Tag Archives: Performers

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.


32nd India Heritage Awards Event

Twenty two India Heritage award winners displayed plentiful talents with their stage performances and academic excellence at the 32nd India Heritage Awards event held on Sunday, April 1, 2018 at Cerritos Sheraton Hotel, Cerritos. Eight of the high and middle school scholarship winners showed their excellence in dance or music by solo performances. The spell-bound audience gave repeated thunderous and sustained applause to encourage the young performers.  The very entertaining cultural program was emceed by Vasu Pawar and well known community leader Dilip Butani.

Top high school awardee Versha Nair with organizer Inder Singh and Dr and Mrs M.C. Gupta

Versha Nair of Rancho Santa Margarita won the top award of $2500 and revolving trophy in the high school category. The scholarship award has been instituted by Sanjiv & Rajesh Chopra in memory of their parents Sarla & Kishan Gopal Chopra. Ashok Madan and his wife Manju presented the revolving trophy “Profiles in Excellence” instituted in memory of Ashok’s parents, Thakar Singh and Shanti Rani Madan. The second-place winner was Titash Biswas while the third-place winner was Bala Thenappan. The next seven winners were Suraj Srivats, Soumya Ravichandran, Sumedha Attanti, Amogha Koka, Sriram Kotta, Siddartha Sen, and Anvitha Soordelu.  Interestingly, most of the winners were females.

Rhea Jethvani won the top award in the Middle school category. The award and revolving trophy has been instituted in memory of long time event sponsor Dr. Awtar Singh by his niece, Sonia Batra of Beverly Hills. The second-place winner was Debdeep Bandyopadhyay  while the third-place winner was Abheerava Koka. The next five winners were Saachi Pavani, Deeksha Kasula, Komal Kaur, Monica Pal, and Saadhvi Narayanan. Harshini Mohan and Monica Pal won the Visual and Performing Arts awards instituted in honor of  “Teachers, parents and family.”

Titash Biswas , second place winner in high school category,  also won Outstanding Achievement Award and revolving trophy in Visual & Performing Arts funded by Uka Solanki in memory of his mother Kadviben. Fourth place winner Suraj Srivats shared Outstanding Achievement Award and revolving trophy in sports with Karishma Muthukumar. The award and trophy are funded by Jagdish Khangura in memory of his wife Rajinder Khangura. Fifth place winner Soumya Ravichandran shared Outstanding Achievement Award and revolving trophy in community service with Madhulika Shastry. The award and trophy is funded by Satpal Jandial in memory of his parents, Mani Ram and Gian Dai. Nitya Parthasarathy won Outstanding Achievement Award and revolving trophy in Math, Science and Technology instituted by Dr. Mani Bhaumik in recognition of the “most important numeral ZERO invented in India.”  

All Performers

The keynote speech was delivered by Deepi Singh, who, in India, was head, Foods and Nutrition department in Home Science College, Chandigarh, and in USA had held the position of director Food services in Kaiser hospital, Panorama city.  In her speech she emphasized that one must have courage and determination to succeed in life. If someone has a handicap, he/she can conquer it with hard work, sincerity and will power. She did not let her handicap stand in her getting higher education or attaining other goals. She advised, “Make your handicap your strength.”

The Indian American Heritage Foundation has been recognizing the achievements of Indian Youth, graduating from High and Middle Schools in Southern California for the past 32 years. The Foundation is the leading Indian American organization to publicly recognize, reward and celebrate excellence of the community’s best and brightest graduating students in Southern California.   

All high school trophy winners with sponsors

The Foundation started with eight scholarship awards in 1987, now gives twenty-four scholarships annually. The annual event has been made possible with the support of some well-meaning people from the community including Bhupinder Mac, Sanjiv & Renu Chopra, Dr. M.L. Bhaumik, BU Patel, Sonia Batra, Ashok & Manju Madan, Satpal Jandial, Bhupesh Parikh, Bob (Harbans) Bawa, Jagdish Khangura, VJ & Simi Singh, Dr. Satinder and Ranjit Bhatia, Dr. Asmath Noor, Uma-Avadesh Agarwal, Dr. M.C Gupta, Commerca Bank (Sangita Chauhan), Harbhajan Samra and Arun Bhumitra. Some of the sponsors present at the event included, Uka Solanki, V. J Singh, Bhupesh Parikh, Dr. M.C Gupta, Dr. Asmath Noor, and Harbhajan Samra. One by one, the sponsors were called upon to present the award check to the young winners.

