Every stage was a canvas for Pandit Birju Maharaj, painter of rhythm

The Kathak maestro revitalised the dance form, enthralling audiences over decades

Updated - January 18, 2022 01:19 pm IST

Published - January 17, 2022 10:08 pm IST - New Delhi

Pandit Birju Maharaj’s eloquent facial expressions remained unmatched

Pandit Birju Maharaj’s eloquent facial expressions remained unmatched

A complete artist who lived music in its entirety, Kathak legend Pandit Birju Maharaj (1938-2022) transcended to a heavenly stage on Monday, leaving behind a rich legacy.

Inspired by the rhythm of nature, every time he took the stage, it seemed the Almighty was dancing through him. Be it the movement of ants, a river in spate, a bird feeding its young or the Earth’s motion on its axis, there was nothing that escaped the Kathak maestro’s dancing eyes. Pandit Birju Maharaj’s eloquent facial expressions remained unmatched.

For the Padma Vibhushan, Kathak was not limited to the parans and chakkars . The stage was a canvas for Maharajji, as he was popularly called, where he would etch paintings of Krishna and Radha’s divine romance that would dissolve in space only to be replaced by a new one.

His brilliance, perhaps stemmed from his lifelong romance, not just with Kathak but the entire culture around the dance form. He would render a bewitching thumri and elucidate on the Lucknawi ang for hours. He would write poetry drenched in bhakti and could play the tabla, harmonium, and pakhawaj with elan.

Blessed with the gift of communication, a poetic heart, and a taste for the finer aspects of life, his magnetic personality kept both the discerning connoisseur and the layman hooked. Yet he wore fame and honour lightly, explaining his immense popularity among the lay public and his stature in the art and culture fraternity.

Going far beyond speed and technique, Pandit Birju Maharaj’s performances were a reflection of his sensitive soul. Like his favourite deity, he could be mischievous and philosophical simultaneously. Old-timers fondly remember his ethereal performances with Odissi legend Kelucharan Mohapatra where Maharajji would become the playful Krishna and Kelubabu would essay the coy Radha.

Always open to experimenting he was once faced with a piquant situation in Madras when the singer who was supposed to accompany him could not reach in time for the performance. Unfazed, Maharajji requested Bharatnattyam doyen Balasawarswati to sing a tillana and the maestro performed Kathak to Carnatic music, drawing huge applause.

A seventh-generation artist of Lucknow’s Kalka Bindalin Gharana, Maharajji imbibed the grace and elegance that the city is known for. His ancestors hailed from Handia, a sleepy town in Allahabad, home to around 900 families who earned their livelihood through Kathak. His forefathers performed in the royal court of Awadh and Rampur but once Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned, Kathak was reduced to an orphan.

Trained by his father Acchan Maharaj and uncles Lachchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, the journey from Brijmohan Nath Mishra to Birju Maharaj was not easy but he relentlessly worked to refine the dance form and took it out of the narrow lanes of Aminabad to the international proscenium. His father passed away when he was just 13 and he grew up under the watchful eyes of his uncles. He would often cycle to teach at Sangeet Bharti and perform for hours in private gatherings since Delhi was yet to get its big performance spaces. Once the young Birju performed at the Jubilee cinema in Chandni Chowk to a raucous crowd and then moved into the crowd to collect 10 rupee notes of praise.

It was only when he was discovered by legendary art historian and curator Kapila Vatsyayan that he found a firm footing in the dance world and found avenues to express himself. Under his watchful eyes, the national capital’s Kathak Kendra grew as an important centre of dance education.

Always humble, always positive, he would say Kathak exponents are actually kathaakars (storytellers) and that they should tell the tales of their times. He would find rhythm in the most mundane of things and weave it into his expansive vocabulary. Disturbed by the increasing red-tapism, he once created the ‘File Katha’ tracing the movement of a file in a government office.

Fond of video games and gadgets, Maharajji had a childlike simplicity and curiosity. Even during the pandemic, he suggested the creative community to use the period to refresh the mindspace.

He collaborated with filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and Kamal Haasan to keep Kathak part of the popular idiom as well. In the 1990s, his association with Madhuri Dixit spurred a media frenzy and in turn, generated interest in the dance form among youngsters. He maintained that cinema was one of the tools to keep the classical arts alive in the popular imagination.

A benevolent guru, a stream of dancers came through his dance school, Kalashram. He didn’t seek to just create stars but worked to make Kathak a source of livelihood for hundreds of practitioners, just like his home in Handia.

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