The Maharaj holds court

Birju Maharaj. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Whenever Birju Maharaj is on stage, he sets up a seamless conversation between his ankle bells and the audience. It’s a rhythm-rich language — with his bare feet stamping against the floor in myriad variations and his precise, rapid pirouettes establishing his high-calibre artistry. But even when he chooses to present a bhav-driven repertoire, the effect is magical. His face becomes a canvas, etched with multiple emotions. So it was when Maharaj was in Chennai recently to receive the Balasaraswati/Scripps Award.

If he was exhausted after the workshop he had conducted for 400 students in Mumbai, he did not let it bother him. The 78-year-old Kathak maestro sang and narrated kathas (from which the dance form derives its name) of his family and gurus, sitting on a mattress at The Music Academy. His eloquent eyes and arms embellished every spoken word and musical phrase.

He recalled his association with the inimitable Balasaraswati and his 25-day stay at her house when he was in Madras during the December Season. “She was the only one who would call me, ‘Yey, Birju.’ I was touched to see her receive me after a performance with an aarti plate in hand. When I rehearsed, she would offer to sing. We would spend long hours discussing the nuances of abhinaya. She could express a line in a composition in ten different ways. She was always ready to teach and learn. I miss such artistic exchanges,” he said.

Taking up a thumri, composed by his grandfather, he brought alive in his characteristic manner the Radha-Krishna bonding. The veteran portrayed a bashful maiden complaining about Krishna’s pranks. There was wit, poise and intensity that made this much-dealt-with theme refreshing. The upholder of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin lineage that includes legends such as Acchan Maharaj, Shambu Maharaj and Lachchu Maharaj, Birju reinvented the grammar with his imagination and understanding. Even before Saswati Sen, his disciple of more than 45 years, who was also on stage that day, could explain in English the essence of the lyrics, Maharaj had said it all through expressions and fluid gestures.

Backstage, after the event, he was surrounded by innumerable admirers and dance students, keen to touch his feet or take a photograph with him. He spoke affectionately to each, blessed them all, even agreeing to be interviewed in the melee. “He has immense patience and loves being amidst people,” laughed Saswati, pointing out that he began teaching at the young age of 14.

Maharaj has disseminated his art in every way possible, even through films and television. His choreography in Kamal Haasan’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ won him a National Award. His latest work in ‘Bajirao Mastani’ for a song picturised on Deepika Padukone has come in for much praise. “Each medium demands a distinct sensibility but there is no compromise with the classical base. The idea is to share the joy I experience with as many people as possible,” said the doyen, who has been dancing since the age of five.

“Such a long journey,” he sighed, wiping the sweat off his forehead. From the court of the nawabs of Awadh, his family moved to Raigarh, Rampur, Bombay and, then finally, to Delhi.

“We went wherever we got patronage. I have performed in royal courts, on stages around the world, seen up-close the good and the bad times, yet enjoy being on the move constantly. Even when I am sleeping, my mind travels, it journeys through new rhythm patterns and I wake up to a new idea,” he smiled.

Talking about his experiments with the dance form, he clarified: “Nothing is my own. I have learnt it all from the gurus in my family. Mera nritya unke taleem ka nichod hai (my dance is the essence of their teaching). My father, who was heavily built, would execute the most intricate moves of Kathak with a unique ada (style), which seemed to evoke a sense of tranquillity. He would say, ‘Dil se nacho, sirf paire se nahin (don’t dance just with your feet but from your heart).”

The Bard and bol

The maestro is currently touring the U.S. with his production ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The timeless Shakespearean tale takes on a Kathak spin, interspersed by raags and taals, “especially beats of nine and eleven”. Love is universal and is beyond language, says Birju Maharaj, “whether it is Radha-Krishna or Romeo and Juliet.”

We (Balasaraswati and I) would spend long hours discussing the nuances of abhinaya... I miss such artistic exchanges.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 4:43:24 PM |

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