Some concerts are hypnotic — they come with a cumulative knowledge of a lifetime, and ideally, should go on forever. Last week, a concert at Delhi’s FICCI Auditorium was one such treat. Kathak doyen Pandit Birju Maharaj had turned 75 and it was the finale of Vasantotsav organised by Kalashram, his institute. As Maharaj showcased ginti ki tihaies, various parans, pirouettes and bhav through a thumri sung by Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra, his intricate footwork, superb control and stamina almost dared his age.
Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain playing complex rhythm structures accompanied the music. “He danced on my fourth birthday. 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 playful challenge I look forward to,” Hussain said, with a laugh.
Sometimes an artiste is synonymous with an art form, but seldom does the opposite happen. Maharaj has danced for almost 70 years but he isn’t tired. In fact, he refuses to even play the part. When we catch up with him at his Shahjahan Road residence in Delhi, he greets us with child-like enthusiasm, after which his American student Natalia serves the customary pedas. His words are punctuated with animated gestures, telling us stories or the kathas of Kathak.
There is the flute, the shringar, the dancer’s veil and something as simple as putting a thread in the needle that guide the sequence of events. “I have been dancing for 70 years. This is all I know,” says Maharaj. He is an accomplished storyteller as he is a dancer, but now, he enjoys being a teacher. “Anand toh hai hi. (There is definite joy). When I give taleem, and see elements of my own persona in some of my students, that exactness which springs in spurts, or the footwork the way I like, I feel I’ve finally managed to give them something,” says Maharaj. And of course, there is the nazar. “The gaze through the eyes, the way a dancer uses it. If that is in place, my day is made,” says Maharaj, also a multi-instrumentalist, poet and painter.
He dregs memories of early 20th century Lucknow. Dancing was in the family. His father, Achhan Maharaj belonged to the Kalka Bindadin gharana and Maharaj became the torchbearer, naturally. A small house in a narrow Lucknow lane used to 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).’ I just kept dancing,” says Maharaj, who became a guru at nine after his father passed away. He also trained, under his uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj.
While still in school, Maharaj would write the bols of Kathak in his notebooks, instead of class notes. He moved to Delhi to teach young girls at Sangeet Bharti, Mandi House. “After that, dance was life,” says Maharaj.
For his students he is an exacting purist, to his grandchildren he is a doting grandfather, to fellow musicians he is the master of rhythm, and to the rest of the world, he is a dance icon, but Maharaj laments that even at this stage, he does not have a proper place to teach. He teaches at a municipality school in Jor Bagh every day but yearns for a place where he can establish a proper school. “I have got everything I have ever wanted. But, I am tired of make-shift arrangements for teaching my students,” he says. Watching him right a particular piece is an experience in itself, he even makes correction an art. This is his world then — of kathas, postures, Radha-Krishna and thumris, and we leave with that memory.