A little under 20 years ago, Pandit Birju Maharaj was addressing the press at a five-star hotel in New Delhi. The air was thick with expectation as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-awaited Devdas was about to be released. Amid the predictably inane questions like “How was it to work with so and so?” and “How was it to work with a big star like Madhuri Dixit”, a youngster from an English-language daily that had little space for classical arts or literature asked Maharaj, “For so long you have been doing Kathak. Never thought of doing something else, like, say Bharatanatyam?” Even as the crowd burst into laughter, Maharaj refused to get angry at the young man’s temerity. The Padma Vibhushan, who had blurred gender lines in Kathak and worked with the peerless Satyajit Ray, replied calmly: “Have you ever asked why after so many years Sachin Tendulkar still plays cricket? Why does he not try his hand at table tennis or something?” The journalist was silenced, and the doyen of Kathak had won new admirers.
Such was the grace and effortless ease of Maharaj. The dexterity and nuances he brought to the stage he retained in his public interaction. Always smiling, he was invariably calm and dignified. He was equally at ease in the company of illustrious men and women of the classical arts and from Hindi cinema, and even his students, still green around the ears. Such was his aura that a legendary film-maker like Satyajit Ray approached him with due diligence and respect as he sought Maharaj’s company for his first Hindi venture Shatranj Ke Khilari . Maharaj, of course, acquiesced. Then he roped in Saswati Sen on Ray’s request. He went on to sing two thumris in the film besides choreographing Sen, and well, Amjad Khan. So humble was he that when Amjad Khan, better known for his gun act in Sholay , rehearsed his lines, Maharaj would listen to him with rapt attention and pat him like a senior pro. Later in his career, he went on to work with Kamal Haasan in Vishwaroopam and Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani . Each artiste he worked with went back enriched.
Incidentally, his passing away was mourned by Haasan with a tweet: “For several years, I learned from him, from a distance, as Eklavya did…then I got to learn from him in person for the film Vishwaroopam . Without your insight, I’m not who I am.” Such was his love for cinema and songs that Maharaj almost literally passed away amidst them. Maharaj was listening to his family, including his grandchildren, playing antakashari when he suddenly developed difficulty in breathing. He was rushed to hospital, but the best-known exponent of the Lucknow gharana transcended this world before receiving any medical intervention. That sums up Maharaj’s life. Married to the art, he did things his own way.
When he was born in pre-Independence India in 1938, Kathak was usually regarded to be the domain of women. In common perception, it was associated with nautch girls and the courtesans of Lucknow. Not just the nawabs of Awadh but even British rulers like Robert Clive were known to enjoy Kathak performances. To take the art beyond the confines of the courts of nawabs was a long, uphill task. Birju’s ancestors, particularly, his father and uncles, did their bit before Maharaj’s performances brought it new dignity and acceptance. His uncle, Shambhu Maharaj, first came to Delhi in the 1950s. Birju followed in his footsteps, making the Kathak Kendra his zone of operations.
Initially called Brijmohan Nath Mishra, young Birju was groomed by his uncles, Lachchan Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj; his father, Achhan Maharaj, had passed away when Birju was nine. At a young age, he had to give dance tuitions to earn a living though nobody gave him a job as a teacher; he was so young that many thought he would himself start playing with children. He came to Delhi in 1953 and spent the next four years at Sangeet Bharati. He later learned under Kapila Vatsyayan who, incidentally, had been his father’s pupil.
Birju Maharaj always remained prepared to imbibe new things. There is an interesting anecdote regarding his association with Saswati Sen. Young Saswati Sen used to go to Bharatiya Kala Kendra to learn dance. One day while coming back from practice, she noticed that a few young men were passing some remarks about her and laughing. She told her teacher, Reba Vidyaarthi, about it, and refused to go back. Sometime later, she was required to learn under a senior guru for a professional course. She discovered that the man who was supposed to teach her was none other than Birju Maharaj. As she once told Frontline , “Didi [Reba] took me to Maharaj ji [Birju]. I hid behind her dupatta. I was scared. I was just 13-14 then. I went out and told her, ‘This man is the leader of the gang I spoke about! He is not a good man.’ Didi tried to drive some sense into me. It went on. I used to go to the class and just cry there. A fellow dancer counselled me. Finally, one day, Maharaj ji told me to go back to Reba Didi! After a couple of months, I apologised and then there was no looking back.”
No ordinary guru
Birju was no ordinary guru. He was the grandson of Kalka Prasad, who along with his brother Bindadin Maharaj formed the legendary duo that gave Kathak its modern-day form. Along with Uday Shankar, Rukmini Devi, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Birju Maharaj is regarded among the “four pillars of Indian dance who took regional traditions to public”, as the U.S.-based veteran flautist G.S. Rajan puts it, adding, “Maharaj ji was a real artiste. An amazing musician, an out of the world dancer and choreographer who was rooted heavily in tradition but not afraid to experiment and innovate. He took tradition to the masses by simplifying it without forsaking values.”
The well-known Bharatanatyam dancer and critic Anjana Rajan said: “Maharaj was born at a crucial juncture of history, when India was preparing to shed its colonial yoke and the arts were recognised as a vehicle to restore the nation’s self-esteem. Birju’s early life, like newly independent India, may have seemed set on a shaky course at first, but there is no denying both stabilised themselves magnificently. As the star performer, guru and choreographer of Kathak Kendra, India’s national academy of Kathak and allied arts, from its pioneering years till the 1990s, ending with a brief though controversial directorship, his contribution to India’s performing arts has been incalculable.”
His contribution, indeed, has been matchless. Without loud pronouncements, he changed the way the art was presented, adding new instruments to the performance, and changing the way Kathak was perceived. He said in an interview: “The accompanying instruments [in Kathak performances] used to be a sarangi, a tabla and a harmonium. I thought it would be nice to have some sarod, then a bit of sitar, a little flute. For example, if Krishna is standing, and you introduce a bit of flute, it gives the right atmosphere.” Earlier, performers used to talk a lot on stage. There was more talking than dancing. “In village performances one was obliged to explain a great deal. Katha kehne waale hee kathak hain . We are all Misras, storytellers. Today, too, we tell the story and then dance, but the katha is through laya . Padhant, too, is a story. So the basic structure is the same. But I talk less. You should give only the minimal information, otherwise it gets boring,” he had said in the interview.
In costumes, too, Maharaj brought about a change. He made sure they were as light as possible and jewellery as small as possible because big dangling things were a hindrance. He also made sure that the cut of the costume should be such that the form showed without revealing the body.
A versatile artist
Unlike many artistes, Maharaj was adept at various art forms. He could play the sarod, he could write poetry. He could play the pakhawaj. He could paint. It is said that he wanted to hear only the sound of his ghungroos as he practised to attain perfection in his art. Once done with dance, he would pick up any instrument he took a fancy to, and play it. This ability to play different instruments and blend them with Kathak performance was recognised at various stages of life. In 1964 he was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademic Award. In 1986, he got the Padma Vibhushan.
He was happy to soak in music and songs until his last breath, As G.S. Rajan puts it, “Maharaj ji will always be remembered as the Maharaj of Kathak”.