Pandit Birju Maharaj: Synonym of kathak, complete kalakaar

Pandit Birju Maharaj was a legend in his lifetime, a synonym for Kathak and a complete Kalakaar, an artist par excellence.

Published: 18th January 2022 10:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th January 2022 10:27 AM   |  A+A-

Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj

Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj (Photo | PTI)

By Express News Service

When Maharaj ji accepted my invite to take a workshop at my home in Connecticut, I was very nervous. But much to our surprise, he turned out to be a simple man immersed in dance and music. He would eat home-made food, make sketches on paper and after the workshop even invite all parents and sing for them. When a life opens up before you like that how does one start to describe it!

Pandit Birju Maharaj was a legend in his lifetime, a synonym for Kathak and a complete Kalakaar, an artist par excellence. Born as Brij Mohan Mishra in the illustrious family of Ishwari Prasad, with Kalka-Bindadin Maharaj as his grandfathers and Achhan Maharaj as his father, he further added tremendously to the repertoire of his heritage. 

Maharaj ji passed away in Delhi on Monday. He was 83. Maharaj ji started his taalim from his father at a very tender age, but he was only nine when his father passed away. He then learnt from his illustrious uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj. They had very different styles of dancing, one placing emphasis on the masculine style and the other on the feminine (Lasya). He told us stories of how he had to keep their styles different for maintaining peace with his uncles.

In 1953, Kapila Vatsyayan, a disciple of Achhan Maharaj, called Birju to Delhi to work at Sangeet Bharati. He would go to the school every morning and do his riyaaz in a store room for 4-5 hours till the sweat of his feet made the floor slippery.

Then he would try his hands at various instruments in the store. When he was 19-20, Maharaj ji joined the Bharatiya Kala Kendra and started creating a grammar for understanding every movement. He introduced many new sams, the ending pose of a dancer. All these experiments were very well received by the audience during the late 50s and early 60s. He also choreographed many successful dance dramas.

Maharaj ji later joined Kathak Kendra. As he had many international students, he simplified his compositions by making them numerical. He broke long rhythmic compositions into playful words for kids. Many of his complicated tihais (polyrhythmic technique) were made playful for the audience while retaining their complexities.

Maharaj ji performed extensively all over India and abroad and recalled many hilarious incidents from this time. One particularly memorable one was at Jhansi. The rowdy crowd was brought under control by him by making an extempore piece of Rani of Jhansi fighting the British. 

Maharaj ji then set up his institute, Kalashram. He was very fond of spicy street food and malai of Lucknow. He loved my paranthas and called me paranthewali for quite some time. He also loved gadgets of all types but not in black colour.  He was also the first Kathak artist to receive  the Padma Vibhushan. 

Neelima Beri

Director of Kalaleen Center for Traditional Learning

Pandit Birju Maharaj  4 Feb 1938 - 17 Jan 2022


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