Pandit Birju Maharaj's filmy detours were no short of magical; Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Kamal Haasan, Alia Bhatt pay tributes
“I have two idols. You can call them guiding light of my career. Lata Mangeshkar is in hospital. Pandit Birju Maharaj is gone. I can't believe it,' says Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has collaborated with the Kathak legend for Devdas and Bajirao Mastani.
Pandit Birju Maharaj was to the Kathak dance form what Pandit Ravi Shankar was to the Sitar. He embodied the whole dance form in one single individual. Think Kathak, and you automatically think of Birju Maharaj.
A kind, extremely genial man with the skills of a ferocious virtuoso, Birju Maharaj was cajoled into Hindi cinema by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. A diehard Birju Maharaj fan, Bhansali wakes up on Monday morning a heartbroken man.
“I have two idols. You can call them guiding light of my career. Lataji (Mangeshkar) is in hospital. Panditji is gone. I can’t believe it. For me, his dancing manifests the most beautiful emotions of life.
When Panditji danced, we knew there was beauty and hope and salvation in existence.
All could never be lost as long as Lataji sang and Panditji danced. It wasn’t easy to get him to do the choreography of 'Kahe Chhed Mohe' in Devdas. I was adamant. It had to be Panditji. He had scores of offers before Devdas (2002), and he had turned them all down. I insisted. He finally agreed. He loved me like a son. Couldn’t say no to me. Finally, he not only choreographed 'Kahe Chhed,' he also wrote the lyrics, and sang the number with Kavita Krishnamurthy. I don’t think Madhuri Dixit has ever danced better.”
Dixit had the privilege and opportunity of being choreographed by Maharaj twice again, in Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997), and Abhishek Choubey’s Dedh Ishqiya. Maharaj spoke very highly of Dixit’s dancing abilities. When he met Dixit the first time, Maharaj wanted to see her do the 'Ek Do Teen' signature step from Tezaab (1988). All kinds of dance forms fascinated Maharaj. To him, the universe was a dance.
Bhansali and Maharaj reunited again in the former’s Bajirao Mastani (2015). This time, the muse was Deepika Padukone.
Recalls Bhansali, “For the song 'Mohe Rang Do Laal,' my inspiration and point of reference was Madhubala’s iconic 'Mohe Panghat Pe' in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Panditji heard me out. And then did his own thing on screen. I think the number iconised Deepika.”
Kamal Haasan's Kathak dance number 'Unnai Kaanadhu Naan' in Vishwaroopam (2013) is among the highlights of the versatile actor’s career.
Haasan could not believe it when his idol agreed to choreograph for the film. “You know, when Pandit Birju Maharaj, who has choreographed my Kathak dance, saw my dance, he wanted to know, ‘How come you have imbibed Birju, how did you do it? I only tutored you for one-and-a-half months.’ For 40 years, I’ve waited to touch Birju Maharaj’s feet, and learn from him. Saswati Sen, who is his chief shishya, saw my performance. She was completely moved. That, to me, is the ultimate tribute. That Kathak recital was magical. Panditji’s influence on my movements was felt in every step.”
Alia Bhatt had to learn classical dancing from scratch for Kalank (2019). “I was not very confident about my dancing. So I trained for a whole year. I spent a couple of days with the legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj learning Kathak. I am really grateful for that opportunity. It gave me a chance to hone my skills as a dancer. In just those few days, he inculcated a whole lifetime of grace in me.”
Maharaj not only taught the rudiments of the Kathak dance form to Bhatt, he choreographed her song 'Ghar More Pardesiya' in Karan Johar’s first period film Kalank. The much in-demand star-actress had absolutely no knowledge of Indian classical dancing. Bhatt met Maharaj two or three times to grasp the basics of Kathak dancing.
Another Hindi film where Maharaj stepped in with his fluency and grace was a little scene for the Muzaffar Ali flop Jaanisaar (2015). Regrettably, the leading lady Pernia Qureshi was no Rekha from Ali’s Umrao Jaan. Applying Maharaj’s skills to this newcomer’s dancing abilities was a classic case of casting pearls before swines.
Films based on classical dance forms have now become near-extinct. Bhansali is now in the process of producing the Netflix web series Heeramand, ,recreating the whole tawaif culture of Lahore in 1947 through music and dances in the tradition of Pakeezah. Panditjji will be sorely missed.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.
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