By Sat Balkaransingh
Pundit Birju Maharaj, the legend of Kathak classical dance is no more. On January 16th, he succumbed to a heart attack. He was 84 years. (He would have been 85 on Feb 4th). Thousands of his disciples and millions of audiences mourn him. Under the surface of the miles of written words on this great artist and guru, I decipher a history and tradition that is as much his as it was those of my ancestry, as it is mine and the vast majority of his disciples and their students. But this is not meant to detract from capturing a part of the legacy of that living legend of Kathak classical dance that epitomised Pundit Birju Maharaj
Any student who had the distinct honour and privilege of sitting at his feet to study the classical art of Kathak dance, recognised that whatever we had become in life, or on the stage, Maharaj-ji (as he was fondly called) had contributed significantly to our development. He instituted a method of thinking, acting, recreating and reproducing myriad forms that brought forth the beauty, splendour and ethereal images of the art and artistry of Indian dance, and the world of dance, in all of its facets; of the abstract, interpretive and dramatic nuances. His circle also contributed to make him what he was. It helped to continue the linkages between the older generation and the younger ones, the old and the new world, the constant reinvention and reinvigoration of the art of Kathak according to this legend. Through his teaching, demonstrating, mentoring, choreographing (of both traditional and contemporary themes) and actual performing, he reinterpreted this ancient art and style of Kathak that has been his viraasat, his legacy. In this process, we have served as his plasticine, the putty in the hands of this consummate artist, this Gandharva, immaculately sculpting new designs, clothing these myriad, physical forms with the rasa, those emotions or flavours that only he and his trained rasikas could deliver so that his guided audiences, his rasavants, could have savoured the taste.
His creations of endless, mesmerising varieties of rhythmic compositions beaten out, over the decades, by bare feet on flat surfaces, or reflected through a malleable body or beautiful graceful bodies in motion, or interpreted in percussive sounds, constantly provided fresh reinterpretations of the science of the one supreme art. His choreography, accompanied by his music, never failed to conjure up forms and images which only a shaman or divinity itself could have produced.
Maharaj-ji was known to silence the animated chatter of intense conversation simply by walking into a space. Seeing him calmly chewing his pān and applying his make up in the dressing room before a concert, there was a studied quietness. Then, as the auditorium lights went out and the musical prelude struck up, he entered with very elegant, minimal movements. It was electrifying and spellbinding. The hushed ‘aah’ never ceased to escape the collective lips of the audiences. Goose pimples appeared. Hairs stood on edge. For those of his disciples who had not seen him on stage for a long period, his entry (on stage) almost never ceased to elicit that emotional response. Tears just flowed uncontrollably in the darkness of the auditorium. I experienced this in several countries – London (1988), Connecticut and New York, Carnegie Hall, USA (1997), again in New York (2005), Trinidad (2009) and Delhi in 2014. It was difficult to determine what caused the emotions; the music, the entry of the giant of Kathak itself, or the magnetic charisma of this peerless story teller (kathakaar). Or was it a combination of all of the above. This was Pandit Birju Maharaj in 2014 in Delhi performing for his birthday celebrations then – when last I was part of his audience; I had also been invited to perform in those celebrations – as it was in 1971 when I became his student.
In September 1971, Maharaj-ji interviewed me, a young Indian Council for Cultural Relations’ scholar, following which he took me two doors down from his classroom to a ‘foundation’ class. Thereafter, Mrs Reba Vidyarthi (Didi) provided the necessary training. In May 1972, I undertook the international audition to Maharaj-ji’s class. Two of us from Didi’s class, Sylvain Mai, from France, and I were part of a handful of new students admitted to Maharaj ji’s class. In July 1972, at the beginning of the new academic year, Maharaj-ji gave me a formal Guru Shiksha initiation, before commencing my classes under his direct tutelage. The ceremony was simple and brief. Finally I was guided to perform aarti to all of the former gurus of Kathak, his ancestors from the legendary Kalka-Bindadin Maharaj Gharana (family) of Kathak dancers of Lucknow, descendants of a line of dancers who traced their unbroken lineage to the former Royal Courts of Lucknow, Rampur and other areas. I became his shishya, his disciple of dance.
The Guru’s distinctive teaching method:
His method of teaching was unique, acquired in part from his father, Pundit Acchan Maharaj, his uncles Pundit Shambhu Maharaj and Latchu Maharaj, then assimilated and developed from observation and from his own creativity. He lost his father at age 9. Sometimes in one class session he would gave us new work and complicated or intricate sequences. Sometimes he delivered 8-10 sequences. He delivered as fast as his brain functioned. The movements would be choreographed on the spot. Thereafter for the next two to three days we would reconstruct the sequences, commit them to memory and practise the movements. Some days he would personally provide accompaniment to us on the tabla or naal, while the class musicians followed. On those occasions we would concentrate more on abstract technique, sequences with different mnemonics, flavours, permutations and combinations of foot work and pirouettes. On other days he would play the harmonium and sing to accompany the nritya or emotive aspects of the repertoire; Vandana, Gat bhava, Thumri, Ghazal, Tarana or Bhajan. Sometimes he would sing just for us. He would be relaxed.
