West indian culture

How Birju Maharaj’s classic moves connected with Bollywood fans

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Legend has it that when Birju Maharaj was assigned to choreograph Deepika Padukone for a classic song in “Bajirao Mastani”, the terrified Bollywood actress told the kathak maestro that she was not Madhuri Dixit who could easily resume her not.

Maharaj simply told her not to worry and trust her abilities. The rest can be seen in the choreography of ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ which featured an ethereal Padukone dance with graceful abandon on screen.

Such was the legend of the kathak guru who died on Monday, aged 83, from prolonged kidney disease which forced him to also undergo dialysis. However, his death is likely attributed to cardiac arrest, his granddaughter Ragini Maharaj told the media.

Birju Maharaj
Image credit: ANI

As one of India’s best-known performers, for his army of loyalists, he was simply Maharaj-ji, a guru who inspired generations of fans to embrace the classic art of kathak, while taking the mainstream dance form through his many collaborations with Bollywood and Bengali Cinema.

born to dance

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Birju Maharaj reportedly died of cardiac arrest on January 17
Image Credit: Supplied

Born in 1938, Maharaj belonged to the elite Kalka-Bindadin gharana of kathak (a style of dance form), where he was trained by his father Achchan Maharaj and his two uncles, Shambhu and Lachchu Maharaj, giving his first performance at the age of seven.

Kathak uses dance and facial expressions to help tell a story, with many dance pieces inspired by ancient Indian epics. And Maharaj was a natural at that.

Becoming a teacher at the age of 13 and making a name for himself at the Bhartiya Kala Kendra (now Kathak Kendra) in New Delhi – an institution with which he was associated for several decades – in 1998 he took his legacy further to launch Kalashram, a classical dance school.

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Birju Maharaj performing in Dubai
Image Credit: GN Archives

Maharaj was known for his lively facial expressions and light movements, accompanied by the sound of the bells he wore around his ankles. He often drew inspiration from his own life in his performances and was a skilled storyteller.

In 2015, ahead of a performance he was to stage in Dubai, Maharaj spoke to Gulf News about modernizing the classical dance form to attract a wider fan base, but vehemently denied he would comply. one day to a “fusion” style.

“I would never do that,” he said at the time. “What I did was try to bring together the beauty of ang bhaav (body expressions) and the speed of dance. I tried to balance these two to create a better presentation, therefore contemporary. However, there is no element of what is called “fusion”.

To perhaps push his point further, he went into more detail about his work with Dixit on “Devdas.” “If you noticed I trained Madhuri in ‘Devdas’. It was pure classical dance and not a regular Bollywood act. I don’t like this dance form where there is excessive body movement and an expression to seduce [the] public. I always question the nuances of the dance that I would need to choreograph before undertaking a film assignment.

“It’s important to me why the song was included, what kind of speed is expected, what kind of costumes the actress will wear. I wouldn’t work if an actress wore the [skimpy] costumes which seems to be the trend in Bollywood these days. You can see the difference in ‘Devdas’ itself – there’s a song I composed (‘Kahe Chhed Chhed Mohe’) and Saroj Khan composed another (‘Maar Dala’).

Maharaj’s other memorable film collaborations include Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, 2004 film ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ where he again choreographed Dixit and with an Indian politician and a Tamil actor for the film ‘Vishwaroopam ‘ (2012) which would go on to earn him a National Award for the song ‘Unnai Kaanaadhu’.

Apart from being a renowned kathak dancer, Maharaj was also a well-known classical singer and had lent his voice to several films during a seven-decade career. His expertise also extended as a drummer, with the artist himself admitting that he particularly enjoyed playing tabla and naal. His dexterity included proficiency in stringed instruments such as the sitar, sarod, violin and sarangi although he never had any formal training.

His remarkable contribution was such that the Indian government awarded him the country’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1986.

Tributes are pouring in

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Birju Maharaj facilitated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Image credit: ANI

Following news of his passing, tributes poured in led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said in a tweet that he was “deeply saddened” and that his death was an “irreparable loss to the whole world. art”.

Haasan also wrote a heartfelt note in tribute to his teacher. “The incomparable dance legend Pandit Birju Maharaj has passed away. As an Ekalavya, I learned a lot from him watching him from a distance for many years. I learned a lot up close for ‘Vishwaroopam’. A legend who has dedicated his life to music and dance, “I’m not myself today because I can’t see you,” Haasan posted, ending his tweet with a line of “Unnai Kaanaadhu,” as well as a photo of himself and actress Andrea practicing with Maharaj.

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Tamil actor Kamal Haasan with actress Andrea on the set of ‘Vishwaroopam’ with late Biju Maharaj
Image Credit: Twitter.com/ikamalhaasan

Another film collaborator, Dixit, also shared a photo of herself, dancing with Maharaj, while posting a touching message in her honor. “He was a legend but he had a childlike 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 with his anecdotes fun,” she posted, adding, “He left behind grieving fans and students, but also left a legacy that we will all carry. Thank you Maharajji for all you learned to dance with humility, elegance and grace.

Indian actress, politician and famous dancer Hema Malini also mourned the loss of Maharaj. “The nation mourns the passing of a true legend, Shri Birju Maharaj, exponent of kathak par excellence. His ghungroos were on his ankles until he breathed his last. I have always admired and respected him as a giant in the kathak community and will miss his presence in the firmament of dance,” she posted on Twitter.

Veteran actor Anupam Kher also remembered Maharaj, while sharing a video to remember the kathak legend from his days at the National School of Drama. He also explained how he would try to decipher Maharaj’s facial expressions as his “delicate acting details were amazing”.

Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt also spoke about her collaboration with Maharaj while making “Kalank”. “I had the honor and privilege of spending three full days with Pandit Birju Maharaj in 2018 as I prepared for Ghar More Pardesiya. I will never forget everything he taught me. -to be one of the most creative and rewarding experiences I have ever had. A legend who has inspired many and will always continue to do so through his art. It truly breaks my heart to write this post today. May his soul rest in peace,” the actress posted on her Instagram story.

“Very few artists have been so good as performers and teachers. Maharaj ji has certainly reached new heights in both roles,” Indian classical dancer Geeta Chandran posted on Facebook. “His contribution to the world of dance is indeed historic, and will certainly be carried forward by his absolutely incredible tribe of followers and students.”

“We have lost an unparalleled institution in the performing arts. He influenced many generations with his genius,” singer Adnan Sami said.

While Maharaj will long be remembered for his unparalleled contribution to the arts, perhaps his greatest legacy remains his progressive stance which provided equal opportunity for his children as well as his students, without any gender bias.

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Birju Maharaj
Image Credit: GN Archives

“There was a time when classical dances became a source of entertainment for kings at court. The dasis (courtesans) became the performers because the women of the family were not allowed to dance. Women weren’t educated back then and it became a means of survival in society. Therefore, the dance became despised. But today, when women are educated and sensitized and everyone considers classical dance as an art form [rather] than [something] pejorative is my heritage,” Maharaj proudly told Gulf News.

In view of his legion of fans, we can only agree.


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