Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj believes that to truly imbibe a dance form, a student must be around a guru. He tells Shrabasti Mallik why he pays the utmost attention to mudras and expressions

Anticipation engulfs the small dance studio as students wait with bated breath. The sound of their ghungroos breaks the silence intermittently, as they shift nervously in their places. I feel their trepidation seep into me. It’s not every day that you get to meet Pandit Birju Maharaj. My reverie is broken by a collective gasp. Turning around, I come face-to-face with the doyen of kathak. I have heard a lot about his poise, but in the brief time I spend in his company, I discover a lighter side to him too! We speak, among other things, of how expressions speak louder than words in kathak, and about his memories of working with renowned Indian film directors. Excerpts from the interview:

Guru-shishya parampara

Born and brought up in a family of artistes, Maharajji’s beliefs are rooted in the guru-shishya parampara. He holds that to truly understand, learn and imbibe the subtle nuances of a dance form, it is necessary for a student to be around his/her guru. “If a student does not hear the tone of his/her guru, notice his/her [guru’s] manners and the way he/she sits and moves, he/she will not be able to delve into the depths of a dance form,” he explains. The maestro is in step with the times, however, and has appeared in a few dance tutorial videos for Bollywood actor Madhuri Dixit’s online classes. “Lekin usse pyaas nahi bujhti [But that does not satiate my thirst as an artiste]. Online classes can only teach you to move, not to express,” adds the veteran.

Expression is king

“Lay apne aap mein sookhi hai, abhinay se hum usme rang bharte hain [Rhythm in itself is colourless; we add life to it through expressions]. The lineage I belong to has always laid emphasis on expressions. We are very particular about the position of the hands, the alignment of the fingers in a mudra and how much to turn the wrist during a chakkar. We give a lot of importance to these nuances,” he stresses and demonstrates a few of the many ways a ghunghat [veil] can be depicted using hand gestures.

Trysts with cinema

Growing up, the virtuoso saw his uncle, Pandit Lachhu Maharaj, choreographing for movies such as K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972). “He wanted me to shift to Bombay [now Mumbai] but amma [my mother] advised otherwise,” he recalls, reminiscing about how apprehensive she was of the glitz and glamour of the industry. “But when Satyajit [Ray] dada approached me for Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), I could not say no. That was my first step into films,” he says with childlike excitement, and recollects how particular the director had been about portraying Indian classical dance in its purest form. “I thought we would wrap up quickly, as it was a film song, but dada disagreed. His brief to me was that the dance should bring sukoon [peace] to the face of the nawab in the movie. His approach filled me with contentment,” he shares. Since then, Maharajji has worked with directors such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Devdas (“Kahe chhed mohe”) and Bajirao Mastani (“Mohe rang do laal”), Kamal Haasan in the movie Vishwaroopam and Abhishek Chaubey in Dedh Ishqiya (“Jagaave saari raina”).

As he leaves, he concludes, “I am not a film choreographer; I am a guru and will remain one. If I get a song with beautiful words that I can translate into expressions, only then will I work in a film.”

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