However, his entire attitude and mood changed when he commenced ballet preparations. No disturbances were entertained during the rehearsals. One talked only during intermission periods. Few disturbed him, except to respond to his queries. In this way, many of us learnt more than we were actually given to do on stage. It was through the ‘looking’, ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’ that we expanded our horizons in all aspects associated with the complementary technical arts of the stage and particularly the art of Kathak presentations. By keen observation, we learnt how to string dance sequences together, how to choreograph movements in order to maintain the story line, build tension and arrive at musical crescendos and dance climaxes. We also acquired invaluable knowledge on the positioning of dancers and bodies on stage to achieve aesthetic and dramatic effects, on the relationship between props and décor to enhance our performances, on the use of lighting and its focus on the stage, with colours to represent whatever rasas or moods that were to be created. These multiple aspects of stage presentation guided my choreography of balletic work and attention to general stage craft in later years.
Touring with our guru was a delight. When the Kathak Kendra toured various cities to present his balletic works, the cast occupied an entire bogey or carriage of the train. We all travelled in second class accommodation. The cast comprised the sound engineer, lighting designer, wardrobe, props, sets and makeup artists, the musicians, dancers and the ballet Director himself, Pt. Birju Maharaj. He never chose to travel first class as befitted his status. The train carriage became the mobile Institute where artist bonding was further consolidated. The musicians talked music. He would be constantly composing new sequences of tukras, tihaies, parans, thumris or whatever came into his head. There and then he recited or sang his works in progress. When his fingers constantly moved to an unseen rhythm, or clicked in some apparent tempo we knew that his brain was ticking. On some of these occasions, he would set the rhythm and tempo and direct us to maintain it on our own hands by means of claps and waves as he recited his rapidly evolving sequences. Decades later, when he travelled to Maracas Bay by maxi taxi in 2009, the day after his Queens Hall performance in Trinidad, he was still making us maintain rhythm as he recited new sequences ‘in preparation’. Like this the ballet cast and crew travelled to Lucknow, Dehradun, Bhopal, and so on, performing ballets of Shaane-e-Avadh; Krishnayana; Kumar Sambhava; Malvika Agnimitra and later Roopmati Baz Bahadur. These were stories from Indian history and the classics.I took part in all of these productions, performing multiple roles in some, alongside dancers who were already great artistes such as Bharati Gupta, Pradeep Shankar and Tirath Ajmani, and others who would later become great performers in their own rights; dancers such as Shovana Narayan, Saswati and Bhaswati Sen, the brothers Krishna Mohan and Ram Mohan Mishra, Bipul, Narayana, Subhas Dixit, Brojen Mukerji, Vijay Shankar, Pallavi Desai, Neelima Azim and so many others. Of this group, Pradeep, Tirath, Saswati, Ram Mohan, Gora Singh and Janaki Patrik have all performed in Trinidad, on my invitation, many of them on the Queens Hall stage.
Through Maharaj-ji’s work we were guided to develop a keen sense of ‘looking’, ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’; to recognise changes and differences in body structures so that the art-form could be intuitively imbibed and passed on to our students when we ourselves became teachers. He also recognised the qualities of a good student and amply nurtured that student’s growth and development. He rewarded disciples who demonstrated a deep yearning for knowledge, the desire to acquire or achieve some of his artistry and that of Kathak. He was also discerning of their level of intelligence, their body structure and general characteristics which had the potential to make them good artistes in the future. When he discovered a good and genuine student he gave of his knowledge unselfishly, covering the human form of his shishya with his cloak of learning. During my years of training I do not recall him ever discouraging anyone from pursuing the art form to his or her fullest capacity, but at that time his method of enrolment was very stringent, accepting only a few new students into his class each year. People came from all over India and abroad to be interviewed to study under him. Few were chosen. They are all gurus today. We danced together in class.
He encouraged his students to perform publicly, once they had achieved his established minimum level of proficiency. He gave permission for me to perform in a live concert on Door Darshan for Delhi Television, and to compete in 1973 in the Delhi University dance competition where I was a student of Economics. He presented me on stage in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, in a half -hour concert, playing the tabla to accompany me. He introduced me to the packed audiences as one of his foreign students. We had developed a very close, student- teacher relationship. I was a trusted shishya(S) or shagird (U). I even lived in his house temporarily at number 12, Fire Brigade Lane in Connaught Place. In 1976 he came to the airport to bid me farewell when I left India for the first time. Our bond was so strong.
