Saswati Sen’s biography of Birju Maharaj shares details of his solo performances and analyses his dance-drama productions. By Utpal K Banerjee
Birju Maharaj has long been regarded as an iconic figure in the firmament of Indian classical dance. But to say — as Keshav Kothari, himself a Kathak exponent and erstwhile secretary of Sangeet Natak Akademi, once said — “There are only two kinds of Kathak, namely, pre-Birju Maharaj and post-Birju Maharaj.” Is it a justified sobriquetIJ
Besides being the most brilliant stage-performer, music-composer, versatile percussionist and talented singer (having sung for Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977), the following provides another look at his varied work. Returning from the West — having performed all over with Kumudini lakhia as Jugalbandi-duo — he blazed the trail with dazzling dance-dramas: starting with Shan-e-Oudh (1968), followed by Kumar Sambhava, Dalia, and, mythologicals: Govardhan lila, Makhan Chori andPhag Bhasa. Then came Parikrama (1980) with Kathak depicting the animal kingdom and Ritu Samhara, a sensation at International Festival of Dance and Music in Bangkok (2010). In between, he forayed on the celluloid as music composer and choreographer, starting with Shatranj… Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Devdas (2002) and ending with the national award for best choreography for Vishwaroopam (2012).
How did it all come aboutIJ Here is the stuff that legends are made of. He is the direct descendant of Ishwari Prasad, the father-figure of Kathak, who is believed to have a dream where Krishna asked him to establish and promote Natwar Nritya. His great grandson Thakur Prasad was the teacher of Nawab Wajid Ali; he received four palki-full of mohars as guru-dakshina and named his dance form: Kathak Natwar Nritya. Maharaj Bindadin was his nephew who practised tatkars (foot-work) 12 hours a day, every day for four years; composed 3,000 thumris and became famous for dancing, with his younger brother, as Kalka-Bindadin jodi. Birju is the grand-nephew of Bindadin.
It is a wonder that there has not yet been any definitive biography of Maharaj ji, with both details of his numerous solo performances and analysis of his dance drama productions. In his long — and mostly lonely — sojourn through life to bring a sea-change in Kathak, his Robinson Crusoe-like adventures have been arduously accompanied by Saswati Sen, among his most talented pupils, who has been by his side like a Man Friday all the time. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that Saswati — after 45 years of her association with Maharaj ji, including discipleship — has now penned her observations and experiences under Birju Maharaj: The Master through My Eyes (Niyogi Books).
“In these 45 years, I’ve never stopped learning from him the intricacies, nuances, in fact, the indelible aesthetics of Kathak”, says a humble Saswati. “Indeed, I’m still learning, all the time…” Along with him and otherwise following his path, she has conducted workshops all over India especially in metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. In the UK, she has been regularly conducting courses at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan of london. In the Capital — alongside him — she is building up Maharaj ji’s institution, Kalashram, at its two locations in Delhi and organising teaching and coaching classes, which have spread to the Mumbai centre as well.
The book is brilliantly anecdotal, seemingly keen on recoding as many unknown events form his life as possible, not missing the smallest details. It begins with him as a toddler: absolutely passionate on flying kites, grievously cutting himself on a broken glass-bottle and trying utmost to hide it from the vigilant mother. At age seven, he comes with father to Delhi, where Achchan Maharaj is invited to work at the present Sangeet Bharati and eagerly absorbs his father’s training to students from the sidelines. The boy starts performing before father’s performances, but soon loses him — dying due to brain haemorrhage — and lands in penury. Says Saswati, “The family survived on Birju’s meager tuition-money and on many evenings, the mother would pretend having eaten, when actually going hungry due to lack of food, I would cry, hearing Maharaj ji’s stories”.
Saswati talks about Bindadin’s countless ways of portraying only one line of verse: Balam re chunariya maika laal ranga de… Uncle Shambhu Maharaj comes to teach in Delhi at Bharatiya Kala Kendra in the 1950s. Around 1953, Kapila Vatsyayan, who had learnt under Achchan and remembered his son, invites the 15-year-old to teach at Sangeet Bharati. Maharaj ji recollects how he had the occasional opportunity to play tabla with maestro Pt Ravi Shankar.
