In Memory of Kathak Legend Pt. Birju Maharaj: His Work and His Legacy
Kathak dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj was the epitome of grace. He was rhythm, music, and dance personified. Within him encompassed the immense knowledge to propagate and enhance an art form. He was mystic and legendary. Alas, the world has lost him today at the age of 83. We shall never see him perform using his delicate hand gestures, his mesmerizing facial expressions, and choreographing any other artistic piece of dance ever again. It is a day of mourning as a beautiful era of the world of Kathak has come to an end.
The world of Indian cinema shall forever remember him for iconic and regal dance choreographies that have given various actresses with the words – grace and elegance. The Padma Vibhushan, National Award, and Filmfare Award recipient has made such a remarkable contribution in the Indian cinema that his absence will leave a grave void, one that shall be felt strongly every time a classical dance piece will grace the silver screen again.
Pandit Birju Maharaj was born on 4th February 1938, in pre-independent India. He was the only son and disciple of his father Shri. Achhan Maharaj. He belonged to the house of a major Kathak stalwart, Jagannath Maharaj of the Lucknow Gharana. From a young age, he received Kathak training from his father and spent immense time in learning the nuances and nitty-gritty of the art form. He used to be present alongside his father wherever he used to go to present his skills. Thus, Pandit Birju Maharaj started performing at a very young age. Lachhu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, his uncles had major influential roles in training young Pandit Birju Maharaj.Lenovo Chromebook 14e 14.0" FHD Business Laptop
In 1947, a catastrophic event occurred and Pandit Birju Maharaj lost his father. After this devastating incident, the family shifted to Bombay. Pandit Birju Maharaj continued to receive training and hone his skills under his uncles. At the age of 13, Pandit Birju Maharaj was invited to teach at Sangeet Bharati, New Delhi. Maharaj initially found it difficult to adjust to Delhi and he would often get lost in the streets. Later on, he made Regal Cinema his regular landmark through which he would locate his way to the house or Sangeet Bharati.
After teaching at the Sangeet Bharati, Pandit Birju Maharaj went on to teach at Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Later, he was presented with the opportunity to head the teachers at the Kathak Kendra. Pandit Birju Maharaj served as the head of the faculty for many years until he retired in 1988, at the age of 60.
Pt. Birju Maharaj wanted to take Kathak to as many dancers as possible, both in the homeland and in foreign places. Throughout his lifetime, Maharaj performed at various venues across the globe, helping Kathak gain worldwide attention and reverence.
Post his retirement from Kathak Kendra, Maharaj realized his dream of opening a dance school with the inauguration of Kalashram. In Kalashram, not only the students were trained in the field of Kathak but also in music, yoga, painting, Sanskrit, dramatics, and stagecraft. Maharaj himself was trained in Hindustani Classical Music and had composed various poems and ballad songs. He was a firm believer in the fact that a dancer should have the knowledge of music. Maharaj was also a consistent practitioner of meditation. In his busy schedule of constantly flying to different venues to perform and showcase his skills, he made sure he meditated every morning and night. He emphasised that breathing techniques are important for a dancer. Thus, Maharaj’s personal vision and knowledge helped Kalashram churn out strong multi-faceted dancers.
Pandit Birju Maharaj had choreographed two songs for Satyajit Ray’s Shataranj Ke Khiladi and he also lent his voice to those songs. After that, Maharaj went on to reject many films offered to him until Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. Maharaj regarded Sanjay Leela Bhansali as a son and couldn’t turn him down.
Interestingly, when Maharaj met Madhuri Dixit for the first time, he wanted to see her do the hook step of “Ek.. Do.. Teen”. He believed every dance form deserved equal respect, passion, and dedication. With Maharaj’s choreography for “Kahe Ched Ched Mohe”, Madhuri Dixit was able to reach new heights of grace and beauty, something the audience didn’t know she could perform. It was as if Maharaj had pushed her limits and helped her see in herself something she didn’t know existed. Madhuri Dixit has ever since regarded him as her guru and has always had utmost regard and respect for him. Maharaj also choreographed Madhuri in Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Dedh Ishqiya.