Thereafter I visited and studied with him for short periods – in Delhi in 1980-81, master classes in 1991 and 2005 in New York; attended his concerts and workshops in 1988 in London. In November 2008 when I arrived in Delhi on a research assignment, I called him on his mobile phone. After the usual pranaam I asked whether I could meet him. His immediate response was ‘Abhi awoh’; come now. He was in rehearsal for a gruelling one month European tour, sponsored by the Government of India (ICCR). I arrived at his new institution, the Kala Ashram in Jor Bagh, and was warmly embraced by Saswati, my dancing colleague of many years, now Maharaji’s dancing partner and pillar of support. Entering the rehearsal room, I hugged Maharaj-ji as had been our norm and then performed the traditional Namaste touching his feet in reverence. He introduced me to the roomful of artistes saying Yeh mera bideshi beta… Trinidad mein rahte… (This is my foreign son. He lives in Trinidad). I felt a lump in my throat. The tears welled up in my eyes at his warm, affectionate and endearing welcome.
Two years later in November 2009, he arrived in Trinidad with a seven member troupe on the invitation of the Kathak Kala Sangam and me, its artistic director. It was a trip which finally materialised after about 12 years of planning (since 1997). He performed at Queens Hall, Port of Spain; and at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner and Mrs Malay Mishra. He also conducted a workshop at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) funded by Prof Ken Julien and facilitated by Dr Mungal Patasar. The workshop had a capacity audience. When the Covid19 pandemic struck he called some of his close disciples together in a virtual Google meeting entitled Yaadon ke Masti; Recollections of Pleasant Memories. Facilitated by Saswati Sen, with many of his senior students scattered around the globe, we spent over two hours with Maharaj-ji.
His Caribbean Influence
I was not the only Caribbean student to benefit from the superior training of Pt Birju Maharaj. Hari Gora Singh, Mumtaz Ali and Phillip MC Clintock of Guyana were among these. Some such as Susan Mohip and Christine Thomas (Trinidadians) studied under other teachers who had been directly or indirectly trained by Pt. Birju Maharaj at the Kathak Institute in Delhi. In addition, there were visiting tutors; Pradeep Shankar, Dr Rakesh Prabhakar, Ashok Chakravarty and Pooja Malhotra (to T&T); Pratap and Priya Pawar (Guyana and Trinidad), Tirath Ajmani, Rammohan and Parul Maharaj (Suriname) and Janaki Patrik (USA).They performed for our local audiences. I applied some of my training from him to document my recent publication on the Ramleela in Trinidad (Ramleela in Trinidad: 100 years of the Felicity Open-air, Folk theatre Tradition (Delhi: Vani Prakashan, 2021) which is scheduled to be launched in Trinidad shortly.
A prolific genius, this legend had sang and choreographed in many movies including: Shatranj ke Khiladi (the Chess Player, directed by Oscar recipient, Satyajit Ray); Devdas, Baji Rao Mastani and others, plus documentaries. He left many CD recordings of his music, wrote Ang Kavya, a manual for teaching Kathak. He danced and conducted workshops throughout the globe (See Saswati Sen’s, Pundit Birju Maharaj; The master through my eyes [Delhi 2013]). Countless others have written about him; including Ashish Khokar and Sunil Kothari, plus my fellow artistes Shovana Narayan and Janaki Patrik. Maharaj-ji was a recipient of countless awards including India’s second highest civilian award, Padma Vibhushan.
The art forms of India, now an integral part of Trinidad and Caribbean culture, will continue to exist alongside its modern counterparts in this continuous cycle of guru-shishya parampara. This ancient tradition is still alive and functioning through Pt Birju Maharaj, his students and others, notwithstanding the fact that India is over twelve thousand miles away from Trinidad. In this era of virtual communication, distances have shrunk, bringing his performances within easy reach of the masses in real time. His audiences on YouTube bear testimony to this.
Pt. Birju Maharaj now lives in another realm of consciousness but remains a huge influence on the world of Kathak dance in all of its beauty of forms, rhythms and aesthetics. The tradition, heritage and lineage of Kathak dance and of Maharaj-ji’s Lucknow Gharana will continue in India, with the Kathak Kala Sangam as a valiant champion in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean.
L-R: Sat as Kumara with Pt. Raman Lal as Taraka Asur in Ballet “Kumar Sambhava” written by poet Kalidasa ;Pt Birju Maharaj is Directing, in Delhi
Dr. Sat Balkaransingh is a choreographer, performing artist and economist., Artistic Director of the Kathak Kala Sangam he directed over 65 productions for stage and television, including scripting, directing and performing in eleven Ballets (five in India) with traditional and modern themes. He has performed extensively, internationally. A ‘National Icon’, former senior public servant in the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, Balkaransingh is a graduate of Delhi Univ; Brad Univ., UK; Kathak Kendra (Delhi) and UTT T&T. Among his published works are: Shaping of a Culture – (London: Hansib, 2016) and Ramleela in Trinidad: 100years of the Felicity Open air, Folk Theatre Tradition (Vani2021).Email:SatBalkaransingh@gmail.com: www.kathakkalasangam.com
L-R: Janaki Patrik and Sat Balkaransingh after performance in NY., 2018
Pt Birju Maharaj (Maharaji) speaks with his foreign disciples in “Yadon ke Masti”, 2020 . Saswati and another are in the side bar.
L-R: Sat Balkaransingh (Trinidad) and Gora Singh (Guyana), perform in ‘Kala Utsav’, at Lil Carib Theatre in Trinidad in 1987.