Legend has it that when Birju Maharaj was commissioned to choreograph Deepika Padukone for a classical song in ‘Bajirao Mastani’, the terrified Bollywood actress told the kathak maestro she was no Madhuri Dixit who could pick up his steps with ease.
Maharaj simply told her not worry and trust his abilities. The rest is visible in the choreography of ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ that presented an ethereal Padukone dance with graceful abandon on screen.
Such was the legend of the kathak guru who died on Monday, aged 83, after a prolonged kidney ailment that forced him to undergo dialysis as well. However, his death is likely attributed to a cardiac arrest, his granddaughter Ragini Maharaj told the media.
As one of India’s most well-known performing artists, to his army of loyalists he was simply Maharaj-ji, a guru who inspired generations of fans to take up the classical art of kathak, while taking the dance form mainstream through his several collaborations with Bollywood and Bengali cinema.
Born to dance
Born in 1938, Maharaj belonged to the elite Kalka-Bindadin gharana of kathak (a style of the dance form), where he was trained by his father Achchan Maharaj and his two uncles, Shambhu and Lachchu Maharaj, giving his first performance at the age of seven.
Kathak uses dance and facial expressions to help tell a story, with many dance pieces inspired by ancient Indian epics. And Maharaj was a natural at this.
Turning teacher by age 13 and earning a name for himself at the Bhartiya Kala Kendra (now Kathak Kendra) in New Delhi – an institution with which he was associated with for several decades - in 1998, he took his legacy further to start Kalashram, a school of classical dance.
Maharaj was known for his animated facial expressions and light-footed movements, accompanied by the sound of bells he wore around his ankles. He would often draw inspiration from his own life in his performances and was a skillful storyteller.
In 2015, ahead of a performance he was to stage in Dubai, Maharaj spoke to Gulf News about contemporising this classical dance form to appeal to a wider fan base, but vehemently denied he would ever conform to a ‘fusion’ style.
“I’d never do that,” he had said at the time. “What I’ve done is try to bring together the beauty of ang bhaav (bodily expressions) and the speed in the dance. I’ve tried to balance these two to create a better presentation, hence contemporising it. However, there’s no element of what one calls ‘fusion’.”
To perhaps drive his point home further, he explained further about working with Dixit on ‘Devdas’. “If you noticed, I coached Madhuri in ‘Devdas’. That was pure classical dance and not a regular Bollywood number. I don’t enjoy that form of dance where there is excessive body movement and expression to seduce [the] audience. I always question the nuances of the dance I would need to choreograph before taking on a film assignment.
“It’s important for me to know why the song has been included, what kind of speed is expected, what kind of costumes the actress will wear. I wouldn’t work if an actress wore the [skimpy] costumes that seems to be the trend in Bollywood nowadays. You can see the difference in ‘Devdas’ itself — there is one song I’ve composed (‘Kahe Chhed Chhed Mohe’) and Saroj Khan has composed another (‘Maar Dala’).”
Maharaj’s other memorable film collaborations include Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, the 2004 film ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ where he choreographed Dixit once again and with Indian politician and Tamil actor for the film ‘Vishwaroopam’ (2012) that would go on to earn him a National Award for the song ‘Unnai Kaanaadhu’.
Apart from being a renowned kathak dancer, Maharaj was also a well-known classical singer and had lent his voice to several films over a career spanning seven decades. His expertise also extended as a drummer, with the artist himself confessing he was especially fond of playing the Tabla and Naal. His dexterity included mastering string instruments such the sitar, the sarod, the violin and the sarangi despite never undergoing any formal training.
Such was his remarkable contribution that the government of India honoured him with the country’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1986.
Tributes pour in
Following the news of his demise, tributes poured in led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said in a tweet that he was “deeply saddened” and that his death was an “irreparable loss to the entire art world.”
Haasan also penned a heartfelt note in tribute of his teacher. “The incomparable dance legend Pandit Birju Maharaj has passed away. Like an Ekalavya, I learnt a lot from him by observing him from a distance for many years. I learnt a lot from close quarters for ‘Vishwaroopam’. A legend who dedicated his life to music and dance, ‘I am not myself today as a result of being unable to see you’,” posted Haasan, ending his tweet with a line from ‘Unnai Kaanaadhu’, along with posting a picture of himself and actress Andrea practicing with Maharaj.
Fellow film collaborator Dixit also shared a picture of herself, dancing with Maharaj, while posting a touching message in his honour. “He was a legend but had a childlike innocence. He was my guru but also my friend. He taught me the intricacies of dance and Abhinay but never failed to make me laugh at his funny anecdotes,” she posted, before adding: “He has left behind grieving fans and students but also left a legacy we will all carry forward. Thank you Maharajji for everything you taught me in dance along with humility, elegance and grace.”
Indian actress, politician and famed dancer Hema Malini also mourned the loss of Maharaj. “The nation mourns the passing of a true legend, Shri Birju Maharaj, Kathak exponent par excellence. His ghungroos were on his ankles till he breathed his last. I always admired and respected him as a giant of the medium of Kathak & will miss his presence on the firmament of dance,” she posted on Twitter.
Veteran actor Anupam Kher, too remembered Maharaj, while sharing a video to remember the kathak legend from his days at the National School of Drama. He also talked about how he would try to decipher Maharaj’s facial expressions as his “delicate details of acting were amazing.”
Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt also spoke about working with Maharaj during the making of 'Kalank'. “Had the honour and privilege of spending three full days with Pandit Birju Maharaj in 2018 while I was prepping for Ghar More Pardesiya. I will never forget all that he has taught me. It was possibly one of the most creative and fulfilling experiences that I have ever had. A legend who has inspired several and will always continue to do so through his art. Truly breaks my heart to write this post today. May his soul rest in peace," the actress posted on her Instagram Story.
“Very few artists have been equally good as performers and as teachers. Maharaj ji certainly scaled new heights in both roles,” Indian classical dancer Geeta Chandran posted on Facebook. “His contribution to the world of dance is indeed historic, and will certainly be carried forward by his absolutely amazing tribe of disciples and students.”
“We have lost an unparalleled institution in the field of performing arts. He has influenced many generations through his genius,” singer Adnan Sami stated.
While Maharaj will long be remembered for his unparalleled contribution to the arts, perhaps his biggest legacy remains his progressive stance that provided equal opportunities to his children as well as his students, without any gender bias.
“At one time classical dances became a source of entertainment for the kings at court. The dasis (courtesans) became the performers because the women of the family were not allowed to dance. Women were not educated then and this became a way of survival in society. Hence, dancing came to be looked down upon. But today, when women are educated and aware and everyone sees classical dance as an art form [rather] than [something] derogatory, that is my legacy,” Maharaj told Gulf News with pride.
Looking at his legion of fans, we can only agree.