Long Read: Pandit Birju Maharaj's Legacy Keepers Are His Disciples And Co-Artistes, Not Bollywood

by Sumati Mehrishi - Jan 29, 2022 03:32 PM +05:30 IST
Long Read: Pandit Birju Maharaj's Legacy Keepers Are His Disciples And Co-Artistes, Not BollywoodPt Birju Maharaj
  • The Indian film industry is not the space to locate and celebrate the legacy of Pt Birju Maharaj.

    Seekers of the 'rasa' of Maharaj ji's art would do well to find it the art of his disciples and contemporaries.

Pandit Birju Maharaj was born in Basant. The guru lived kathak to measure all possible dimensions of nritya, vadan and gayan (dance, instrumental music and vocal music). This year, his bhakti for Saraswati, for Krishna, kathak and art would have blended with his birthday celebration. His family and disciples would have celebrated his birthday in February with flowers, dance and music. The birthday celebrations of Pandit Birju Maharaj would be awaited each year for the performances it would bring. He would look gorgeous in a yellow angarkha, which would be his drape to celebrate Basant.

One of the greatest storytellers of India, Maharaj ji belonged to his disciples, to students of his disciples, peers who were directly influenced by his art, the masses, the countless children he has presented lecture demonstrations to via Spicmacay, and his co-artistes.

The Generous Guru

His sons represent the 8th generation of the Kalka Bindadin lineage. The dictum "katha kahe so kathik kahaye" -- the one who tells the katha is known as the kathik, has guided the artistes of the gharana across generations.

There are several others who were taught by Maharaj ji in the 1960s. Among them is kathak maestro Guru Shovana Narayan. She told Swarajya, "I would be with him observing how he would be thinking, choreographing a ballet, looking for new ideas, so, it was a completely different insight to his methodology of working. In the evening when he would come home it would be teaching. It was a different way. He would be painstakingly detailed while teaching."

On his demise, the mainstream media headlines seemed to attribute Pandit Birju Maharaj's legacy to some inconsequential stars from the film industry. Maharaj ji's interaction with these people was limited and for a track or two, for a set of scenes that would use movements from kathak to propel the story. Had there been anything beyond that, these people would have been seen in the performance scenario, or seen telling stories through kathak for the masses, at least.

This author's fondest memories of watching Pandit Birju Maharaj immerse in his art are those at Kalashram -- his institution where his
senior disciples would reveal the years of riyaz (practice). It was at the Kalashram in the presence own disciples, that Maharaji ji, as he would fondly known, would be seen grounding himself amid those who were learning from him and amid those who revered him as their guru.

This audience was the one he was teaching as well as preparing as an artiste-audience. So, his interaction with his own self here seemed to allow him to get off the pedestal he was placed on and yet remain on that very pedestal.

Maharaj ji would open himself up as a learner, a child, a Pandit, a kathakaar, the performer, while he taught his students. His eyes living up the abhinaya in the day's lesson, his ears wound up in the lehra and the beat cycle, his face saying the stories that would be heard in seeing, and the art of telling those stories, captured.

The 'gharanadaar' shaped Several non-'gharanadaars'

Years ago, kathak maestro Vidushi Sitara Devi told this author that she can still command Pandit Birju Maharaj – her dear — to perform this way or that. She said, “Birju Maharaj kya kya kartein hain aajkal mujhe nahin samajh aata hai. I always concentrated on doing abhinaya and he would get entangled in the tatkaars and math. But I know that people like Birju Maharaj and I, people like late Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Late Ustad Vilayat Khan and Late Alla Rakha Khan were true gharanedaars. Not like people who settled abroad after dabbling with various things, not really doing something worthwhile..."

Imagine the level of expectation that Sitara Devi ji had from Maharajji, indicating that she had the right to express, to disagree, to demand before him. This reflects how generous and gentle Maharaj ji was as the ras-Maharaj, a co-artiste, contemporary.

