The legendary kathak guru Pandit Birju Maharaj mesmerises with his genius, writes Subhadra Devan
“WE are born with rhythm, it comes with our first heartbeat,” says kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj, in Kuala Lumpur for a week of dance at the Temple of Fine Arts in Malaysia.
“From the heart, our actions are also rhythmic, we must just recognise this. And then, you see the world is also in rhythm, and on to the universe. It’s all about rhythm, with rhythm.”
Putting the 74-year-old master’s message into strict practice are Indian classical dance students, not just from Malaysia but also Perth, Australia and Singapore at 12-hour-long workshops throughout the week. Pandit Birju was in good spirits as he chewed paan while counting out the beats for his students.
AN EARLY START
Pandit Birju was born to noted kathak dancer Jagannath Maharaj, popularly known as Acchan Maharaj of Lucknow Gharana, who served as a court dancer in Raigarh district.
Pandit Birju started dancing when about six years old, and gave his first public performance at seven in New Delhi. He lost his father, Shri Achhan Maharaj (Jagannath Maharaj), two years later. That’s when he took up kathak as a professional dancer, to support his family. Today, he is renowned as a dancer and poet, like his father and uncles, Lachhu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj.
TEACHING AND FILM WORK
Teaching the dance form is a priority for Pandit Birju, who has founded his own academy, Kalashram, in New Delhi. He is ably assisted by dedicated disciples, including Saswati Sen, who has been his student for 43 years. You may recall one of Saswati’s early performances in the Satyajit Ray film, Shatranj ke Khilari, where she danced to her master’s voice and song. It was a classical kathak piece, and not a “filmy” dance. Kathak maintains the guru-shishya parampara (master-disciple tradition).
Pandit Birju has done kathak work for other films including Dil To Pagal Hai and Devdas.
At a short chat after lunch, the maestro tells me about his “rhythm in his heart” message in kathak. On his teaching Bollywood actresses, he says: “These young actresses dance with no expression at all. It’s all just shaking the body but the face, eyes... where is the expression? That’s why Madhuri Dixit, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari are all better dancers.”
As for Indian actor Kamalhaasan, who learnt kathak for his film Vishwaroopam, Pandit Birju says: “He was an eager learner. He did his best. I think if he had started earlier, he would have been very good.”
Pandit Birju says his recent invitation to Bangladesh touched his heart. He had been invited by Shibli Mohammad, his first Bangladeshi student, to Dhaka to hold a workshop at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
“When I entered the hall — it was big with tiers — all around me, in every corner, on every level, there were students. The sound from their ghungroo (ankle bells or salangai) was beautiful. I know they were so happy to see me, and I was so happy to see and hear them,” he says with a smile.
THE anklebells took on new life when Pandit Birju Maharaj’s primary disciple Saswati Sen performed at the kathak showcase, aptly called Ghungroo, held two Fridays ago at the Temple of Fine Arts in Brickfields.
The senior students performed well the dance piece maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj had choreographed for them that whole week, while his disciples from India, took the dance form to a higher level.
When she didn’t dance, Saswati provided the vocals for most of the dances, while Pandit Birju’s troupe from India was on the tabla, vocals/harmonium and esraj, supported by TFA musicians.
But the crowd was ecstatic when the legend himself showed his genius with the dance form.
Both the maestro and his main disciple gave the standing-room-only hall elaborate demonstrations of the beats (taal or tala) of kathak and how the actions can tell stories (katha means storytelling).
The pieces were simplified enough for non-dancers to connect with the actions that went with the beats — be they 16 (called teental), or repeats of three beats with gaps, four beats with two-beat gaps, and so on. The count always starts with one, and ends with one. The beats are not confined to just the feet but involve hand gestures and the face (including eyebrows).
Examples of the dances included playing cricket, and a couple — a lazy man and a starling-type of woman — having a conversation, with a triumphant end (by the woman).
Their segments were mesmerising, as it seemed like the master had taken time to deconstruct the dance form.
Kathak came alive with the improvisations Pandit Birju effortlessly put into the beat-driven dances. The sound of the ghungroo stayed long after the night ended.