Birju Maharaj Curated
Veteran Indian Kathak Choreographer
CURATED BY :
How were your initial days in learning Kathak?
How do you bridge the worlds of Nitya and Nritya and bringing the technical with the emotion?
How did you find Kathak as the translating medium of nature?
What do you feel about the evolution and transformation of Kathak in the coming generation?
How is the transition of introducing the beauty of Kathak in the Hindi film industry?
How do you preserve Kathak in this modern era?
How do you see the role of technology in helping Kathak to move it forward in the next generation?
How was your experience in teaching Kamal Hassan?
Who is Saswati Sen and what role does she play in Birju Maharaj's life?
What is dance according to you? Should everybody dance? What does it add to life?
Dance is nature. Listen to your heart, it dances with its own rhythm. The biggest thing that classical dance and music does to you is help attain balance between your mind and soul. Once you are balanced, you will learn from your own mistakes and develop into a good human being. Also riyaaz (practice) is an integral part of any art form. So manage your time well and dedicate adequate time for your riyaaz. When you are a student, you will always strive for more knowledge. Your thirst for learning about new things will never die. I have seen many people who have achieved perfection in their respective fields and have considered themselves gurus but eventually, they never learned beyond what they knew.
They say dance is one of the ways to reach the divine or higher source of life. Could you please give your views on this?
Yes, classical dance is one of the ways to connect with the divine. Hence it is called a sadhana. I tell my students, to imagine that each time they strike a pose (sama), let their eyes look at Krishna, that way there is an inherent bhakti (devotion) in the dance. The tatkar (footwork) practice should be like a japa (chant) where instead of ‘hare ram hare krishna’ we are saying ‘ na dhin dhin na’. When dance is done with that emotion, it connects us to the divine.
How were your initial days in learning Kathak?
You are an inspiration and a legend for so many generations. What is your daily regime and schedule?
Every few days, I find myself in a new city, and sometimes I lose track of where I am. But I begin each day without fail with my morning puja, which is a meditative experience. Every night, I do my japa before going to bed. Wherever I am, I eat very simple food vegetables, rice, dal and roti or some khichadi.
How important are yoga, meditation and vegetarianism in a dancer's life?
Music is made of three elements: singing, instruments and dance. If you know singing and have an adequate knowledge of musical instruments, your dance will be enriched. Kathak needs a lot of breath control, strength and stamina. Yoga and meditation help achieve this. Good food habits bring a sattvikta into our being. When you have overall awareness of all these components of dance and art, you will realise their interdependence.
As a legendary dancer, could you share any fulfilling memory?
This is an old memory, of a performance in Mumbai. I was depicting the story of Yashoda and Krishna and at the end of the piece I was so lost in emotion that I forgot my being standing on the stage, looking upon the face of Krishna. The audience was also in a reveirie and even though the music had stopped , there was complete silence for many minutes. We were all lost in the experience of feeling Krishna; eventually someone clapped and broke us out of that.
Dancers often have a special bond with the creation, how would you like to share your feelings about nature?
An artist's best teacher is nature. My only advice to young dancers is to watch and observe nature, which is a perfect symphony. Watch a tree and its branches; watch the winds whistle, the clouds rumble, the lightning dance through the skies. Why do you need to go anywhere, when nature is here?
In this age of the internet, many are doing a dance by watching online videos. What are your views on this?
While the internet is suitable for exposure to the dance form, true learning happens only in the classroom in the Guru-Shisya parampara. Through my training, I want students to be aware that classical dance is connected to spiritualism and culture. We aren’t scared of the audience and so don’t change our repertoire, because I believe that people will appreciate tradition all over again. At Kalashram, I use the traditional parameters to choreograph new presentations. I want people to see that even classical style can be very appealing, interesting and dignified.
What would your advice to an aspiring dancer?
Dance is a complete art. Sur, taal, bhav and laya, in-depth knowledge of all these aspects is vital, even if one is weak. Without this, your education is incomplete. Laya is especially important; a dancer must be perfect in his laya to bring the necessary grace and synchronization in his dance. Without it, dance is not possible.
How did you gain mastery over so many instruments like the Tabla, Santoor and vocal music?
