I hear what seems like hundreds of bells and tens of stamping feet as I walk up to a rehearsal studio in Cupertino, California, in June 2018. When I step in, I see that that is indeed the case, but now I can hear the music as well. There are easily 50 women of all ages occupying the room in neat rows; Anuradha Nag, artistic director of the Tarangini School of Kathak pointing a video camera at an elegant churidaar-kurta clad dancer in front of the dancers who is listening intently to an older gentleman who even when sitting, exudes an air of the intrepid researcher and gentle command both, at once. The elegant dancer is Saswati Sen (read our profile here) and the seated gentleman is Pandit Birju Maharaj – they are in Silicon Valley and the star performers of the Tarangini annual show called “Parampara.”
Maharaj is in the process of sharing a new work, improvising as Sen is literally embodying his ideas in real-time, even as she turns around to break down the composition and interpretation to the younger dancers. Nag looks on, you can tell from her body language that she is absorbing every nuance while at the same time answering Maharaj’s questions about her students.
This Master class stops every few minutes; the style of instruction is detail-oriented. “The elbow has to be this way, see?” Maharaj demonstrates, captured on video here. “There has to be a line from the top of the elbow to the fingers of the other hand, like this,” says and Sen performs, breaking it down for the younger dancers. Nag is capturing all of this, knowing that she is the keeper of this generations-old tradition here, in the Bay Area.
Maharaj turned 80 this year, but I ask him about his earliest memory. He is amused, saying, “I was the only boy to be born that day in that Lucknow hospital, apparently all other babies born that day were girls! That’s how I was named Brijmohan- Krishna, surrounded by his gopis!” The first sounds he remembers when he was four were stamping feet and ghungroos. Here is Maharaj talking about that time.
He would watch as his father choreographed. Then he continues, “I would go excitedly to my mom and show off whatever I had self-learned. She would then hum a tune, and I would echo it…She thought I was a good singer.” Indeed, Maharaj is a dancer and singer. His mother was his biggest fan and inspiration; and such was his devotion to her that when his father passed when he was nine, he vowed to prevent his mother’s eyes from ever tearing up again.
The modern vision of Maestro brings to mind arduous dedication, all-work-and-no-play growing up, but as Maharaj continues down memory lane, he conjures up the picture of a child with a normal upbringing. He talks about kite-flying with passion and says he even now scans the skies for kites during the season, with a twinkle in his eyes. When asked to demonstrate Kathak, he answers with a profound observation: “You have to let the string of the kite loose, so the kite can soar. That is how it is in Kathak rhythms as well. I recognize the rhythms of Kathak in the meters of a tiger’s leap or a deer’s hopping around.”
When pressed to continue, he hesitates and then bursts delightedly into poetry. Nag explains, “Maharajji is a poet too,” (In the upcoming third segment of this series, Nag reveals that he even designed the logo of her school. Maharaj is dancer, singer, poet, painter. Of course.)
The premise of the poem is wonderfully layered: Why won’t Krishna’s flute produce any melody- bansi naa baaji ghanshyam so? Maharaj then weaves the flute in first person, then the surprised gopis, Krishna, and Radha. The words pick up where the dance pauses; the dance adds dimension to the words. Here is the video where his words dance…or is it the other way around, does he instead dance to his words?
We are interrupted by Sen; the students are waiting. We move into the studio, where music starts almost immediately, and I watch as Maharaj shares a new piece that he seems to be conjuring up as he talks. He is constantly interacting with his musicians; a rhythmic exchange with the tabalchi, a melodic reminiscence with the vocalist; checking in with Nag, constant sawal-jawab with Sen, in thought and dance-step. He asks Nag what the level of the students is, Sen and he talk about how layered the choreography can be – how much will they absorb? He recognizes a few students and enquires about their current pursuits. A woman in her 20s has come in from L.A. Another has been only a few months into kathak. A well-known bharatanatyam teacher comes in to pay her respects. This interactive hustle bustle must have been how it was, all those decades ago in Maharaj’s Lucknow home. This is how legacy gets passed on so far away from where it originated, and yet modeled anew here, in Silicon Valley. A long, robust branch of the same legendary tree.
That childhood home where Maharaj was surrounded by music and dance from dawn to sunset during his childhood was gifted to his family by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. It is now a museum of kathak and houses historic artifacts such as the shawl gifted by the Nawab to his father. Satyajit Ray’s film further brings to life this period, in his film Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Maharaj choreographed the dance pieces in this, watch Sen perform it here.
Check out the first part of this three part series, a profile on Sen, here.
Upcoming Part III of Parampara: A profile on Anuradha Nag and what it means to be teaching kathak in Silicon Valley.