Pandit Birju Maharaj expanded the canvas of kathak from the spiritual to human and back to divine, from divine to mundane to divine. He
would get into the mould of a bhakta to say the story of Ram, make Radha meet Krishna, make Shiv meet Krishna, make the gwala meet the
gwalin, make bal-Krishna meet Krishna on the battlefield, all into himself.

He would do this by living the dance form instead of performing it by being rooted to his base, the Lucknow gharana, to exploring possibilities of the dance that would allow other gharanadaars and the non-gharanadaars to be inspired by him and to collaborate with him.

The Confluence Of Lucknow And Benaras

Years ago at a performance in Delhi, Pandit Birju Maharaj stood next to the dais where Pandit Rajan and Pandit Sajan Mishra were seated. Minutes before this unique duet featuring these three great artistes was to begin, Maharaj ji began to test the flat microphone on the floor. The microphone's coveted job was to catch the minutest sound that would emanate from his feet and the ghunghroo. Maharaj ji did a customary sound check. He gave one tatkar (the flat tap of the foot) two, then three, and more.

He then invoked his ghunghroos for the sound check. A few first, then more, then the entire strength strapped to his feet. In the background Pandit Rajan Mishra was tuning his swarmandal. Suddenly, there is a rupture of applause from the audience. It goes on for a couple of minutes. Pandit Rajan Mishra looks up and begins to chuckle, joined by Pandit Sajan Mishra.

Maharaj ji pompously taps his forehead with his palm, as if to say, "this was just a sound check, people." The artistes knew that the applause was not of ignorance.

The applause was of overwhelming anticipation. The applause was for two gharanas that were meeting over a destination that Maharaji ji had himself created in his art. Just a sound check was enough to indicate what was or would come ahead in a performance where the Lucknow in Maharaj ji's intellectual prowess and his all pervasive owning of and surrender to rhythm would meet the Benaras of his art, aesthetic, familial ties (with Pandit Rajan and Pandit Sajan Mishra), and musical immersion.

To witness Maharaj ji performing a duet with the stalwarts of Benaras gharana would be a moment you could pinch yourself for. Sringar, Krishna, Radha, nayika, love, bhakti, romance, rhythm, footwork, brilliance, the love for each praani and sound, the eruption of the elements of Nature engulfed him when he performed on the dais, sitting inches away from Vidushi Girija Devi. They were celebrating Holi in this particular performance. If there is one performance that defines bhakti, katha, kathak, Vidushi and Pandit, Holi, Benaras-Lucknow, sanatan, Bharat, it is this.

This meeting of the Benaras and Lucknow in Maharaj ji within himself and his own art, and with the world that the duo of Pandit Rajan (he lost his fight to Covid last year) and Pandit Sajan Mishra brought with themselves as one, was a worldly representation of Maharaj ji's interior and exterior domains as an artiste, the thinker, the creator. The culmination goes back to his childhood when he was trained by his uncles and father.

The Vocal For Local 'Ras-Raj'

Maharaj ji painted through dance. He sang through his feet and body. He wrote with his eyes. He danced through his poetry and words. He
spoke through his hasta mudras. He worshiped in dance. He taught and trained through his heart. There wasn't one part of his body that
could be confined to a single expression of art. He wrote, he sang, he composed in nritya-gayan-vadan, he narrated, he choreographed. He, the ras-raj, the raja of rasa, revelled in spontaneity.

At a performance in Jhansi, where one of his uncle-gurus was present with him, Maharaj ji was faced by a challenge -- a difficult audience. Prodded by his uncle, he used a paran to spur it into his abhinaya, using rhythm and sound to present the katha of the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai. The audience, spellbound, compelled him to perform the same piece around twenty more times. For Lucknow, he would take to the Lucknow thumri ang; in south, he would perform to the tillana and even record bols to Carnatic sensibility in studios.

The Meeting Of 'Shoonya' And Blessings

His disciples are not the only set of people who believe and say that Pandit Birju Maharaj was one of the most generous and benevolent
gurus. This generosity and demeanour made Pandit Birju Maharaj the recipient of affection and blessings from artistes and maestros --
peers, elders, contemporaries.

