, pandit Birju Maharaj, Birju Maharaj death, Birju Maharaj age, pandit birju maharaj news, pandit birju maharaj news Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan wrote on Facebook that she is “too shocked for words”. She first started learning from him in 1964. (Photo: Facebook/Shovana Traxl Narayan)

Acchan Maharaj passed away when Birju Maharaj was nine. Armed with the precise footwork that his father taught him, a young Maharaj began teaching while also being trained by his uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, who are credited with giving him the fluidity of movement and bhaav that he was so famous for. He moved to Delhi to teach at Sangeet Bharti, Mandi House, and never looked back.

At 28, Maharaj was one of the youngest artistes to be honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademy award. He was also conferred with a Padma Vibhushan and was the head of Kathak Kendra till his retirement in 1998.

What added to his performances was his immense knowledge of percussion and Hindustani classical music. He could sing the thumri he was to dance to. His tabla playing could astonish some of the finest classical tabla artistes in the country. On other days he would pick up the naal and play the most sublime theka, his eyes moving with the beat. Soon, almost every musical conference in the country had Maharaj as their star performer. What was interesting about his Kathak performances was that these were not just mythological pieces, he was also contemporising the stories, even taking bits from his daily life and looking at social issues.

Some of his finest performances were with Ustad Zakir Hussain. At Maharaj’s 75th birthday celebration at Delhi’s FICCI auditorium, he showcased ginti ki tihaies and bhav through a thumri sung by Pt Rajan Mishra and his son-in-law Pt Sajan Mishra.. With Maharaj’s intricate footwork, superb control and stamina almost defying his age, an overwhelmed Hussain said with a laugh, “He danced on my fourth birthday… Ab kyunki Maharaj ji aaj chaar saal ke ho gaye hain (Now that Maharaj ji has turned four), I wanted to pay him a tribute. While playing with him, I have no idea what he will do next. It is a challenge I look forward to.”

Maharaj also contributed to Hindi film choreographies. Be it the piece he choreographed for his student Saswati Sen in Shatranj ke Khiladi or for Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Paagal Hai and Devdas, for Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani or Kamal Haasan in Vishwaroopam, these intricate performances showcased his sense of precision and fine choreography. His ginti ki tihaais are studied rigorously by students of Kathak.

As a guru, Maharaj inspired generations of dancers to take up Kathak. The training was rigorous, “until it got into your bloodstream,” as Shovana Narayan, who was trained by Maharaj, once said. His other students include Saswati Sen, Nisha Mahajan and Aditi Mangaldas among others.

Mangaldas was a young girl learning Kathak in Ahmedabad, when her guru, Kumudini Lakhia, and her aunt, writer and activist, Pupul Jayakar, recommended that she learn from Maharaj, “the mouth of the river”. “You didn’t learn only in his classroom. It was an ongoing learning process which became a way of life. His sense of observation – of rhythm, of poetry, of sounds around him was so phenomenal. It’s incredible how all of this translated into dance, making him a larger-than-life figure,” said Mangaldas, who moved away from Maharaj’s institute, Kalashram, after a few years to start her own dance company.

Manjari Chaturvedi, who learned Maharaj’s style of dancing from his seniormost student, Pt Arjun Mishra, believes that traditional Kathak is alive because of Pt Birju Maharaj. “What he did for Kathak can’t be quantified. That generation lived their art form. We perform it. When Kathak began, it was all about the solo. Post-independence, with changing times, he adapted with group choreographies, but kept the tradition alive,” says Chaturvedi.

But what Maharaj also did was put some pizzazz into it all. It was not just about technique, tradition and tutelage, all of which was there in abundance. It was also about the imprint of the impression during that performance. And it’s the feeling of it all which will stay on and enchant us for years to come.

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