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Through his art, Birju Maharaj told stories, blurred gender lines, created a parallel universe

🔴 Birju Maharaj created his own kathas (stories) and looked at social issues through dance.

Pandit Birju Maharaj began dancing when he was about four.

Sam ko pakdo. Kathak mein sam tumhara ghar hai (Catch the first beat of the time cycle. In Kathak, that’s home),” the exacting guru in Pandit Birju Maharaj would say to his students. And when there was a mistake, he’d get up and go back to the basics — with that first lesson in tatkaar (footwork). With his hands held together in front, he’d begin, slowly raising the tempo, until his ghungroo and feet blurred together and he seemed to be in a parallel universe. And just when you least expected it, he was back to sam. The artist who inspired generations of men and women to take up Kathak, a temple dance form that thrived when it moved to the Mughal courts, passed away on Monday due to Covid and kidney complications at 83.

Maharaj began dancing when he was about four. His father, Achhan Maharaj, who was from the famed Kalka-Bindadin family of Lucknow, began his training at home. He was just about finding his feet, when his father passed away. But the precision in the footwork was his father’s gift. And the world of Braj and that of Krishna was his own, where he would be Radha trying to entice his beloved. Maharaj didn’t care about gender roles as he presented the sensuality and eroticism of Shringaar Ras. Male dancers have moved more towards Veer (heroism) Ras, among others that were seen as more male-oriented. Birju Maharaj created his own kathas (stories) and looked at social issues through dance.

When Satyajit Ray wanted to depict the world of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in his film Shatranj ke Khiladi, he asked Birju Maharaj to deliver a piece that belonged to 19th century Awadh. Maharaj created the gentle, bhaav-oriented “Kanha main tose haari”. In a five-minute piece, Maharaj gave the crux of his world to the audience through the bandish, a world where the first beat of that time cycle began at home.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2022 under the title ‘Dance like a man’.

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