Pandit Birju Maharaj came from a family of illustrious Kathak dancers of the likes of Acchan Maharaj (his father), Lachhu Maharaj (Uncle) and Shambhu Maharaj (Uncle). They were all shinning stars of Kathak and legends in their lifetimes. To come from such a family and then take their legacy even further to an extent that he became synonymous with Kathak, says volumes about the achievements of Birju Maharaj.
Birju Maharaj made his presence felt not only on the performing stage or by his long list of famous disciples but also in Bollywood. Whenever a Bollywood director needed a Kathak dance sequence in his or her movie, they would invariably reach out to Birju Maharaj. Over the years he worked in many Bollywood big-budget movies such as BajiRao Mastani, Dekh Ishqiya, Devdass, Gadar-Ek Prem Katha and Vishwaroopam (Tamil). So much so that when film director Satyajeet Ray, another master of his craft, wanted to record a Kathak dance performance for his movie, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, he also approached Birju Maharaj.
It is only because of my work as a journalist that I got the opportunity to talk to (in-person) Pandit Birju Maharaj, on more than one occasion. I felt blessed to be in the same room he was, in an informal setting, and see him give an informal performance of his art.
Manjushree Chatterjee, a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academy Award for Kathak in 2011, is a much-respected figure in the field of Indian classical dance. Nearly a decade and a half ago, I did her profile for a newspaper I was working and got to know her better. Every year, on the occasion of the birth anniversary of her legendary Kathak Guru, Shambhu Maharaj, she would organise a baithak (informal sit-down concert) at her Jorbagh, Delhi home. It was a select gathering of family, friends and some connoisseurs of classical dance and music. I was invited there, largely in my capacity as a journalist. That is where I was introduced to Pandit Birju Maharaj in person. He was the nephew of Manjushree's guru, Sambhu Maharaj, and used to be sort of a chief guest on these occasions. On most occasions, we would hear him talk a bit and then attend the programme in his presence, where different artists performed. It was great to hear him talk about routine matters and then hear him joke a bit. What struck one was that every movement of his limbs, every gesture of his hands and every expression on his face, felt like dance.
Then, ahead of another such baithak, Manjushree Ji called me to say that this time, Birju Maharaj ji would be singing. And this would be the only performance.
I was a bit surprised and intrigued. I did not know that he sang. But then I was just an upstart into the world of Hindustani classical music. That evening I heard Maharajji sing one thumri after another. In addition to the renditions of some other semi-classical and some rare bandish, on the requests of a spellbound audience. Only one thing crossed my mind then. He would have been famous just on the strength of his singing alone. And i did not even know till then that he sang. Then back home, I checked a song sequence from Satayjeet Ray's movie Shatranj Ke Khiladi. It is a sequence of mesmerizing beauty. Shaswati Sen, Maharaj ji's favourite disciple is performing at the durbar of the Wajid Ali Shah, the nawab of Awadh. She performed a beautiful kathak routine of delicate beauty and grace. It was only then that I found out that the beautiful, soulful and expert voice singing "Kanha main to se hari" belonged to Pandit Birju Maharaj.
Such was the artistic depth he possessed. It is only at the passing away of such artists that people say that this is the end of an era. Yes, Pandit Birju Maharaj was a repository of a musical and cultural treasure trove of past many rich generations. Yes, he was an institution in himself. A custodian of the rich traditions of the Hindustani Classical dance and music.
Much loved by his students and fans, his live performances stood out for his excellent connection with the audience. His complete mastery over his craft brought ease and comfort to his performance. Something that the audience loved.
It is only because one gets opportunities such as watching artists of such magnitude perform that one finds living in New Delhi, with its colonial bureaucratic past, the post-independence babudom, decades of unplanned growth, pollution and a harsh climate, worth it.
Over the years, just because I lived in Delhi I was able to see numerous live performances of living legends such as Pandit Jasraj, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit Rajan Sajan Mishra, Girija Devi, Hari Prasad Chaurasiya, Debu Choudhary and Chhanu Lal Mishra many more. These are often performed in free concerts in Mandi house or Nehru Park. Birju Maharaj was often seen performing in these concerts, till very late in his age. One such performance that stands out in my memory took place in Kamani Auditorium.
Maharaj ji used to perform on stage till well into his late seventies. I was fortunate to attend one of his last performances in Kamani Auditorium, Mandi House. One of the most popular pieces he performed was where he enacted through kathak, a conversation between two friends, one full of energy and the other lazy and tired. It was a very creative, humorous and crowd engaging piece. The audience loved it. Maharaj Ji emoted the expression with so much charm and dexterity. Then he would start performing a series of farmaish from the audience. He, despite his age, did all that was asked. He would perform the boat piece, the peacock piece and much more. One would start getting worried about the energy he was spending at that age to perform. But he would continue. Giving the audience another performance that those lucky enough to be there would remember all their life. Like I do.