Once Jagjit Singh said to me, 'Panditji, aapki kala sampoorna hai, laya, sur aur bhav, tinon aapki kala mein hai .' For me, dance is perhaps my favourite medium of expression; however, I enjoy all kinds of music. Dance is the foremost medium of expression for me; other forms are the adornments which I have received in the course of my journey. And once you understand the emotion which music signifies, the instruments just become the different media for expression of your creativity. Other maestros have gained proficiency in expressing their emotions through their instrument; I have found my path to people's hearts through dance.
Musicians often have a special bond with The Creation, especially nature, how would you like to share your feelings about nature?
An artist's best teacher is nature. My only advice to young dancers is to watch and observe nature, which is a perfect symphony. Watch a tree and its branches, it is the best way to see nature dance; watch the winds whistle, the clouds rumble, the lightning dance through the skies. Why do you need to go anywhere, when nature is here.
What are the qualities of a good dancer?
As I said, dance is a complete art. Sur, taal, bhav and laya, in-depth knowledge of all these aspects is vital, even if one is weak, your education is incomplete. Laya is especially important; a dancer must be perfect in his laya, to bring the necessary grace and synchronization in his dance. Without it, dance is not possible.
What struggles did you face during your initial days?
Do you recall a point in your life and early journey in dance when you decided to commit to it in a manner that would make you an inspiration for generations to come?
When I was 14 – without any help or support I performed a 2.5 hours solo performance in Kolkata which gave me hope, confidence and inspiration and thought I could, through my dance, make people love to dance. There were not enough seats and they had to put loudspeakers outside for the huge audience to listen just to the Padhant.
What keeps you committed to your passion towards your art which you have come to define and redefine for students and audiences globally?
My mother always inspired me and gave me the guidance which is still making me work. My father passed away when I was 9.5 and the uncles were busy in their own way so it was my mother’s guidance besides the love for dance which is still making me go on.
What is the daily routine that keeps you so youthful, versatile and active?
I do get inspired by my work – I have the romance with my work: the rhythm and music. This keeps me excited about life and the daily practice keeps me in top form!
What is your idea of riyaaz (practice, in Urdu)?
Riyaaz is a very profound word. Our forefathers and ancestors have taught us that riyaaz is to look within oneself. One way of learning is to learn straightaway from the Guru; another way is through riyaaz. Riyaaz is the process of analysing oneself, assessing oneself, identifying one’s shortcomings, and improving upon them. In the process of riyaaz, you become your own teacher. Practising the same thing, over and over again and improving upon it constantly and consistently is what is called riyaaz. You know, during the time of my father (Acchan Maharaj) and uncles (Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj), riyaaz was a part and parcel of their everyday living. Just the way eating, praying and sleeping were inevitable aspects of their day-to-day living, so was riyaaz. They were so determined about their riyaaz, that without completing it they would not even eat their food. Riyaaz helps your entire body, every single part of your body to immerse in rhythm. If your riyaaz is not solid, then some part of your body will be left out, and will not move in time when you want it to. You see, when you have to perform any action, the brain needs to order the movement, so riyaaz helps that process become more accurate. In Kathak, specifically, footwork is considered to be the wheels or the foundation of the vehicle of dance. Only through consistent and sincere riyaaz, can one make this foundation stronger. If the foundation is shaky, your body will not move the way you would like it to, with the accuracy and efficiency you want it to... However, with solid practice, you can dance with a carefree spirit, without thinking too much, and your body will move just the way you want it to; it will be in your control.
How would you define the concept of quality in riyaaz?
We must remember that physical labour alone is not riyaaz. When I see a performance and I like something that I saw, and I come back and contemplate on it... When I pick a composition and think about the lyrics deeply... All this internal churning is also riyaaz. Sitting in one place and using your mind and imagination is also riyaaz. You have to really nurture your art and fill it with colour. You have to add life and greenery to your dance, and that is possible only when you practice with your mind, with your heart. When you practice your movements, you are doing labour, but dance is supposed to be beautiful. We cannot afford to get stuck in labour. You can compare physical movements to stone, and as you progress in your riyaaz, the same stone becomes a ball. Something that was so heavy and dry in the beginning is transformed into something so light and useful. When you practice with your mind and heart, it impacts your whole body, and you will realise the fruits of that. This is a law.
