Decoding the life of a legend

Face to face

Decoding the life of a legend

An artiste extraordinaire who has been captivating audiences for decades with
his scintillating  and imaginative renditions of kathak, Pt Birju Maharaj continues his unparalleled dominance in the field even at 75. Purnima Shrinivas speaks to the maestro about his successful journey

An icon needs little introduction — especially when he is someone as rich in ancestry as he is in talent. Taught by his father Achhan Maharaj, and later by his uncles Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, Brijmohan Nath Mishra, popularly known as Pt Birju Maharaj, hails from the illustrious Bindadin lineage rooted in the Lucknow Gharana of kathak. His contributions to dance have not only been lauded for their unsurpassed excellence in exposition, but have also earned him innumerable accolades and honours including the prestigious Padma Vibhushan and Kalidas Samman. Success notwithstanding, there is an immense humility to Panditji, and a deep reverence to his mentors reflects in his words. “I have always received blessings from great gurus including Ravishankarji, Bade Ghulam Ali Khanji and Bhimsenji,” he says, of his accomplishments.

What sets him apart from the rest of the crowd is his unquestionable devotion to his art — a quality he seems to have passed on in generous measure to two of his trusted disciples, Saswati Sen and Murari Sharan Gupta. As the maestro marked his 75th birth anniversary this year, both paid him a fitting tribute — in the form of a beautiful and unpretentiously-penned book, The Master Through My Eyes, and a lovingly-rendered, mesmerising dance festival, Arpan, respectively.

Early days

How did Panditji start his remarkable innings? Picking through the threads of his life, he reminisces, “As a little boy, my mother would send me along with my father to the Nawab’s court, assuming that I would sit quietly and observe him while he performed his duties as a court dancer. Father would become irritated, because I would plead him to buy me balloons or chocolates en route. However, amma was always hopeful that I might absorb the basic elements of dance in the process, fuelling my desire to learn. At four, I began learning bits and pieces of tatkaar (footwork). I also started to try my hand at the tabla.”

Little Birju was divinely gifted and drew applause even at the tender age of six. Did he always relish the experience? “At times, the Nawab of Rampur would call upon my father to perform at 2 am and also ask that I be brought along,” recalls Maharajji. “Visibly upset at being woken up at that unearthly hour, I would secretly wish that the Nawab meet his end quickly. While my sister dressed me up in a sherwani and pagdi, the tears from my eyes would make the kajal run. She would wipe my moistened eyes patiently and ask me to keep quiet, under the threat that I would incur the wrath of the Nawab’s soldiers otherwise.”

However, the nawabi atmosphere that he grew up with did not last very long. His father’s untimely passing forced young Birju to shoulder financial responsibility at a relatively young age. At any point, did he ever feel like hanging up his ghungroos and pursuing other passions? “No,” he smiles and says softly. “My amma would always encourage me, saying, ‘whether you go hungry or not, stay focussed on your riyaz and always remember your father.’ It has always remained that way for me.”

Various expressions

In all his stage appearances, Pt Birju Maharaj makes classical kathak seem easy, superbly executing the complications in compositions through intricate footwork, brisk movements and moving expressions — all in perfect synchrony. Asked how he manages to convey the subtleties in abstract moods and feelings so effortlessly, wooing audiences at every performance, he replies, thoughtfully, “If your mind is as pure as a blank canvas, the colours that you choose to paint it with will only become more vivid. Right from the start, I’ve never harboured feelings of jealousy, hatred or greed towards anyone. To express anger, I need to practise it. When I evoke Lord Krishna, I’m able to feel His presence within me. If you seek the Almighty with a pure heart, you will witness the entire range of emotions and be able to emote and express the ethereal correctly.”

You move on to a significant and much-talked about phase of his career — film choreography. “Fifty years ago, under my uncle Lachhu Maharajji’s dance direction, yesteryear actresses including Padmini, Ragini and Vyjayanthimala had opportunities to perform Indian classical dances. Today, in a bid to please the public, directors seem to have lost their minds. ‘How can we make more money?’ That question seems to supercede everything,” he points out. The meaningful nrityas and abhinayas that got prominence in the days of Mughal-e-Azam have been forgotten. The focus has now shifted to vigorously gyrating to beats.”

Voicing concern

When he speaks about Western influence permeating dance and wardrobe in Bollywood, you notice a visible shift in emotion — he delivers his statements sharply, laced with embarrassment and subtle humour. “Abhi tak woh jawan ladkiyan jo hamari heroine hain, unko chhote chhote kapde pehna kar, (yeh kehte hain) ki ‘baby, abhi bhi tum baby ho’; bada hone hi nahi dethe (they dress our grown-up heroines in tiny, indecent attire, pretending they’re younger than they actually are). I feel ashamed!” he laments.

“The respect and grace that our generation was taught with great difficulty, they make us forget it all.” Inspite of his deep dissatisfaction with the showbiz scenario, he is certain that classical dance forms will make a comeback, adding that he’s now choreographing for Dedh Ishqiya and Vishwaroopam II.

Today, well into the autumn of his life, Panditji continues to juggle multiple roles — that of an adept performer, an innovative dance-director, a skilful music and ghazal composer, a superb vocalist and tabla player, an inspirational teacher and a creative painter, with élan, putting many of his classical contemporaries to shame. Has he ever contemplated retirement? “No, it is merely a word. Ever since I’ve reached that so-called age, I have become busier. I’ve been dancing much more, and will continue to do so until my last breath.”

Before I take his leave, he has a small request. I listen intently. “Please show me your camera. I’d love to see it,” he says, beaming with wonderment and childlike curiosity. Watching him inspect the device from every angle and ask feature-related questions, you begin to ponder whether this intense passion and unquenchable thirst for learning and experimentation lie at the heart of being a genius and legend.

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