Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj’s art has taken him across the world, but when it comes to food, he is all for the cosy kitchen corner.
Krishna, so say tales from the Puranas, would go to any lengths for his favourite snack — freshly churned butter or creamy curds. Audiences around the world are familiar with classical dance depictions of the loveable housebreaker swiping the dairy produce of his neighbours even as he steals their hearts. Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj too revels in elaborately performing naughty Krishna sneaking into the cottages of his fellow Vrindavan residents for a clandestine feast. But while he vividly conjures the image of a resourceful child getting his friends to become a human ladder and clambering up to reach the earthenware pots hanging from the rafters, Maharaj claims no such dexterity in real life. He doesn’t even like to serve himself at a buffet — “If it is a buffet then I ask someone to please serve me my plate and I will sit in a corner and eat it. If I try to serve myself, either I will drop the plate or spoon, or the food will end up on the floor.”
Mist restaurant at the Park Hotel in New Delhi too has a buffet, but with the vigilant staff ready to bring the maestro an assorted platter of tidbits he might like from the lavish spread, there is nothing to fear. The reigning Maharaj of Kathak is in a reminiscent mood. His penchant for telling an evocative yarn has us imagining the New Delhi of old as he describes how he used to catch the bus from Daryaganj to reach Sangeet Bharati in Mandi House — where though still a minor he took Kathak classes for dancers who became eminent exponents, such as Rani Karna, Usha Gupta and others. He also tutored privately on Barakhamba Road. “Now Connaught Place looks totally different,” he remarks.
Commuting became easier when he got himself a bicycle. “I used to read Robin Hood stories,” he relates. “When I went to buy a cycle, I asked the salesman for the fastest one. They told me they had Hercules, Raleigh, and Robin Hood bicycles!”
No prizes for guessing which brand the teenager selected. But, fast or no, the doyen admits candidly, “I could never ride the bicycle across an intersection. I would be scared and get off to wheel it across.”
The coming of this young fatherless boy from Lucknow to Delhi proved to be a turning point both for his own profession and for the field of Kathak. Now, work takes him across the globe, but in a corner of his heart there is a place reserved for simple home-cooked food. A recent sojourn in South India found him tiring of “iddli, vada, sambar”. Because in the end, he says, “There is nothing like dal, roti, salad.”
Mist, however, offers fusion cuisine, with Italian, Mediterranean and Asian recipes and a variety of breads. Along with coffee, a staff member brings in some hot vegetarian fried snacks to try. He accepts with a smile, used to adjusting his food habits to the contingencies of the situation. But this easygoing adjustment does not extend to his art.
Maharaj, whose limited choreography for commercial cinema has brought him plenty of attention, recalls, “I told Sanjay Leela Bhansali if there are good lyrics, good music and a well covered heroine, only then can I choreograph.”
Among heroines, Madhuri is his confirmed favourite to work with, and among the male stars it is Kamal Hassan. “He says, Maharajji, please correct me,” notes the guru approvingly. “And Madhuri says if she hadn’t learnt Kathak, she wouldn’t have found the other dances so easy.”
Maharaj expresses satisfaction at the National Award that came his way for Vishwaroopam starring Kamal. Meanwhile, Vishwaroopam 2 is on the floors, and Dedh Ishqiya with Madhuri is scheduled for release in 2014.
Beyond these films and others like Devdas, Pranali: The Tradition, and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha among a handful, his connection with Bollywood is not likely to grow, says the doyen. “Madhuri is not getting any younger, and neither is Kamal.”