Birth Anniversary Tribute Pt Birju Maharaj

Birju Maharaj and his world of Kathak

Kathak has a proven antiquity as a classical dance form. The State Museum in Patna has a beautiful 3D sculpture of around 2000 years ago, of a pirouetting dancer, with her billowing dress – according to dancer Shovana Narayan, this is undeniable proof. She also referred to an inscription from Mauryan times about Kathak. But, to the uninitiated, Kathak represented the dance form of the courtesan. Until recently, in films made for north Indian audiences, Kathak was most often depicted for the “mujra” scenes! 

This was the general perception till Birju Maharaj, with his mastery, slowly changed the public perception of Kathak; his name was synonymous with Kathak. Teaching, in course of time several hundred students from all over the world, dancing, choreographing dance-dramas, then for films, and TV shows, Birju Maharaj established himself as the undisputed king of the genre. Accolades poured in -- the Sangeet Natak Akademi award at the incredible age of only 26! Incidentally, he was the youngest dancer to be awarded the Padma Vibhushan at the age of 48; the third dancer ever, after Uday Shankar and Balasaraswati. More significantly, he also demonstrated the greatness of the form, vis-à-vis other classical dance forms of the south. It would be too far to say he gave Kathak a legitimacy, but certainly he highlighted aspects of it that perhaps had been forgotten.

A lot has been said about his lineage; he was a seventh generation direct descendant in a family of dancers, singers and tabla players – one branch of his family established the Banaras gharana of tabla.  He was born as Brij Mohan Mishra on 4 February 1938 in Lucknow.  One can’t forget he was only nine when his father and guru passed away; he had to pick up his craft from his uncles, and through observation. He had no godfather handing him the stage in virasat; he had to earn his place there. Of course, the undeniable inherent talent even at that young age was visible; according to Maharaj, his father once said, “Ye to mera baap aa pauncha hai!” (He has arrived as my father)

Even dancing as a child in the court of Rampur, Birju Maharaj from an early age understood the esoteric link between performer and audience, how communicating the art perhaps even exceeded virtuosity. His well-known use of storytelling or using a parable to make his moves alive to his audience was taken up later with equal effect by the tabla legend Zakir Hussain in his solo acts.

He was able to forge an instant connect with any type of audience, anywhere in the world. An incident in Jhansi more than 60 years ago illustrates this beautifully; the restive audience was very vocal in their disenchantment with the sitarist Ilyas Khan who was on stage and unable to understand they wanted him to leave. Maharaj wryly said, the audience’s “no more” was assumed by the artist to be “more more!” When his turn came, he admitted his initial reaction was not to go on stage and be “booed” off. His uncle gave him the confidence to improvise on a paran (composition) whose bols (syllables) sounded like a galloping house, to try to appeal to the audience. So, the young Birju Maharaj came up with the novel idea of enacting the paran, intertwining it with the popular tale of the Rani of Jhansi’s valour on a horse; the cynical audience was completely enthralled, and he performed for an hour and a half! 

The sense of proportion, of knowing what to stop when, is something all great performers instinctively possess; with Birju Maharaj this intuitive feel transcended the physical. He frequently changed his act, even mid performance.

Dance scholar Arshiya Sethi, in an interview of the legend spoke of an important aspect of his legacy; of creating a terminology of movements used in Kathak. The maestro agreed deprecatingly saying focussing on every aspect of every movement, or even hint of a movement was innate in him. He said, whatever you learn, learn it thoroughly and totally. Like musicians of yore used to say, if you know four ragas inside out, you can absorb 400 ragas. In the context of dance, “Agar aapne char hastak acche seekh liye, kalaayee kaun hai, koni kaun hai, kandha kaun hai, seena kaun hai, aapka poora naach saj jaayega.” (Understand the four movements and use of the wrist, elbow, shoulder and chest, and then you are complete as a dancer in expressing through them)

This intense focus was a lifelong obsession. His use of the technique of marking a mirror to observe and memorise the exact angle of his movements, to perfect every nuance has been spoken of; only an intense love for the craft could have warranted that attention to detail! Birju Maharaj admitted that he felt incomplete unless he gave “haazri” (formal presentation, as if to a God), even if it was for a few minutes daily. This, even till in last days, despite ailments and age.

He also brought about changes in the format of presentation of Kathak that are now the norm, in addition of course to expanding the Kathak repertoire to an incredible scale. His innovative choreography for films brought him unprecedented popularity amongst the masses. But all this paled in front of his most striking attribute, the exquisite delicacy of his dance. Incredibly, even of footwork, he used to say, “Ghungroo bajaao, paon na patko. Agar paon ki aawaaz aaye, to ghungroo ka kya fayda!!” (Let only the ghungroos sound, not your feet, that are making them move)

The holistic approach he brought to his art added to his vision of it, which he then could effortlessly convey. Dance for him was not just a one-dimensional visual experience but also aural and emotional; in his words a dancer should be someone who is able to look in all four directions. He painted, was an erudite knowledgeable musician, knew thousands of rare compositions, sang even professionally, and played several instruments. Birju Maharaj in his later years,  even taught himself to play the sarod; a fret-less instrument that is regarded as one of the hardest to master!

His feel for words is demonstrated by the copious poetry he wrote over the years; his devotion to his Sree Krishna visible in his unparalleled abhinaya. His complete mastery of laya and rhythm is too well known to allude to; he was able to inculcate it with ease in even the children he taught by making it literally a part of their being, an unconscious attachment that remained forever.

Birju Maharaj’s collaborations with artists from every genre, for a period of over 50 years is remarkable. His jugalbandis with Odissi maestro Kelucharan Mohapatra, himself a master of abhinaya, were unforgettable; it was difficult to know who to look at when both were on stage. On Girija Devi’s 85th birthday celebrations in Banaras, there was scarcely a moist eye in the auditorium when the mutual love and respect of both doyens on stage had each pushing the other to perform. Other collaborations included with Kishori Amonkar, L.  Subramaniam, Shobha Gurtu, Padma Subrahmanyam, continuing to a younger generation of musicians including Rajan Sajan Mishra, Ajoy Chakrabarty, and Nishat Khan.

One recalls a magical performance in Varanasi, Sankat Mochan temple, when Maharaj without moving his feet, was depicting a peacock delicately fluttering his imaginary feathers. One was transported to the forest, awestruck at the impact he so effortlessly conveyed. As he used to say, “Dance makes you beautiful”; that was the dance of Birju Maharaj.

Pc: Maharaj with Zakir Hussain - Avinash Pasricha

Pc: Birju Maharaj dance : Shoba Deepak Singh