Pandit Birju Maharaj leaves behind the tradition and legacy of Kathak, a dance form synonymous with his name

“Who can sit for three hours now? You need to be able to make them clap every three minutes. This has ruined the beauty of the dance, the seriousness of it,' Birju Maharaj said.

Manish Sain January 17, 2022 14:05:35 IST
Pandit Birju Maharaj leaves behind the tradition and legacy of Kathak, a dance form synonymous with his name

Pandit Birju Maharaj

For more than 60 years of his life, Kathak doyen Pandit Birju Maharaj would go on stage or in front of his students and dance that looked like a masterpiece in making, a painting being made with the motion of his hands and the movement of his eyes.

With the slight twitch of his fingers or by raising an eyebrow, he would hold his audience in a trance for however long he wanted as the accompanying tabla and harmonium players gave the musical cue for him to take the story further.

The maestro, or ‘Maharaj ji,’ as people called him affectionately, passed away in the early hours of Monday, leaving behind a legacy, a tradition, and a dance form that was known to many only because of him. To a generation of dance aficionados and laymen equally, Kathak and Pandit Birju Maharaj were synonymous.

Growing up in a house on Gwynne Road in Lucknow, a three-year-old Brijmohan Nath Mishra would waddle down to the ‘taalimkhana,’ and play with the unattended tabla or harmonium, and look in awe at the elders of his family as they turned and twirled to the directions from their masters.

The house on Gwynne Road became 'Kalka-Bindadin ki Dyodhi and Kathak Museum,' as a homage to Birju’s grandfather and his brother, and the small child became Pandit Birju Maharaj, with words like ‘Pandit’ and ‘Maharaj’ affirming his stature as the master of his art — Kathak, the storytelling dance form.

Born in 1938 in Lucknow’s famous Kalka-Bindadin gharana, that gave Kathak legends such as his father Acchan Maharaj, and his uncles Shambhu and Lacchu Maharaj, Birju started performing from the age of seven.

He moved to Delhi at 13, after his father passed away, and continued learning and performing under the watchful eyes of his uncles.

Sitting at his Delhi home on a cold December morning in 2019, he reminisced to this reporter his early days in a house that only spoke the language of music. “It was like an ocean of music in that house. For seven generations, there was only one discussion — taal, lay, swar, bhangima, saundarya, and nritya. Whether it was my mother, grandmother, father or uncles, they talked only about one thing. There was only one sound in the house, that of ghungroo, tabla, and music,” he remembered with a smile that never really left his face.

For more than 60 years of his life, Birju took the ancient dance form of storytellers to farthest corners of the world in his quintessential elegance and an enviable composure, which is wont of a Kathak dancer, that he never broke despite any 'public demand.'

He saw entire generations of Kathak teachers and students come and go before his own eyes, who “experimented too much with the dance, had too little patience, or too much willingness to please the audience”. 

A purist in his own right, Birju abhorred dance fusion, dancing for audience appeasement, and taking lightly the seriousness of the dance form. “They have created confusion in the name of fusion,” he said dejectedly.

In his prime, he would hold a pose for 10 minutes, and dance for three hours straight to an audience that sat patiently watching him with great admiration.  

“Who can sit for three hours now? You need to be able to make them clap every three minutes. This has ruined the beauty of the dance, the seriousness of it," he said.

The dancer in the day turned painter when the nights fell silent around his house. Not for an exhibition or for any individual, but for himself. Not part of the public record, he said, he would only show it to some friends and ask for their opinions about it.

The world on Monday lost a man who embodied the artform he practiced with an eye for detail, patience, and elegance of a swan in a lake. His legacy, and that of his forefathers, is in good hands, he believed. 

He only wished the governments to take the younger generation of dancers to global platforms, and expose them to a world of cultural exchange. “It would be nice to see some progress on the cultural exchange front, so the world can see the seriousness, the depth of our work. I don’t wish for anything else,” the Padma Vibhushan awardee had said before swaddling himself in a warm blanket, ready for an afternoon nap.

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