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Pundit Birju Maharaj, one of India’s Kathak legends, passed away on Sunday night. The icon, known for his fluidity of movement and grace on stage, succumbed to kidney disease at his home in Mumbai. Here’s a look at the life and times of the star performer.
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Maharaj began dancing at the age of four, as Brij Mohan Nath Mishra. Kathak had been passed down through the generations. His father, Achhan Maharaj, was a descendant of Lucknow's illustrious Kalka Bindadin dynasty, and Maharaj carried on the family's tradition. The tinkling of ghungroos could be heard from a little cottage down a small Lucknow lane.
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Prior to his first major solo in West Bengal, he began performing with his father at concerts. Maharaj used to write Kathak bols in his notebooks instead of class notes while he was still in school.
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Birju Maharaj’s celebrated career began with tragedy – his father, Acchan Maharaj, died when he was just nine years old. To carry on his father’s legacy, he began to teach while honing his craft under the tutelage of his uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj.
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He moved to Delhi to teach at Sangeet Bharti, Mandi House at the age of 13. His extensive knowledge of percussion and Hindustani classical music enhanced his performances. He also taught at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, and at the Kathak Kendra (a unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi) where he was head of faculty and director, retiring in 1998.
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As Maharaj gained fame he began to meld classic story telling with contemporary, creating pieces that spoke to viewers of all ages. In doing so, he drew more viewers. Soon, musical conferences didn't seem complete without Maharaj taking the floor.
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Maharaj made a significant contribution to Bollywood choreography. These delicate performances displayed superb choreography, whether it was a piece danced by his student Saswati Sen in 'Shatranj ke Khiladi', Madhuri Dixit in 'Dil To Paagal Hai' and Devdas, or Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani. In her eulogy for Pandit Birju Maharaj, Madhuri Dixit wrote: "He was a legend but had a child like 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. 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. Koti koti pranam."
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Kamal Haasan posted a throwback picture of himself along with the legend. Maharaj had trained the actor for the song 'Unnai Kaanadhu Naan' from 'Vishwaroopam', which had also won a National Award.
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Maharaj influenced generations of dancers to learn Kathak as a mentor. Shovana Narayan, disciple of Maharaj, onced said the training was intense “until it got into your bloodstream,”. Saswati Sen, Nisha Mahajan, Manjari Chaturvedi, and Aditi Mangaldas are among his other students. He was also honoured with Padma Vibhushan for his contribution to Indian art.
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Maharaj was one of the Sangeet Natak Akademy's youngest recipients at 28. He was also bestowed the ‘Padma Vibhushan’ . Until his retirement in 1998, he was the head of Kathak Kendra.