Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj who has won the National award for Best Choreography talks to Chitra Swaminathan about the joy of engaging with his art at many levels

Sometimes destiny lies in the name. Pandit Birju ‘Maharaj’ was bound to rule. This man with the Midas step has been lighting up the global stage with his creative sparkle. Like all artistes, he is a world citizen who readily vaults eras, histories and cultures to draw up metaphors of time and space! Through his more than six-decade long journey, he has often looked deep into tradition and beyond it to build brand Birju — a narrative style that parallelly engages with the mind and the soul. As for his much-celebrated grammar, it abounds in contrasts and co-relations and is defined by statuesque stillness, sharp-as-whiplash footwork, articulate hand movements and slick pirouettes.

This Maharaj wasn’t born into material opulence but artistic richness. Son of Achhan Maharaj, who was a performer in the royal court of Raigarh, Birju had two doyens of Kathak Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, for uncles and gurus. He was only nine when his father passed away and by 13 he took to teaching to support his family financially. For many years he taught at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra and Kathak Kendra in Delhi. After retiring as the head of faculty and director of Kathak Kendra, he started his renowned institution Kalashram.

The classical ace elaborates on enjoying freedom of expression in these formula-ridden times and the ceaseless triumph of tradition.

How does it feel to win an award for film choreography (for the song ‘Unnai Kaanaadhu Naan’ from Vishwaroopam)? How easy is it to handle art at so many levels?

It’s not difficult if the connect is strong. My talent to engage with it in different ways is partly bequeathed by lineage and partly by my own initiatives. My uncles were well-known for their film work too. Whatever be the medium I perceive my art the same way. But you need emotional maturity to indulge in aesthetic adventures. And with a star-student such as Kamal, the joy of working on a film project doubles. A sincere and a keen observer, he was never tired of asking doubts and improving his performance. Also think about it, when we are ruing about melody and lyrics taking a backseat in film songs, it is commendable to come up with a classical composition.

You have always spoken of a harmonious North-South art dialogue. Do you think films can lend a popular edge to it?

I have great affinity for the South and its discerning culture-loving people. I always look forward to performing at Krishna Gana Sabha during the December Season in Chennai. When we can fuse with strange genres from corners of the world, why not uphold the commonalities and unifying features of the arts in our country. Art has to be inclusive not divisive. In films a lot of exchange happens, hope it extends to the world of arts.

From temples and Mughal courts to gaining a classical image during the Raj and the modern demands of innovation, how do you think Kathak has survived the test of time?

This art has the inherent strength to integrate the influences it encounters. It’s wonderful how its beauty can be enhanced without cutting it off from its origins. When I began doing group choreography there were critical murmurs. But I was excited and continued. Eventually my work found acceptance. You may be the practitioner of an ancient art but you must broaden your horizons to make the art reflect the social milieu of the time.

Like in a family, then has to co-exist with the now. Kathak is not only about love and longing. Art should mirror issues and problems to blend surreal with the real. For instance I did an autobiography of loha (iron) in which I spoke about how it sometimes takes the shape of a sword to kill even while ringing in serenity as a bell in a temple.

You have been groomed in the Lucknow gharana. How restrictive and rigid are classical structures?

One of my much-staged dance dramas ‘Ritusamhara’, an amalgam of Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri and Kathak, showcased how different styles can co-exist.

Classical structures are route indicators. They are for convenience and cannot be a constraint in understanding our collective cultural past.

How will you describe yourself as an artiste?

Kathak means storytelling and the dance form is my life story. The bells and bols my heart beat. Mime and movement my breath.