He shifts to Bharatiya Kala Kendra at the age of 19-20 to assist his illustrious uncle in composing items, ballets and dance dramas. Adds Saswati, “The presentation of choreographic lines and melodious music had to be meticulously worked out. The masses liked them and, during the 1960s and 1970s, this was the most popular way to reach out to the uninitiated audience”. Maharaj ji then joined Sangeet Natak Akademi and took over their Kathak Kendra: both as a guru and as a choreographer: working from morning till night.
Here he developed the ingenious idea — inherited from tales of his great ancestors — of creating rhythmic phrases for dances: imitating sounds of moving trains, gun-cannons, galloping horses and so on. He evolved the most successful choreographies of laya Parikrama (suggestive rhythms for every worldly activity); Yati Darshan (geometric patterns formed through rhythmic phrases); and Tihai Roop (visuals formed through aural senses). For the first Asiad (1982), his amazing compositions were built around Kabaddi, Kho-Kho, Tug-of-war and other games, experiencing new interpretation of rhythmic patterns and mnemonic phrases. It was a creative way of uniting dance and games!
Maharaj ji never turned back since. The story unfolds how he joined hands with three greatest of gurus of classical dance: Kelucharan Mohapatra (Odissi); Vempati Chinna Satyam (Kuchipudi); Kalyan Sundaram Pillai (Bharatanatyam); and created, together, a dance drama, Krishna Parijatam. Recollects Saswati, “The senior most Odissi dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi played Rukmini, Vani Ganapati was chosen as Krishna and I was Satyabhama. It was an out-and-out success and former Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, affectionately called me his dancer-daughter!”
There are other stories of how the above four were joined by maestros like Bipin Singh (Manipuri), Govindan Kutty (Kathakali), and Kalamandalam Kshemavati (Mohiniyattam) to dance together in Kolkata in a specially-built rostrum facing the Victoria Memorial. They improvised their joint act right before the unsuspecting spectators — holding, at the end, little Krishna on lap and lulling him to sleep! But the plum was taken — in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, especially the latter — with a perfect chemistry between Maharaj ji’s abhinaya as Krishna and Kelucharan’s as Radha, making the divine couple palpable in an imaginary Vrindavan and enchanting to each other: oblivious to the spell-bound audience!
There is also a sea of stories of the travels all over India and abroad: of performing in multiple temple-towns to their respective gods; of being coerced by Bihar pehalwans into holding repeat shows by cancelling further travels; of losing way in a USSR luxury hotel and, worse, running berserk to arrange atta for the accompanying pakhawaj; of the childhood-hunger coming the full circle, when the lavishly-arranged banquet in Baghdad turned out all non-vegetarian, including the last resort of fruits, too, with meat-toppings!
Reminisces Saswati, “I wrote this book only in the nights working till 2 am and otherwise while travelling. Believe me, I’m no author and words don’t come to me easily. Also I had to pursue my career and its enforced busy schedule, apart form my own tasks of looking after Maharaj ji as well as running Kalashram. Where was the timeIJ I owe it to Niyogi books, apart from commissioning me with an advance grant, to be coaxing me all the time to complete my manuscript, over the last two years since I began. When I started out in life, my parents wanted me to be a doctor (father having been a doctor), but eventually music and dance and Kathak claimed my body, mind and soul!”
The book is most profusely illustrated, with some vintage photographs. Adds Saswati, “Images are collected from many students and from Avinash Pasricha, besides some rare ones from Maharaj ji’s family-members and a few from Kumudini lakhia”. All said, it is a good book, written in simple language and forthright manner. One only wishes the author could have detached herself a little from the subject-matter and written more objectively, with some systematic analysis on Maharaj ji’s huge corpus of work, which only she could do. As it is, the book reads like a long panegyric, which is a pity.