When he sees rhythm in virtually everything – right from a game of hockey to a cannon firing its way into a battlefield – his natural response is to translate that to dance.
“See, it’s like this,” he says, reciting a few rounds of ‘bol’ or rhythmic phrases. With his palms and eyes quickly taking up the roles of a ball and the hockey bat, he demonstrates a few dribbles and ends with a dramatic goal. “If you ask me, rhythm is God,” says Kathak legend Birju Maharaj, who was here for a performance at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on Tuesday.
The artiste has had a long association with Chennai. “One of my most memorable trips was when I spent about 25 days here, during the arts festival at The Music Academy. I stayed with Balasaraswati whose dance I respect immensely.” Over the years Pandit Birju Maharaj made several trips to the city, often for performances on the request of his dear friend R. Yagnaraman of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. “There is something special about the Chennai audience. They appreciate even the finer aspects of dance. I would really love to hold some workshops here, especially for children,” says the doyen, attired in a mustard kurta with chikan work, the stamp of Lucknow where he was born.
He has transformed the hotel room into his own space — tiny silver idols of gods and goddesses share table space with a couple of flasks, cups and towels. “I carry them [the idols] wherever I go — no matter which part of the world I am dancing.”
If there is something that gives him as much joy as dancing does, it must be teaching. His prime disciple and acclaimed dancer Saswati Sen, recipient of Krishna Gana Sabha’s ‘Nritya Choodamani’ title this year, says he began teaching when he was little over 10. “Maharaj-ji lost his father when he was just about nine. He needed to support his family and since he was well-versed in the art form even as a child, he took up teaching,” she says.
If he had not taken up dance he would have, perhaps, been an ace mechanic. “I even told my mother as a little boy. Don’t worry, if dance does not work out, I will become a mechanic and earn a living,” says Pandit Birju Maharaj who has, till date, never required anyone’s help to fix a faulty gadjet. “All I need is a set of screwdrivers,” he says, like a child speaking of his favourite toy.
It is hard to miss this child-like spirit in the veteran who turns 75 in February. “As long as my feet and hands remain my friends, I will continue dancing,” he says. On actor Kamal Hassan, who has modelled his ‘Viswaroopam’ character on him and even trained under the master for a few weeks, he says: “Kamal is a very keen observer and a sincere student. He would put in a lot of effort to get a step right and keep trying till it is perfect. I saw posters of the film put up in this city and for a moment wondered, ‘who is this who looks just like me’.”