Among them was T Balasaraswati. Maharaj ji has said during one his interactions in tribute to Balasaraswati that she would let him in the house only after a set of rituals that included applying kohl on his face (to ward off evil). Once, during his visit for performance in Chennai (then Madras), Maharaj ji told Balasaraswati ji that the artiste who was supposed to sing for his performance won't be available.

She sang a tillana for his performance. He performed kathak on tillana. There are several other beautiful stories of how Maharaj ji with the help and affection from Balasaraswati ji made the tangible space to create the confluence of two traditions. These anecdotes have been previously shared by the disciples and family members of both. "Paisa utna nahin hai, blessings bahaut kamai," he said in an interaction.

Maharaj ji once mentioned the value of shoonya in the life of an artiste during one of his interactions in Delhi. The focus of this reference was on Balasaraswati ji. "Shoonya jab jagrit ho jata hai na kalakar ka, us waqt se kalakar usko maanta hoon...," he said. He added that it was when the shoonya emanates, and gets evoked in an artiste's life he/she is able to create anything, anywhere at the spur of a moment.

Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati -- teen dhara

Pandit Birju Maharaj described the teachings, training and influence of his two uncles and his fathers on his art as the teen dhara -- the
three streams of Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati.

In one of his interactions, he explained how. "I immersed myself in them", he said. While Guru Shambhu Maharaj ji's dhara or style brought the strength of the rhythm, taal, intensity and masculinity, Guru Lachchu Maharaj ji's dhara or style gave Pandit Birju Maharaj the poetry, flow, depths in expression, the entire ocean of abhinaya. When he would go from one uncle to another, he would have to face their comments on either style. "I was the only boy between them all. I got all their love and affection."

At times, he would find himself caught between the two uncles and run to his mother -- asking her what to do. She would simply ask her to do both what he learned and perform. He did just that. The parent dhara -- of his father Guru Achchan Maharaj ji, provided the strong base to carry and flourish in his art the two other dharas. Thus, carrying these three dharas in his art and performance, he became himself.

There would be none else as him -- his contemporaries, elders and peers -- maestros in their own right -- would tell him. The Lucknow ang thumri and the musical treasure of the Banaras gharana enriched the giant river that was holding the three dharas. That was Pandit Birju Maharaj.

Samm -- the culmination and the beginning

Once Pandit Birju Maharaj described janm and mrityu -- birth and death -- as samm. The taal system in the Hindustani music system celebrates
the samm. To simply and roughly explain the being and concept, one can say that it is a point and place in a beat cycle where the
entire cycle culminates as well as begins. The awareness of the samm becomes as natural as the awareness of breath -- in and through
practice. Maharaj ji gave the samm, and the ability to practically culminate improvisations and parts in a composition in gaayan, vaadan and nritya, a beginner's thrill and the celebration in his art and performance.

His joy and attention to the samm would be distinct, full of life, dramatic,
natural, carelessly careful, different each time. His relationship with the samm was expressed in ways as if he was wanting to intentionally
display how much he valued each and every beat cycle he lived and performed to.

Laya and taal interspersed in the flora and fauna, the elements of Nature, the environment and even mundane machines, would become part of his lessons.

The simplifying and breaking down of complex concepts and basics would be done in a way where the simplified and broken down version itself would be a piece worth aiming for in practice and form. He would leave these broken down pieces lingering in the air, until the disciples would eventually grasp and present them, to twine over to the complex form in a beat cycle or two. To see them reaching there, Maharaj ji would smile, beat his palms on the samm, and register their humble achievement.

Maharaj ji celebrated himself -- for the audience. He celebrated himself, by remaining celebrated -- yet by stepping away from pedestal
to continue being the Maharaj of rasa, bhav, katha, kathak. This Basant, celebrate for him by turning to the art of kathiks -- those true legacy-keepers taught by him.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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