And his body as brush, Pt. Birju Maharaj painted musical pictures.
The beautiful strains of the sitar and the tabla being warmed up heralded the Kathak ‘lay' (rhythm) and ‘abhinay’ (expression) demonstration and performance that Pt. Birju Maharaj and his disciple Saswati Sen presented for HamsadHwani. Well attended, this performance was also extremely well received.
The evening began with Saswati performing abhinay to Madurashtakam. Recorded in Birju Maharaj's expressive voice, this item described the beauty that is in every aspect of Krishna. Saswati used the musical interludes between verses to depict Krishna's pranks, each episode showing a stage in Krishna's growing up - a baby Krishna running away, a young Krishna stealing butter, and then a slightly older Krishna teasing the gopis.
Later in the evening, when panditji came on stage to sing and demonstrate abhinaya, he talked about seeing himself as a painter with the stage being the canvas and the dancer's body the brushes. This seemed evident in the way Saswati introduced the rhythm sequence as well, with each of the ‘Tihais' (thrice repeated patterns) being invested with a characteristic or a mood. Counting down from seven to one, for example, was the ‘triangle' and a tihai with pauses in it was representative of a hesitation that culminated in a decision.
In the second rhythm sequence (12 matras), there was a lot more of such interpretation, one showing hockey strokes with the dribble and, of course, the goal; another showing clouds with the accompanying lightning and rain. In one we watched as a ‘ball travelled in the air' to be caught at the appropriate beat. The rhythm section ended with a ‘chaugalbandi' that had two percussions (Birju Maharaj on one tabla and Utpal Ghoshal on the other), with the sitar (Jayantu Bannerjee) and Saswati forming the other two parts.
Expectedly, Saswati drew sound applause for her ‘chakkars' or pirouettes. In her abhinay section, Saswati presented a Meera bhajan, immersing herself in the roles of Meera and the king (Meera's husband). With panditji providing apt musical accompaniment, soft when depicting Meera and strident when the king arrives, this item took us through Meera's dreams of Krishna and her suffering at the hands of the king, till the point when she merges with her Lord.
Birju Maharaj then took centre stage to sing and demonstrate abhinay to a few thumris. Completely at ease and punctuating his comments with touches of humour, he interacted with the audience, eliciting their participation. One got glimpses of his hallmark grace and expression even when he told us how he would use his eyebrow and neck movements to convey meaning. Seated on the dais, he showed the inaccessibility of the butter pot hanging from the ceiling just by the expression in his eyes in the request song ‘maiyya more.'
In spite of being restricted by the mike “coming between him and the audience,” as he put it, he described Krishna's appearance (‘sheesh mukut'), and showed how He played on the gopi's feelings with His flute (‘kaise bhaja gayo shyam'). One moment he was the gopi remonstrating with Krishna-‘chedo na Nand Kishore,' ‘jane de maika' and the next minute he was ‘Holi ke khillaiyya' splashing coloured water on the gopis. The evening left the audience wishing they could have seen him actually perform.
Romen Deka's smooth baritone took over the music when panditji focused on the abhinay. Both Saswati and Birju Maharaj were appreciative of the Chennai audience and panditji remembered the late Ramachandran of Hamsadhwani for his efforts in encouraging such performances.