Pandit Birju Maharaj is intent on taking Kathak to a new level, even if it means casting dancers as bureaucrats in quirky, contemporary plays, says Rishi Majumder
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Pandit Ishwari Prasad is the earliest known Kathak Guru. Legend goes that the Misra Brahmin from the Handia tehsil of Allahabad dreamt of Lord Krishna, asking him to re-establish Kathak Nritya, prompting him to teach the same till he was 100. His descendants, known later as the Maharaj family of dancers, formed the backbone of the Lucknow gharana of Kathak, held by some to be Kathak’s oldest gharana. During this period, Kathak dancers comprised of only men, with women from even the dancer’s families being forbidden from dancing. On February 4, 1938, a boy named Dukh Haran was born into the Maharaj family. Because he was the only male born that night in the hospital, and every other baby delivered was female, his uncle suggested jokingly to his father that he be re-named Brij Mohan (a synonym for Krishna, the only male among the Gopis), which was later fondly shortened to Birju.
Pandit Birju Maharaj, sets his hands, fingers and face to changing mudra (symbol) and abhinay (expression), matching each note of the thumri being played at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) Kathak Workshop this week. 100-odd women follow suit. It is ironic that the reason for Maharaj’s christening has transformed into a metaphor for the gender break-up of the Kathak practitioner’s present. Of the 200 students at Kalashram, his Kathak academy, only 12 are male. It is also ironic that despite Kathak being an indigenous Indian art, most refer to Maharaj as its “last grandmaster”. But such ironies, by frequent occurrence, permeate into the realm of the obvious.
“You have to wait for the sun to set, if you want the moon to shine,” Maharaj refutes. He’s referring to the generation next of notable Kathak dancers, which includes his son Deepak Maharaj. “It’s only when I and the other gurus go, that these practitioners will have the confidence to come into their own.” Maharaj, through his brainchild Kalashram, attempts to preserve the guru-shishya tradition and instil rigorous training which while focusing on Kathak, also encompasses other arts like literature, painting, and even sculpting. This is in keeping with his own interaction with the arts — he is a dancer, singer, composer, percussionist, painter and poet. He has also picked up every string instrument, without formal training. “When I have to depict a situation on stage, it comes to me via percussion,” he explains. “Then I see it as a painting and translate that visual into dance. This in turn gives me an idea for a later composition or a poem.” Yet despite such conceptually sound training, he admits that the devotion of yore, which produced grandmasters such as himself has waned: “A teacher would once ask an aspiring student how many years he wanted to train for. On him answering the question, he would refuse to teach him, instead telling him, ‘Come back when you want to train under me for life'”. Today, he complains, disciples clock their riyaz sessions by the hour.
The change in attitudes towards Kathak can be traced back to the British anti-nautch movement in the mid-1800s, where devadasis practicing Bharatnatyam in the South and mujrawaalis practicing Kathak in the North of the subcontinent were used as instances to label both dance forms as immoral, and ban them. Maharaj emphasises this historic decline by referring to the change this movement brought in language. “Words like ‘kotha’ and ‘mujra’,” he says, “were used in a dignified tone before they became ‘badnaam’.” A kotha meant a place for gathering and performance and Maharaj’s father himself often said he was going to perform a mujra. The word ‘badnaam’ itself, he continues, meant not being ‘defamed’ but being ‘discussed’. Similarly, stellar Kathak performers, were called ‘taifas’, a word merged during the movement with ‘tawaif’ to accord it the same meaning. Indian Independence saw an attempt at reviving these dance forms, but the blow they were dealt with during colonial rule left them too crippled to contend with Western (especially American) counterparts flooding a new democracy, something the traditional dances of European countries had less of a problem doing.
Maharaj flits between a vast vocabulary of facial expression, while narrating anecdotes to exemplify of each point. Both expression and anecdote form the essence of the Kalka-Bindadin style (named after two of his ancestors) of the Lucknow gharana that he hails from. His most awaited performance is the interpretation of a thumri’s bhav (feel) with facial abhinay and hand movement, while being seated — something he can do, with new interpretations each time, for hours. This focus on the interpretation of bhav with facial expression has allowed his gharana to popularise Kathak amongst lay viewers, who would otherwise be unable to interpret the mudras the other gharanas are more fixed on. Maharaj has painted this characteristic on a wider ambit with two breakthroughs. One is his dance dramas. Spread between titles as diverse as Govardhan Leela and Romeo and Juliet, they use traditional Kathak to tell stories closest to an audience of today: “For example, the ‘File Katha’.” The ‘File Katha’ is a Kathak performance set in a government office. One dancer plays the officer, another the petitioner, another the peon and so on. Then, some dancers play the files: “Each file is allocated a different colour,” Maharaj elaborates. “And a dancer wearing the same colour enacts what the file has to ‘say’.” The other breakthrough is choreographing for film. Beginning with Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Maharaj has gone on to choreograph Kathak for Dil To Pagal Hai, Gadar and most famously Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. “More than the government, it is Bollywood which has the capacity to keep this dance form alive,” he argues. He cites examples of what movies like Mughal-e-Azam, actresses like Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Hema Malini and music directors like Naushad have done for Kathak’s popularisation. Yet, why must a dance form be kept alive for a public who have little inclination to view it? “Because a story can best be told in the language it has originated in,” Maharaj answers simply. And every Indian story, even that of a government officer, peon or petitioner, roots itself in history planted over a thousand years ago. How can we understand its bhav if we discard history itself?
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/jte3