“Don’t do Kathak in a hurry. Don’t go looking for an item [dance number]. It hurts the complete emotion of doing. The articles will happen, the applause will come too; instead, go ahead, let the art mature”: Pandit Birju Maharaj’s parting words in an exclusive 2017 interview.
This interview was first published in December 2017. It is republished in view of the passing of Pandit Birju Maharaj on January 17, 2022.
Whenever one talks about Kathak, the first name that comes to mind is that of Pandit Birju Maharaj. With a lineage of seven (known) generations and numerous awards, titles and accolades honoring the Kathak maestro, Brijmohan Nath Mishra (abbreviated as Birju) continues to be one of the brightest beacons of the Indian classical dance form. .
Padma Vibhushan, 79, was recently in Mumbai for the final of the dance competition, Kalashram Kathak Contest 2017, held on December 21 at the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA). First post caught up with Birju during rehearsals for the event.
Birju was born in 1938 into a family of Kathak enthusiasts and performers. It belongs to the iconic Kalka-Bindadin gharana from Lucknow. His uncles – Lachchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj – were then stalwarts of Kathak in India and featured in many Bollywood films of that era.
Kathak literally translates to “one who tells kathas (stories),’ and so much emphasis is placed on the lyrical scale of composition – which can be a thumri, bhajan Where bowl. About his lineage, Birju says, “My grandfather, Bindadin Maharaj, had written and composed about 5000 thumris, bhajans. He would put the song to a tune as he wrote it. All his compositions bore his trademark ‘bound as a reference close to doha of Kabir. Previously we had these compositions, but over time the termites infested (the papers) and we had to throw them into the Gomti River with a sad heart. But since my amma I remembered the verses, like some students, I learned them and wrote down everything I heard from them. So far, I have been able to document about 300 of these compositions.”
And so he continued the legacy. “I grasped the beauty of the Katha (the internal history of the composition). My two uncles were gifted; my father (Acchan Maharaj) was also immensely talented. He was the emperor of rhythms, so I learned nuanced rhythmic patterns from him. From Lachchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, I received the bhaav ki taaleem (guardianship of expression),” says Birju.
Birju lost his father at a very young age (when he was only nine), but his devotion to the arts remained intact, for this he credits his mother, who was a pillar of support. “My mother’s greatest contribution was never to let me get distracted. At that time, Lachchu Maharaj used to say to me, ‘Come to Bombay (sic), you could work as an assistant director. You will have a lot of houses, cars, etc.’ But my amma remained insensitive to any of these materialistic aspirations. She always said: ‘Look if you go there, there you will become a Bambaiyya. People will say he dances Bambaiyya kathak’,” he recalls, what kept him grounded, adding, “I teach everyone with all my heart and with sincerity, even today. I did not change at the request of the public. I follow the same track, and I design new things on that track.”
Birju told us about the journey of the dance form, from its representation in the temples to mehfils, to the concerts of modern times. Like many art forms in which access is restricted to men, Kathak was also forbidden to women (at least in her household).
“Most of our ancestors, in fact, used to dance in temples. On occasions like Diwali, Dussehra, they were called upon to perform; at that time there was no concept of performing. zamindars would call us at any happy occasion or ceremonies – the birth of a baby, the nose ring ceremony, the sacred thread ceremony, banal etc Most of the time they lived in villages, and so there was limited means of transportation other than horse carts, ox carts, etc. This is also a reason why women never had the opportunity to learn to dance because it would be very difficult for them. travel on foot, as men did. My sisters really wanted to learn the dance, but then my uncles would say, “Don’t you dare even think about it. You shouldn’t learn to dance. Instead, they were pushed back to purdah, worshiping in-laws.”
Birju broke the mold and offered equal opportunities to her children as well as her students, without any gender bias. “I opened the doors. My daughter Mamta Maharaj is a good performer, as are my sons Jaikishan and Dipak. All I tell my students is, ‘Don’t play anywhere, especially where the art has no value. Be selective. , and perform only where appropriate.’
See, there is a thing with the arts: a human can give up (you) but your art will never betray you. If you keep it with you and possess it, it will not leave you until the moment of your death.”
Saswati Sen, one of Maharaj’s oldest students and senior faculty member at Kalashram, said, “He lives, breathes, eats and drinks art. He always thinks of making it better appreciated and easily understood by the masses.He was able to create this canvas where he proved that Kathak is not only a rhythmic interaction, but also being in nature with everything around it (sic). bowls, which also has a reflection of nature and its surroundings. Today all the musicians followed Maharajirhythmic sensitivity. They started seeing visuals in the music.”
Elucidating this sense of rhythm, its application and its effect, Birju says: “The padhants, the bowls, the sounds are all kathas — kathas of rhythm. It is not necessary that a Katha must be made of words or sentences, it is there in the literature. But normally, when we do a padhant, it is always Katha first and then the action. So with Katha comes the rhythmic pattern, and based on that we use legs, hands, face, eyes, etc. to amplify and give dimension to this Katha, which we call tukda, padhant Where tiyahi.
He continues: “By the grace of the Almighty, there is now a thing called the Birju Maharaj style of kathak which has seeped into many dance schools and others. gharanas. I had the influence of three gurus – my two uncles and then my father, so it became something new. We have always prioritized beauty and grace over speed, quick movements, etc. We therefore attach great importance to eye movements: The gaze must travel with the rhythm as the performance progresses. We show the whole essence of rhythm through our legs and bowls. I can easily build an entire house with my bowls but obviously can’t live there. I can make a whole commentary on cricket thanks to my bowls: I’ll show you the ball, run, play, everything.”
The whole world follows a certain rhythm, the smallest of activities like talking, walking, etc. all at a certain pace. With a dance form like kathak, you slowly move into worshiping this rhythm, which results in bhakthi. Then abhinaya where to act is the devis. and taal where the rhythm is devta; so we love them.
With music playing such an important role in Indian classical dance, is it mandatory to learn music first and then learn a dance form like Kathak? Birju replies, “Yes. I mean even if one does not sing/play any instrument oneself, one should be able to enjoy it. Therefore, not being able to sing is fine, but one must have the right aptitude and attitude to look, listen, and observe.”
Apart from being at the center of the Kathak scene on the national and global platform, Birju has made some sporadic forays into Bollywood. He choreographed songs for Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film Shatranj Ke Khilari. The 2002 movie Devdas [Director: Sanjay Leeela Bhansali] had a whole song, ‘Kaahe Chhed Mohe,’ choreographed by Birju. This song featured Madhuri Dixit, who again collaborated with Birju in the 2014 film Dedh Ichqiya [Director: Abhishek Chaubey] for the song ‘Jagave Saari Raina.’ His most recent project was again with Bhansali in Bajirao Mastani ; he had choreographed the song ‘Mohe Rang Do Lal,’ which starred Deepika Padukone.
Asked about his views on changing trends in Bollywood, Birju quickly replies, “There is a lack of grace these days. See Waheeda Rehman in ‘Chaudhvin Ka Chand‘, she slowly opens her eyes and you remain spellbound. Madhuri is the best dancer and she is really good. She respects me enormously and treats me like a guru.”
As with all budding dance students around the world, Birju says, “Don’t rush it. Don’t go looking for an object [dance number]. It hurts the complete emotion of doing. The articles will happen, the applause will come too; instead, be steady, let the art mature.”