He embodied dance in every pore of his being. Dean of Kathak Brij Mohan Nath Mishra, popularly known as Pandit Birju Maharaj, representative of Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Lucknow and recipient of India’s second highest civilian honor Padma Vibhushan, breathed his last on Monday. But the life and energy he breathed into the dance form will always remain unmatched.
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Coming from a family of artists, whose lineage dates back to generations of performing arts, he was trained not only by his father, Maestro Acchan Maharaj, whom he lost when he was barely nine years, but also influenced by his famous uncles Shambhu Maharaj and Lacchu Maharaj. He would call it “triveni” of influence, “Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati coming together in me.” Katha kahey so kathak kehlaaye… Kathak, the dance form of storytelling with its natural postures, according to him, was organically open to innovations. He alone lent new expression to this evocative dance form without gimmickry.
From mythological and historical dance features such as Katha Raghunath Ki, Krishnayan, Darbar-e-Salaami and Shaahi Mehfil, he naturally moved on to abstract compositions such as Naad Gunjan, Ghunghru Sangeet and Laya Parikrama.
Dancer, poet, painter, singer and percussionist, he felt at home in all forms of art and called them his “parents”. No wonder he was in perfect unison when performing with other artists, be it flamenco dancers, ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain or queen Thumri Girija Devi.
Nature was for him the greatest dancer of all in which each being resounded with a rhythmic sensibility. Only he looked for rhythm even in inanimate objects and created dance pieces around nebulous concepts such as editing too. His mathematical tihaais have become a new lesson in the Kathak lexicon.
As brilliant a performer as he is a skillful teacher; he taught at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and Kathak Kendra of the Sangeet Natak Akademi from where he retired in 1998. Later he established his own Kalashram dance school. He may have trained many superstars like Madhuri Dixit (Devdas) and Deepika Padukone (Bajirao Mastani), but he will always be the undisputed superstar of Kathak.
He may have felt that female dancers are endowed with natural beauty and male dancers have to work twice as hard to achieve the same grace. But he defied gender binaries, thrilling everyone by becoming Radha on stage with effortless ease and fluidity.
To remain a student until his last breath was his nostalgic desire. Her inimitable dance style that is steeped in both tradition and innovation will be a point of reference for generations to come.