Tag Archives: Birju Maharaj

Parampara: An Interview with Birju Maharaj

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.

 

Parampara: In the Footsteps of the Masters

Anuradha Nag, Artistic Director of Tarangini School of Kathak dance, has two causes for celebration this year: her school turns 25 and her Guru, Padma Vibhushan Birju Maharaj, turns 80. She is hosting the event Parampara on June 8th this year with a special treat: Maharaj will perform to Padma Bhushan Zakir Husssain’s percussion. Maharaj’s foremost disciple Saswati Sen will be the other featured artist along with five generations of the Maharaj lineage and Tarangini dancers. This is a story about Sen; India Currents hopes to do follow-on stories about the event.

Saswati Sen was the first, in a long line of doctors and lawyers, in her family to be an artist. She was a couple years into studying for a medical degree in Aligarh, India some 45 years ago, struggling to not faint at the sight of blood when she begged her father yet again to dis-enroll her. “Please let me dance; I will strive to achieve a mastery that’s equivalent to a doctorate!” Her mother advocated for her and her father finally, unhappily, relented.

Sen did pursue and achieve her goal: in the world of kathak, she is known as one of the few pure traditionalists of the artform. The start to being the most prominent disciple has an interesting beginning, involving a small measure of doubt. When she was barely a teen, she had not looked forward to being Maharaj’s student! She would see him with a group of his friends outside the Kathak school in Delhi when she would come and go to her own classes, and wasn’t sure if he would prove to be a worthwhile teacher. It turned out that he was one of the most patient of teachers and the rest is indeed history.

Her journey to being a well-known name all over India began when Satyajit Ray, the award-winning film director cast her in his docudrama Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). Sen performed the beautifully layered, unforgettable dance to Kanha Main Tose HaariWatch it here! How this came to be is also interesting.

Ray was a stickler for authenticity and had approached Maharaj to direct a couple of the court dance scenes since the latter is a direct descendant of the royal dancers at the Lucknow court. Ray had originally watched Sen perform at the inaugural ceremonies at the Asian festival and asked for her to be cast as the court dancer. However, Sen wasn’t sure her parents would permit, since there was a stigma associated with the film industry. “Will they know me?” Ray is said to have asked a young Sen, who was dumbstruck at even being in the same room as him. “Who doesn’t know you? All of India does!” was her answer. Ray went over to meet her parents and invited them to the sets to see for themselves how things were run above-par.

“People still talk to me about that movie, saying they remember that dance so well,” says Sen from Kolkata, as I spoke to her on the phone from the Bay Area. Indeed, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, when he approached Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen to choreograph for his popular movie Devdas (2002) decades later, also alluded to his childhood memory of watching her dance in the film. The choreographed dance from the movie which features the iconic Madhuri Dixit can be watched here. “I had first met Madhuri (Dixit, a heroine in the movie) in San Jose, in one of our workshops. We were expecting airs, but she came in as any other student, dressed in a cotton salwar khameez and took her place alongside others,” remembers Sen. “On the sets, she needed to be forced to rest, she would not be happy unless every single glance and gesture was perfect.”

Sen’s international journey had its beginning in a different emotion, one of stage-fright. It was 1974 and a US tour had been planned across 30+ states. “I was cold like ice in the wings of Carnegie hall. I was forgetting what I had practiced. All I could think of was that I couldn’t possibly share the stage with stalwarts such Kumudini Lakhia (who herself decades later was awarded the Padma Bhushan) and Maharajji!” Also preying on her mind was the thought that she had at first been originally rejected as being too young by the organizer of the tour, the prolific Beate Gordon (women’s rights advocate and director of the Asia Society). But Maharaj encouraged her to just focus on her own strengths and forget that there was anybody else on stage with her.” Her first performance won over Gordon who said that she’d been proven wrong; that the audience had been mesmerized by this mere chit of a girl.

Today, Sen mentors youth looking for guidance in dance, in life. She’s beseeched by parents and teachers to help with teenagers who need help with “connecting to life.” “The need of the times is that we must connect with our soul. Arts and culture – these are important tools  to ground yourself,” says Sen. “I draw upon all that I have learned and pass it on.”

Speaking of how much the arts environment has changed, she says that “Nowadays, there are loads of opportunities: there are TV shows, presenters, national and international events. There’s more awareness now, but it comes at the cost of dedication. Dance has its own expression, ek ibadat ka dhang (philosophy behind expression/ discipline). Today everything is about speed. There’s no “thehrao” (gravitas or holding) –  to strike the soul of viewer.”

That gravitas can still be seen in her performances today; she turns 65 this year, but continues to dance. Indeed, the common ingredients between the performances alluded to in this article are the delicacy of the interpretations, the depth of the nuance, and the breadth of the expressions. One is afraid to blink while watching them, for fear of losing out on a precious, fleeting, and impactful moment.

Says Nag of the upcoming event on June 8th, “They are artists of such caliber, whatever they perform will be magical. We are so blessed to get the opportunity to witness so many masters on one stage!”

More info on the event here.