EPITAPH : PANDIT BIRJU MAHARAJ

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Welcome to Epitaph for D’s Art Takes. Here we present the creative legacies of influential people, who are no longer among us. Today we invite you to take a look at the life of the Indian dance master, Pandit Birju Maharaj.

Classical dance has a grip on the viewer as it is a way of interpreting what one hears, or listens. And when we watch a performance, the coming together of all the elements, translates into an experience of romance.

There are some artistes who have the capacity to hold an audience spell bound by the sheer liquid grace. Hundreds of hours of dedication and practice creates talent, but where talents are mastered – legends are born.

Early Life

Today we pay our respects to the iconic Pandit Birju Maharaj. Born to the house of Jagannath Maharaj of Lucknow Gharana in 1938. Pandit ji’s father, Pt. Achhan Maharaj, had taught his young son the fundamentals of the form. It was a time when ‘taleem’ or tuition or instruction was a complete download of the entire way of the craft. A young boy, he absorbed all that his father taught him with all his heart. Not knowing then that he would lose his first guru, beloved teacher and father at the age of nine.

It was 1945 and Panditji recounts with simple heartfelt emotion the difficult journey that began for him and his mother. Barely 9 years old mother and son walked from Lucknow to Bareilly, toKanpur to Jaipur looking for Royal patronage. They had undertaken a three day journey to Nepal on foot. Royal patronage was important to keep the ‘gharana’ alive and to survive. So the little feet beat its rhythmic steps searching their destination.

In a few years, a meeting with art scholar Kapila Vatsyayan and Pandit Ji’s mother resulted in his first break to perform. Since then there has been no looking back.

Personal Style & Story : Pandit Birju Maharaj

Pandit ji has a unique way of presentation. The performance pieces range from solos to dance dramas, pure classical renditions. In the seventies, mythological and historical dance dramas were the norm. Some of them were Katha Raghunath Ki, Krishnayan, Roopmati Baajbahadur.

Mughal themes depicted were Darbar-e-Salaami, Shaahi Mehfil, etc. The 80’s saw abstract and purely rhythmic compositions and some humorous ones like Samachar Darpan etc. He won the Padma Vibhushan in 1986 and several awards. He took Kathak and his ‘gharana’ all over the world.

Pandit ji was a visionary and his contribution to the world of films led to a greater expansion of his beloved art form. His fondness for Madhuri Dixit, the danseuse over the actress, was well known. And he choreographed three songs picturised on her.

Bollywood Fame

He was known to collaborate with filmdom’s most talented lot – be it Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Devdas and BajiRao Mastani, or Kamal Hassan. The latter won the National Award for the Kathak piece performed by an ace Bharatnatyam dancer himself, Hassan. One can clearly see that the art had a way of flowing the way it would. It would find and settle in artists and burst under the expert’s eye.

So, when Pandit Birju Maharaj composed Mohe Rang Do Laal, it carried the hallmark of his style – but somehow when viewed on anything other than the big screen is dwarfed. It is as much the responsibility of the artist to be able to carry through the construct of the song. It won the Filmfare in 2016 and perhaps Deepika’s best classical dance performance.

In Dedh Ishqyia, his hand is evident as Madhuri effortlessly melts from pose to pose, or as Hassan does in Unnai Kaanathu – bringing power to every move. Pandit ji was able to mould his moves according to the setting, unbound and a powerhouse of creative talent.

Immortal Legacy

What does remain is the mark of the teacher, one who was so true and dedicated to his craft that his presence is felt in every frame of these performances. There are several other compositions that he had worked on – Madhuri’s instrumental jugalbandi in Dil Toh Pagal Hai was class apart from the other movements. While the film pays homage to classical dance and the strength of its foundation, Maharaj was not bound by convention.

From one of his first forays into film for Sautyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi 1977 to Bhansali’s Mastani in 2015, Panditji was perched to soar.

As we lost the legend today, he is mourned by different communities all who come together for the love of his craft. As he passes on, he has instilled in countless minds and hearts the love for dance. For a moment one may forget that they cannot dance but they want to twirl as they want to experience the bliss that he promises in his creations.

Pandit Ji we will never know how many countless compositions we have missed.

Some Iconic Moments


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