Classical dancers eagerly await the announcement of the coveted ‘Nrithya Choodamani’ title awarded by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha every year. This year, it was awarded to senior Kathak dancer and prime disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, Saswati Sen.
Saswati was sharing stage space with Guru Birju Maharaj that evening and an almost full house awaited them... As soon as the beautiful musical prelude in Rag Jog with tabla uthaan was over, the awardee was welcomed with thunderous applause. But when she did appear, dressed in an unembellished, creased, silk-cotton lehenga and blouse teamed with a beige Benares cutwork odni, there was a lull... It was such an anti-climax to see a Kathak ‘star’ dressed in such a drab costume.
However, her experience and skill won the audience over soon enough in the ragamalika invocation, ‘Jaaki Mahima Hai Sukha Dayi’ (teen taal, Birju Maharaj), in which her liquid eyes conjured up images of Krishna stealing butter from an obliging gopi who pretends ignorance of his presence.
The Lucknow Gharana represents a graceful style of pure dance with emphasis on abhinaya; the opening Thaat (teen taal), footwork in a standing position with subtle inflexions of the wrist and torso, generally performed as a nritta piece, had an additional dimension with the footwork set into a context of a woman waiting for her lover. The dancer’s eyes look around in anticipation, drop in disappointment at the end of a tala cycle, and light up tremulously when he eventually arrives, finishing perfectly on the sam.
Saswati presented Taal Dhamar (14 beats) in various forms, including Pandit Birju Maharaj’s popular Ginti ki tihais with a Gopucha yati where numbers from 1-7 were recited in a tapering manner to come back to sam, parans and a tihai presenting the sounds and images of a galloping horse. She also performed a chakkarwala tukra with 25 continuous spins!
The dancer’s expressional prowess was showcased in both, ‘Shyam Tori Murali’ (Surdas) in which a mischievous Radha is desirous of impersonating Krishna and a drenched-in-bhakti Purandaradasa composition in Sindu Bhairavi, ‘Tamboori Meetidava’ (tisra gati, Adi). It was interesting to see that small segments of footwork do not disturb the sthayi in the nritya pieces, because Kathak is itself geared towards rhythmic vivacity.
Pt. Birju Maharaj
When Pandit Birju Maharaj walked on stage, he got a standing ovation! He may have slowed down, considering that he is close to 75 and suffers from Sciatica, but that hasn’t diminished his majestic presence and charm. The mehfil-kind of intimacy that the auditorium affords allowed the maestro to communicate his artistic vision and humour easily, and for about 40 minutes, he mesmerised the audience.
Commencing with Thaat and Aamad in teentaal, where the gentle footwork relied more on the lehra (Purya Dhanasri) rather than the tabla, to keep the taal, with every part of his body including his neck, eyes and fingers dancing along, he performed a jugalbandi between the tabla and the ghungroos, the strong ‘dha’ representing the man who goes behind a woman, represented by soft bells.
Saswati had mentioned earlier that Panditji’s greatest gift to Kathak was Drishya Kavita, giving mathematics a visual dimension, and here we could experience visual poetry.
Panditji’s Gat bhav was most entertaining, in which he showed a boy putting on his skates and skating on a rink, followed by a conversation between a lazy friend and an active one, the slow, heavy beat and the fast beats distinguishing one from another.
It was not surprising that his grandfather Bindadin Maharaj’s thumri, ‘Kaahe Rokata Dagara Pyare Nandalal’, was interpreted with so many repetitions in so many ways and in so many moods, as Radha says, “Why do you block my path, dear Nandalal...” Even if the mood or the pieces are repetitive, we can never tire of this mastery.
Utpal Ghosh (tabla) was a sensitive accompanist, while Anirban Bhattacharya (harmonium and vocal) and Chandrachud (sitar) provided the melodic backing.