Pandit Birju Maharaj wears many hats. He is best known as a Kathak maestro, but the Padma Vibhushan-awardee is an equally prolific singer, poet and painter. “I express in the best way I feel inspired to, and am blessed to have been able to wear these different hats,” he said on being asked about his various interests.
Recently, the dance virtuoso performed with his sons, daughter and grand-daughter to give students a peek into his gharana and how his family is taking the legacy forward. We caught up with the Kathak legend to know more about the masterclass, his journey over the years, his tryst with Bollywood and classical dance. Excerpts:
You recently performed with your children and granddaughter; how does it feel to have three generations coming together on stage?
It’s obviously an absolute delight to see your younger generations following in your footsteps and taking the art and legacy forward. We presented three generations of the gharana in one session to give the students a view of how the gharana and our craft is evolving with every subsequent generation.
Can you tell us about the recent masterclass?
It’s all about encouragement and blessings. The idea was to take the art form forward and make future generations of the country aware of our classical treasure. Routes 2 Roots is doing a wonderful job of making our traditional art forms reach the children and the future generations of the country through Virsa, and the masterclass was all about educating the children about Kathak and the nuances of our gharana.
You are not only a Kathak maestro, but also a singer, choreographer, poet and painter. How do you manage to wear so many hats?
I just see this as different expressions of my art. An artiste expresses his deepest emotions through his art, be it dance, music or visual art forms. I express in the best way I feel inspired to and am blessed to have been able to wear these different hats of a dancer, singer, poet and painter. It just comes to me naturally and is effortless. I am just the channel through which all this flows.
You gave your first performance when you were only seven. How would you describe your journey?
It’s been an adventure. I have loved every aspect of my journey as a student, performer and teacher. Passing on your art form to passionate students is one of the most satisfying experiences for me as an artiste.
While you have been closely associated with Bollywood, have you over the years ever felt that the industry has led to the commercialisation of traditional dance forms?
Yes it has. But I only select those movies which portray the traditional form of Kathak such as Devdas or Bajirao Mastani.
In an age of hip-hop and jazz dance, what do you think still attracts youngsters to pursue traditional dance forms?
I feel Kathak brings out the human emotions and the day to day experiences through its various nuances. And it is the base from which popular dance forms also emerge. I think this is the foundation which every dancer needs to master before pursuing popular dance forms. And this is the appeal of the pure form of traditional Kathak.
Who do you think is the most graceful dancer in Bollywood and why?
Well there are many wonderful dancers in Bollywood. My favourite has been Madhuri Dixit, whom I have worked with in Devdas and Dedh Ishqiya. She is a trained Kathak dancer and has natural grace.
Art often adapts to the changes around. In what way, would you say, has Kathak evolved and adapted to contemporary times?
I have tried to incorporate mathematics and numbers into the dance form so that children can easily connect to the difficult intricacies of Kathak. Even in popular and commercial dance forms today, Kathak has evolved as the most appealing form because it can easily adapts to situations and emotions and allows for incorporation of different styles in it.
After all these years, do you ever have jitters before a performance starts?
Yes, absolutely! I pray to God before every performance and invoke the power of the almighty appealing to God to empower him to perform.