After so many years of riyaaz, would you think that you have achieved your idea of perfection in dance?
Sometimes, I feel I have reached somewhere, and then I realise that there is this new thing that I know nothing about. When you are contemplating and churning on something inside, new things always come up. Once it comes up, I accept it first, and then I appreciate it a lot. I say to it, “Oh wow! You are wonderful, so beautiful!” Then I try to understand it, and once I understand it, I then teach my students. This process goes on. When the mind and heart are constantly thinking of something, new insights are always born.
How did you find the response of the audience when you applied new experiments in classical music?
How did you become Birju Maharaj from Brij Mohan Mishra?
It is a tradition of the music family. One got its name from Sanskrit and one from Karma. The name of Sanskar became suppressed over time and the name of Karma proceeded with the pace of Karma. Now there are only a few people who know Brij Mohan Mishra. I started my career at a very young age. At that time, I was only six years old, seeing my dance art, the elders started lovingly saying Birju and with time the name became stereotyped.
Where did you learn Kathak dance?
It is inherited. This is a deed that has been going on for many generations, an austerity. This is our lineage tradition. Our descendants were people associated with the royal court. We can say that we were courtier people. Earlier, our ancestors used to narrate the story in the court of the Hindu king, later on till the Mughal period, the story of this story was transformed into Kathak dance.
You must have made someone a guru from your initial days?
I received technical education of Kathak from father and uncle. Uncle Lacchu Maharaj was a great artist of his time. He directed dance in big movies in Bollywood such as Pakija, Teeshi Kasam, Mughal-e-Azam etc. Meena Kumari and Madhubala were his protégés. Our father Shri Durga Prasad Mishra Ji was in the court of Rampur Raja. Got to learn a lot from him. We danced at the Rampur court since the age of six. However, the father left together at a very young age and then a new phase of struggle began in life.
How Kathak progressed due to the father's absence?
It was a period of struggle for us and the family. It was a time of great difficulty. At a very young age, we had lost not only a father but also a guru. Somehow life was moving. At the age of 14, I got a job at the Kathak Center at Mandi House. After this, life started slowly returning to the track.
At what age did you get fame, when can your dance be recognized?
At the age of six, I started doing Kathak in domestic and meetings. At that time there used to be a big conference with Manmatunath Ghosh in Calcutta [now, Kolkata]. Here, the best and eminent artists of the country used to put up the Jamwara. Here our father and uncle danced. At the age of 14, I also got a chance to perform dance here. The performance here made me a hero in a single night. The performance reached Mumbai. This program was a turning point in our life.
What gave rise to the development of Kathak in court culture?
See, my ancestors were courtiers. He used to stay in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali. I can say with the claim that the development of Kathak gained new momentum in this era. Kathak enjoyed the patronage of the state i.e. Sultan or Emperor. In such a situation, the growth of Kathak or dance was rapid.
What has changed in the Kathak style in these six decades?
I feel good to change. Dance development has certainly been accomplished by technological development. People's tendency towards classical dance has increased rapidly. New experiments are being done in this. Yes, today it is necessary that it should be used very carefully and carefully. We should not tamper with the basic spirit of dance or music.
Which genre is more powerful in singing or dancing in performance or effect?
There may be two different modes of music, both singing and dancing, but its soul is one. Its juice is one. It is an element. If you explain in philosophy, it is dvaita, not dvaita. The truth is that one who knows music understands this rasa. Whether this music originates from the neck in the form of sun or is pierced in any part of the body, one definitely feels the person who understands the element of music. I believe that the real artist is the one who listens to the voice of this soul.
There has been a big decline in the tradition of Guru-disciple, do you agree?
Marketism dominates even in the Guru-disciple tradition. Now there are neither gurus nor disciples like that. If there is a caretaker guru, then there is a cherishable guru, whereas, in the guru-disciple tradition, the union of the soul is very important. This element takes it further.
Who are your favourite disciples?