In a post, Madhuri Dixit has paid her last tribute to Maharaj by saying, “Thank you Maharaji for everything you taught me in dance along with humility, elegance, and grace.”
Madhuri Dixit’s Instagram post, honouring Birju Maharaj.
Maharaj reunited with Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Bajirao Mastani in 2015. This time, he trained Deepika Padukone for “Mohe Rang Do Laal”. For this particular song, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s point of reference was Madhubala’s “Mohe Panghat Pe” from Mughal – e – Azam. The maestro heard Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s vision and then went out to create something unique and extraordinary.Samsung Galaxy M12 (Black,4GB RAM, 64GB Storage)
I came across behind-the-scenes of “Mohe Rang Do Laal” and it showcased how greatly involved Maharaj used to be in training the actresses. In a snippet of the video, Deepika Padukone, seated behind Pandit Birju Maharaj, is supporting his back, which was intentionally done to understand the torso movement so as to provide grace to the body. Maharaj also taught Padukone the certain subtlety and refinement in how he formed mudras from his hands.
Maharaj was awarded the Filmfare Award for Bajirao Mastani. I remember watching the 2016 Filmfare awards. When Maharaj was nominated for Best Choreography, I remember saying, “there is no way anybody else can win this award when Pandit Birju Maharaj has been nominated for it.”
“I have two idols. You can call them the guiding lights of my career. Lata Mangeshkar is in hospital. Pandit Birju Maharaj is gone. I can’t believe it,” says Sanjay Leela Bhansali as he pays his last regards to Maharaj.
Today must be a difficult and sad day for both Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Madhuri Dixit, the two people who had abundant respect and admiration for the Kathak legend. It is unfortunate that we will never see a Madhuri Dixit and Pandit Birju Maharaj collaboration again. Maharaj will be dearly missed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali when Heeramandi, a series that is expected to be filled with grandiose dance pieces, would be filmed.
Pandit Birju Maharaj also choreographed Kamal Haasan for “Unnai Kaanadhu Naan” in Vishwaroopam. Maharaj was extremely impressed by Kamal Hassan’s performance and had remarked that he was able to bring out Maharaj himself while performing. Pandit Birju Maharaj was awarded the National Award for Vishwaroopam.
Pt. Birju Maharaj guiding Kamal Hassan.
Kamal Hassan in Maharaj’s memory said, “Deeply saddened at the demise of Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, who gave Indian dance form a unique recognition across the world. His passing is an irreplaceable loss to the entire art world. My condolences to his family and fans in this hour of grief.”
Maharaj also trained Alia Bhatt shortly for her song “Ghar More Pardesiya” in Kalank".
Intriguingly, Maharaj had once admitted that if his dancing skills would have gone unnoticed, he would have become a car mechanic. Can you believe it? The epitome of Kathak artistry would have been using his time as a car mechanic? He loved dismantling gadgets and putting them back together. Apart from that, he enjoyed watching Hollywood flicks and loved Jackie Chan and Sylvester Stallone. Thus, there was more to Maharaj than Kathak.
However, he saw Kathak beyond being an art form. Maharaj was an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna and mysticism came easily to him. He was highly admired for his majestic expressions and minimalist foot tapping. He saw dancing as a worship of the Almighty and found it to be a spiritual process.
May his last spiritual journey be as blissful as performing Kathak. The world shall always remember Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj as the pioneer of the modern-day glory of the dance form.
Author Biographical Note: Vanshika Lakhani is pursuing her degree in Mass Communications and Journalism from Jai Hind College. She is also an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College from where she studied Arts. She reviews films, web-shows, books, and music. Her reviews have also been published on other portals like Film Companion and Café Dissensus Everyday. She is a huge content enthusiast and enjoys talking to people who tell her about new content to consume. Now she is associated with Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern.
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