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Pt Birju Maharaj: A storyteller who blurred gender norms

Born Brij Mohan Nath Mishra, Maharaj began dancing when he was four.

Pt Birju Maharaj, who became synonymous with Kathak, passed away in Delhi at the age of 83. (IE)
Pt Birju Maharaj, who became synonymous with Kathak, passed away in Delhi at the age of 83. (IE)

Back in 2010, at a concert in Delhi’s Kamani auditorium, Girija Devi sang the lilting Hori — Rang daarungi nand ke laalan pe, rang daarungi — a Braj bhaasha piece about Radha’s explicit desire to colour Krishna. Next to her sat Pt Birju Maharaj, who embodied Radha in the moment – the adakaari in place, the heart in tow. As he interpreted this one line in numerous ways, he articulated the desire of a woman, with all its sensuality in place. In the middle of the piece, Girija Devi draped her shawl over Maharaj’s head. Maharaj acknowledged, turning the shawl into his veil. Tumultuous applause followed. “I don’t know a single woman dancer who can be a better Radha,” Devi would say often.

A rare combination of virtuosity and expression, grace and control, Pt Birju Maharaj, who became synonymous with Kathak, passed away in Delhi at the age of 83. He suffered from kidney ailments and had been on dialysis for some months. He contracted Covid a few days ago and had a heart attack on Monday morning.

Maharaj’s oeuvre was not just about dazzling performances, choreographies, and that delicate glance of the eye. It was also about his intrepid belief that dance could convey just about everything. Gender, in all of this, rarely mattered as he sought to move beyond any constraints that his artform offered.

Born Brij Mohan Nath Mishra, Maharaj began dancing when he was four. Kathak was in the family. His father Acchan Maharaj was from the prestigious Kalka Bindadin family of Lucknow and Maharaj took his legacy forward. A small house in a narrow Lucknow lane would reverberate with the tinkle of ghungroos. “My father used to be happy and would tell my amma ‘Ladka bohot leyadaar hai’ (The boy is extremely rhythmic),” he had said in an interview to this reporter in 2013. He began performing at concerts with his father before his first major solo in West Bengal. While still in school, Maharaj would write the bols of Kathak in his notebooks, instead of class notes.

Acchan Maharaj passed away when Birju Maharaj was only nine. Armed with the precision of the footwork taught by his father, a young Maharaj began teaching while also being trained by his uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, who are credited with giving him the fluidity of movement that he was famous for. He moved to Delhi to teach at Sangeet Bharti, Mandi House, and never looked back. What added to his performances was his immense knowledge of percussion and Hindustani classical music. He could sing the thumri he was to dance to. Soon, almost every musical conference in the country had Maharaj as their star performer. What was interesting in these Kathak performances was that these were not just mythological pieces – he was also contemporising the stories, even little bits from his daily life, that could be mathematically tied in rhythm.

Some of his finest performances were with Ut Zakir Hussain. At Maharaj’s 75th birthday celebration at Delhi’s Ficci auditorium, he showcased ginti ki tihaies and bhav through a thumri sung by his brothers in law – Pt Rajan and Sajan Mishra – his intricate footwork, superb control and stamina almost dared his age. Hussain was overwhelmed. “He danced on my fourth birthday,” he said with a laugh. “Ab kyunki Maharaj ji aaj chaar saal ke ho gaye hain, I wanted to pay him a tribute. While playing with him, I have no idea what he will do next. It is a challenge I look forward to,” Hussain said, with a laugh.

Maharaj’s contributions to the Hindi film choreographies are also noteworthy. Be it a piece danced by his student Saswati Sen in Shatranj ke Khiladi or Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Paagal Hai and Devdas, and Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani, these intricate performances showcased his sense of precision and fine choreography. His ginti ki tihaais are studied rigorously by students of Kathak.

As a guru, Maharaj inspired generations of dancers to take up Kathak. The training was rigorous, “until it got into your bloodstream,” as Shovana Narayan, who was trained by Maharaj, once said. His other students include Saswati Sen, Nisha Mahajan, Manjari Chaturvedi and Aditi Mangaldas.

Maharaj was one of the youngest artistes to be awarded a Sangeet Natak Akademy. He was 28 at the time. He was also conferred with a Padma Vibhushan. He was the head of Kathak Kendra till his retirement in 1998.

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