Inder Singh, in welcoming the attendees, appreciated the support by the sponsors who provided necessary funding for the continuity of the awards program. He also thanked the judges who undertook the grueling task of evaluating the applicants, and praised his “working crew” — team of volunteers — who worked hard to make the event a success. He said, “An individual, howsoever brilliant, intelligent and smart, would find it difficult, if not impossible to match the collaborative efforts of an effective team and he is blessed with a team which has been providing selfless service for the cause of our youth.” His team included Ashok Madan, Kewal Kanda, Aparna Hande, Amrit Bhandari, Dilip Butani, Deepi Singh, Prof Keshav Patel, Manju Madan, Navin Gupta, Rajinder Dhunna, Simi Singh, Vasu Pawer, and V.J Singh.


The F16s – Music that Carries You On

Sheer astonishment is the sentiment that comes to mind when you hear the F16s. How can an Indian band based in Chennai sound so Rock, from the vocals to the guitaring and keys to the lyrics.

Incredibly, they won the 2013 Jack Daniel’s Annual Rock Award for Best Emerging Act. Incredibly, they were winners in the Converse Road to Rubber Tracks contest which had them recording two numbers in Brooklyn, New York.19

And incredibly, again, they are not musically trained. “None of us have any musical education whatsoever we sort of just picked up our instruments and found each other,” says Josh who does the vocals and guitars.

The band already has a seven track album called Kaleidoscope out. Their new album is in stealth mode, will have ten tracks, and is to be launched in September this year.

The F16s go by their first or nicknames; the others in the band are Vikram- the drummer, Shank on bass, Harshan on keys, and Abhinav aka Booby (“he was tubby as a child”) on the guitar. When asked how it all started, Josh says, “Chennai is a small city so everybody knows everybody, Vikram, Booby and I went to the same college and Shank and Harshan were mutual friends so we’d hang out with each other often. We decided to meet up one summer and just grab our gear and write some music.”

In 2014, Converse, the sports gear and apparel company, held a contest spanning different regions worldwide that would grant the winners studio time at the Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn. The F16s were growing tired of competitions, this seemed like a “what’s-the-worst-that-could-happen” scenario. They got shortlisted, played the finals, won the contest. Late 2014, at the Brooklyn studio, they recorded two singles: “Blackboard” and “Jacuzzi.” When asked if it was tough deciding on which tracks Josh remembers, “We honestly didn’t give that a lot of thought, apart from the occasional back and forth at practice. The two songs we decided to go with were confirmed right outside the walls of the Rubber Tracks Studio. Those two songs seemed to fit perfectly with the space, the studio, the recording process. ”

The new album promises to be dissimilar to the previous releases and talks to universal themes such as romance, morality, selfishness and contempt. Josh describes further, “With a city like Chennai, melancholia comes easy but in spurts which can be easily heard through the record. I think with this album we find our selves forcefully complexed.”

A great example of this are the lyrics to “Digital Dead,” an upcoming track:

Digital men with a digital smile,
Since I’ve been running in a
circle …    
Cause I’ve been waiting a while
Who do they want us to be?

Try again, But dont start as yet.

No sudden moves, just sudden death.

So what comes first, the lyrics or the tune? “It almost always starts with a hook that would click this little knob in our brains that would trigger something that feels like we always knew what to play. We start with a tune and then I sort of spread/spill lyrics over it, cause I want the music to carry the lyrics and not the other way around,” opines Josh.

The Brooklyn-studio-recorded songs have a passive aggressive feel, conveying a rebellion by wholly embracing the “melancholia.” “Blackboard” begins on the upbeat, superb guitaring and keys introducing us to the lyrics which say, “… jumping to the river, but the river wouldn’t carry you on….looking to the mirror but the mirror wasn’t looking at you.” The music lifts you up to counter the lyrics, which are brutally honest. “Jacuzzi” on the other hand, has suspenseful music in tune with the lyrics that start off  “As I’m walking on broken glass…”

If living in Chennai and living off of its vibe has literally driven the F16s to music, then their New York experience will prove to be one of the defining moments of their musical caliber. As Josh says, “New York is the originator, the place where innovations in musical styles begin.”

Check out the F16s on their facebook page online. Kaleidoscope is avalailable on iTunes. (Warning: Some numbers have explicit content.)

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.