There is a long list of disciples. Everyone is dear My disciples have more Bengalis. Famous people like Madhuri Devi and Kamal Haasan are also included in the list. But my most beloved disciple is Saswati Sen.
Can you showcase a few samples of the new experiments you apply in classical music?
How much respect does Braj Mohan Mishra have for Birju Maharaj?
I personally appreciate Birju Maharaj. I salute them. Because the deeds and penance that caused Brij Mohan Mishra to become Birju are worthy of salutation. Therefore, I salute this austerity myself.
What does one need to do to become Birju?
Birju never ran towards speed. He continued to do deeds and practised music. There was a lot of faith towards the Guru. The master continued to practice what he taught with ruthlessness. Over time, his supporters made him sit in the eye and made him Birju Maharaj.
In your academy Kalashram, why have you emphasised on developing sensitivity towards fine arts, yoga and voice culture among students?
Music is made of three elements; singing, instruments and dance. If you know singing and have adequate knowledge of musical instruments, your dance will be enriched. I, in fact, enjoy painting. When you have an overall awareness of all these components of dance and art, you will realise their interdependence.
Why is it important to remain a student all your life?
When you are a student, you will always strive for more knowledge. Your thirst for learning about new things will never die. I have seen many people who have achieved perfection in their respective fields and have considered themselves gurus but eventually, they never learned beyond what they knew.
Is the government doing enough to encourage classical dance artists?
The government gives scholarship only for two years, it gets extended for three years. Post scholarship period, what do they expect the artists to do? If the artist gets a job he or she has to teach a variety of dance forms. So the whole essence of what you’ve been taught; your talim [learning] goes away.
How do you see the changes happening in this art form?
The present form of dancing is like that of a circus where artists perform and audience claps. Today dance is referred to as ‘item’. They say, “Five minutes ka item karna hai.” Hence, your concentration is on those five minutes only so that in the end, the audience claps and appreciates. We should not be hungry for appreciation. One should respect the classical form of dance.
How would you rate today’s actresses?
Just the other day, I was watching Katrina Kaif on television, 'Usko naachna nahi, hilna bolte hai' (it is not called dancing, it is called shaking). But it is not her fault. What is given to her she does that with sincerity. I can’t really blame her for the dance and the moves. There was a time when Waheeda Rehma, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini and Meena Kumari danced. They were mesmerising. I liked Helen too. She never looked vulgar while doing all those cabaret songs. Before I choreograph a song I ask the director, 'heroine kapde pehnegi na?' This is because I can’t imagine a song choreographed by me being presented in a vulgar way.
Your advice to filmmakers of new generation?
All I can say is please go ahead and put commercially successful songs with exciting moves in the film. Put all the item songs and lovemaking songs but please put one song promoting Bharatiya sanskriti and sabhyata (Indian culture and tradition). Even if the song is of short duration it should be fine but do promote our roots.
What’s so special about Kashi ghats, like the example of Ustad Bismillah Khan who finally closed his eyes in Varanasi?
It’s magic. Wherever I go, its magnetic force brings me back; it does not let me go away. This ghat has a history of Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb. I still remember the time when my father would tell me to stop wearing ghungroo (tinkle bells) and doing riyaaz (rehearsals) during the month of Muharram. We play Holi with abeer and gulaal, there was no Muslim and no Hindu. There was no otherness. The way you enunciate, it’s pure and coherent Urdu as many non-Muslims do not have that chaste pronunciation. how did you pick that I spent a good number of years in Lucknow. It’s a nagri of tehzeeb. I have remained associated with durbar, as darbari nartak is different gharana and khanka. I would often perform at the Khanka-e-Bareilly. Sarkar Aziz Mian Niazi was my religious mentor.
Do you admittedly take the tradition of peeri mursheed ?
Absolutely, one must need a guide to reach Him otherwise one will remain wandering in the quest for truth.
How do find the Guru-Shishya tradition in today's generation? Do you fear that your students might use a shortcut to achieve success?
Your son Deepak has been doing really too good. what has been your contribution to grooming him to this stage?
