“I’ll Dance Till I Breathe Last” —Birju Maharaj
Birju Maharaj, a Kathak exponent, is getting stronger as the time slides away. This torchbearer of Lucknow Gharana has been conferred the honorary doctorate degrees by the Banaras Hindu University and the Khairagarh University. The 75-year-old Padma Vibhushan legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj, the celebrated kathak proponent, vocalist, percussionist and poet from Varanasi Kalka-Bindading Gharana. For him devotion is the belief from where he derives mental, spiritual, physical strength and confidence. It is interesting to watch Birju Maharaj teaching the eagerly young girls and boys. Like a true devotee of dance, the danseuse is concerned with every foot step, every angle of the elbow and every flick of the wrist—also the precise moment when it does. He has also played dynamic role in the Bollywood and choreographed many plays that can never be competed. One of his choreographies ‘Kahe Chhede Mohe’ is the Madhuri Dixit-Shah Rukh number in Devdas. He made the followers of Indian classical dance more famous, framing dance dramas like ‘Gobardhan Leela’ and ‘Makhan Chori’. In an exclusive interview to Uday India’s Special Correspondent Syed Wazid Ali, Birju Maharaj spoke on various aspects of Kathak. Excerpts:
What is the difference between Kathak and Bharatnatyam?
It’s a katha, a story narrated through the gestures of the eyes and hands with different mudras (forms) that go with the tap of feet and taal (beat) in sync. Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories. The name of the form is properly katthak, with the geminated dental to show a derived form, but this has since simplified to modern-day Kathak. Kathaa kahe so Kathak is a saying many teachers pass on to their pupils. Whereas Bharatnatyam is a classical dance form from Tamil Nadu, practised predominantly in modern times by women. The dance is usually accompanied by classical Carnatic music. Its inspirations come from the sculptures of the ancient temple of Chidambaram.
What’s your art form, whom do you idolise when on stage?
As I have already mentioned it’s Kathak and I say a story through this form of dance. I follow Lord Krishna.
Why do traditional dancers treat Lord Krishna as the ultimate teacher of love?
The God Krishna has been the divine lover for everyone not only dancers. Most of the Kathak dancers are dedicated to God Krishna.
When did you start performing on stage?
Long back, I remember when I was hardly 7. I performed in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who was a great admirer of music and dance. He even penned khyal and thumri for himself.
How long have you been teaching dance?
I started teaching dance when I was in my early twenties. I started at Sangeet Bharti, New Delhi. Thereafter I moved to the Bharatiya Kala Kendra and the Kathak Kendra where I was the Head of the Department and Director till retirement.
What brought you to Delhi?
My father died on May 20, 1947, when I was nine. After a few years of struggle and hardship we moved to Delhi and now Delhi has become our home that has given me huge recognition.
you have choreographed many film artists and actors, whom do you like most and why?
See, all are equal. Some take too many cuts but some do not take even another but in the end it goes well. Maduri Dixit is my favourite. She is flexible, intelligent and picks things fast. I must say she has got the knack.
How do you start your day?
I rise early, do a bit of meditation and then start teaching.
Do you teach even now?
Yes I do. I have students coming from different parts of India and also from abroad.
You have performed thousands of performances, have you ever thought of retiring?
I’ll dance till I breathe last.
How do you say about other Kathak exponents such as Sonal Mansingh and Uma Sharma?
They are doing well.
Does age interfere with your profession?
It’s just a mental state. Aging is on your mind but for me it’s just the digit that changes.
What’s so special about Kashi ghats, like the example of Ustad Bismillah Khan who finally closed his eyes in Varanasi?
It’s magic. Wherever I go, its magnetic force brings me back; it does not let me go away. This ghat has the history of Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb.
I still remember the time when my father would tell me to stop wearing ghungroo (tinkle bells) and doing riyaaz (rehearsals) during the month of Muharram. We play Holi with abeer and gulaal, there was no Muslim and no Hindu. There was no otherness.
The way you enunciate, it’s pure and coherent Urdu as many non-Muslims do not have that chaste pronunciation. how did you pick that?
I spent a good number of years in Lucknow. It’s a nagri of tehzeeb. I have remained associated with durbar, as darbari nartak is different gharana and khanka. I would often perform at the Khanka-e-Bareilly. Sarkar Aziz Mian Niazi was my religious mentor.
Do you admittedly take the tradition of peeri mursheed ?
Absolutely, one must need a guide to reach Him otherwise one will remain wandering in quest for truth.
Your son Deepak has been doing really too good. what has been your contribution to grooming him to this stage?
He opened his eyes to this art, rather inheritance but then he was ever curious to explore things. He did and made it big.
Today the scenario is entirely different with a new facelift, old and real things have taken a back seat. how do you look at this melodrama?
I wholly agree but the real is real. It’s nothing but a commercial stunt. The crowd swelling up every second needs something or other to the ear even if it’s crap. Even those singers you are talking about have no depth and nor do they have that mellifluous voice to sing like this but the ground reality is that the people are not well educated in terms of knowing music forms. They eat what they are served either pop or Sufi.
Which Bhajan do you take to worship him?
Most bhajans go to God with eternal love and inner satisfaction. I always sing ‘Ek ane roop main dekhoon, Govinda Gopal Murari’ to express my love for Him. When I go up on stage, it’s He who dictates and orders me to dance and my ghungroos reverberate and the next moment connects me to Kanha, the divine.