Pandit Birju Maharaj: The dancer who lived Lucknow in his heart, and taught disciples across the globe

The dancing legend had many facets. He taught his disciples without caring for a fee, he sang very well and the unmatched Kathak bhaav were as as spontaneous in him as river dancing through mountains

Pandit Birju Maharaj: The dancer who lived Lucknow in his heart, and taught disciples across the globe
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Rana Siddiqui Zaman

It was a panel discussion organised by Dilli Gharana, a house of classical vocal Hindustani music. On stage was Pandit Birju Maharaj, the legend on Kathak, Ustad Iqbal Ahmad Khan, the last khalifa of the Dilli Gharana, Deepak Maharaj, Pandit ji’s son and Krishna Bisht -- the moderator.

The huge ground was choc-o--block to see Maharaj speak and dance. He was asked questions, Ustad Iqbal sang a thumri and Maharaj gave bhaav (the expressions) to rounds and rounds of applause. He wasn’t well enough to dance on the floor. But the huge screens that projected his face, had stunned people; this quickness and grace at that age! It was an hour of session and the legend didn’t ask to finish it. For the lovers of classical music and dance, this was a visual treat that will never be repeated for both the legends have gone, leaving behind their legacy among thousands of disciples.

I was quick to reach him, “Maharaj, can we have a small discussion for a story?”

“Why small”? he asked laughing. I could see his tobacco-stained smile. With that signature warmth in his eyes, he said, “Bitiya, tum ghar aao. Dher sari batain karenge. Par yahan nahi. Aaj hum thak gaye hain…” ‘hum’ in that Lucknowi style. (Come home daughter! We will talk a lot. Today I am tired) he had that request in his tone and that bhaav on his face.

“Ghar aao”. – Come home, was the key word. It wasn’t only for a journalist but anyone and everyone who had the slightest of interest in dance and music.

This was two years ago.

Muzaffar Ali, the filmmaker, a Sufi poet, lyricist, painter and founder of Jahan-e-KhuSrau, a globally-renowned musical programme of music had taken the services of Maharaj in his film Janisaar.

“Aik kalakar doosre kalakar ke barey main kya keh sakta hai?” he answers my question on his memories of Pandit jee, “vo sirf unhe dil se mehsoos karta hai aur appreciate hi kar sakta hai. An artiste is almost incapable of talking about the other artiste; he is so full of love and admiration for him that words fail. They exchange so much with each other.”

Ali, a man of few words except when it comes to sufi thoughts, reminisces, “Koi Lucknow to jeeta hi nahi. Unki jeb main to tabadla rakha rehta hai. No one lives Lucknow. They have always a transfer or shifting in their minds and pockets. Maharaj jee lived Lucknow every single moment, despite living in Delhi. He could never leave Lucknow…” I notice a moisture in the voice of Ali, himself a son of Lucknow!


On Jannisar, he says, “He would never ‘Bollywoodise’ a pure dance form, was his beauty and that showed so well in my film. Purnia Qureshi was an excellent dancer who danced on his choreography, in just one shot, with adaygi that he taught, in just one flow, through various lenses! We shot a Daagh Dehelvi’s ghazal for this film which I composed, Achcihi soorat pe ghazab, toot ke aana dil ka..

He spread taleem indiscrimately

People know him more for his choreography in Hindi but people personally close to him, know him as a benign soul who never refused to teach new and poor students. He spread taleem exponentially. Before he established Kala Ashram, his gurukul for teaching students for a nominal fee, he used to teach students at his home, keep them there, feed them and take care of them – all for the love of the dance he learnt, and a legacy to be passed on, indiscriminately.

“He was among those who would keep the Guru-Shishya parampara alive, and teach all without discriminating, unlike many successful dance and music exponents who would just teach their own children and take along the legacy to their graves, without teaching anyone else, or for a hefty fee…”, Vusat Iqbal Khan, founder of the Dilli Durbar, and India’s only singing dastango, breaks down in tears.

She also recalls how Pandit jee would visit their Mausiqui Mahal in Old Delhi– a house of the musical legends like Ustad Chaand Khan.

“I have remained in Ustad Chaand Khan sahib company quite a lot. Hum Chaand Khan Sahab ke sath baithe they, gaate they, “ he had told Khan.

Few know that Maharaj used to sing exceptionally well.

People know Pandit jee for his choreography in Hindi films such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, Bajirao Mastani, Dedh Ishqiya, Shatranj ke Khiladi etc, but those close to him swear by the fact that Pandit jee is known for carrying the whole tradition of Kathak alone till the time he was alive, on his shoulder without adulterating it.

What I found special about him is, despite being trained in a dance form which is so feminine in its approach, he kept a balance and never had that overtly effeminate approach to his way of conversation, and disposition that is difficult to manage by most male dancers.

And, smiles Ali, “he had that typical style of pushing tobacco under his tongue throughout his work time”.

Initially, women in his house were not allowed to learn dance but Pandit jee taught both his daughters Kavita and Mamta, who are trying to carry forward their father’s legacy too. His son Deepak is also a music and dance devotee. Maharaj lost his wife a few years ago and his disciple Shashwati, who has devoted her life to his Kala ashram is looking after the ashram now.

Kavita Maharaj is married to Pandit Sajan Mishra.

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Published: 17 Jan 2022, 8:36 PM