He opened his eyes to this art, rather inheritance but then he was ever curious to explore things. He did and made it big. Today the scenario is entirely different with a new facelift, old and real things have taken a back seat. how do you look at this melodrama? I wholly agree but the real is real. It’s nothing but a commercial stunt. The crowd swelling up every second need something or other to the ear even if it’s crap. Even those singers you are talking about have no depth and nor do they have that mellifluous voice to sing like this but the ground reality is that the people are not well educated in terms of knowing music forms. They eat what they are served either pop or Sufi.
Which Bhajan do you take to worship God?
Most bhajans go to God with eternal love and inner satisfaction. I always sing ‘Ek ane roop main dekhoon, Govinda Gopal Murari’ to express my love for Him. When I go up on stage, it’s He who dictates and orders me to dance and my ghungroos reverberate and the next moment connects me to Kanha, the divine.
As an artiste, what makes performing in Dubai so special to you?
Dubai never feels like another city. It is a place that I as a performer feel I belong to because there are so many people here who belong to a similar culture. It is fascinating because when you perform in America or London, it does feel that you are bringing your craft to a foreign land. It is a city that apart from being clean is also well-decorated. What more can appeal to an aesthete’s sensibilities.
From your forefathers teaching kathak to Wajid Ali Shah to now, your family has played an integral role in the evolution of Kathak as a dance form. As you pass the legacy to the next generation of students, what is the single biggest challenge that you face as a teacher if any at all?
In Kalashram (his dance school), we have over 700 students. They come from different cultural backgrounds --- some are from Korea, some from Japan and some from America. So their entry point to kathak is different. Not every seed bears the same fruit. Similarly, different students have a different approach to classical dance. At the end of the day, everything depends on how well s/he can grasp what is being taught to them. Personally, even if I manage to get four absolutely dedicated students, they equal a 100 of them.
You have been a vocal critic of fusion. What aspects of fusion do you find problematic?
Some things are natural --- sugar will always be sweet, lemon will always be sour. Sugar cannot be sour. Everything has its own unique qualities. There is a rhythm to everything, there is a beat to everything. Beats are like our sawaari. Think of a horse and the sound it produces when it is walking on a street alone. When you add the band and the baajas with this horse, the sounds are mixed. How do you assess its authenticity? I find it difficult to associate with it. It comes across as an ajooba (specimen). A few years ago, I performed with the famous Spanish flamenco dancer Mario Maya. I told him, ‘You do the footwork with your shoes on, I will do without them. You make your own patterns of rhythm and so will I.’ He was amazed and remarked, ‘You have wonderful understanding of rhythm.’ See rhythm is a world of possibilities. Mario was doing his own thing based on what he understood and I did mine. As long as we stuck to our own understanding of rhythm, both of us performed marvellously. He wouldn’t perform to a tabla because he would relate to a drum better. But someone like me simply cannot stay still once I hear the sound of the sarangi. We staged an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet using Indian instruments such as tabla, sitar, sarod, sarangi. The theme of love and separation, pain is universal, the emotions are the same. But you can own these stories, these emotions through the sounds. The modern sounds emphasise on certain loudness. These may have been played at Raavan’s court at some point, if at all (laughs). Fusion often leads to confusion.
There was a time when Indian classical dance was an important aspect of Bollywood films. There has been a steady decline in that, with Bollywood dance becoming a genre in itself. As an artist, why do you think this has happened? And how can Bollywood own classical music and dance?
My uncle Lachchu Maharaj did dance direction for films for nearly forty years. When Vyjanti Mala, Hema Malini, Waheeda Rehman entered films, all of them were good Bharatanatyam dancers. This is one of the reasons why one could see elaborate dance sequences in films. Look at Mehmood and Kishore Kumar’s playful exchange in Padosan; classical bols have been used in a situation that is comical. Naushad bhai once told me how 150 musicians would play instruments, it used to feel so good; now with synthesiser everything has become superficial. It’s true. The sounds that you hear are jhin chak, heavy sounds. I have choreographed in several films. I felt very happy receiving an award for Bajirao Mastani. I was happy because neither I had to shake the waist nor I had to get the upper part of the body moving, I just made her (Deepika Padukone) do kathak bhavs and people loved it. Here, I must add that for classical dance to become an important part of films, it is very important that the music too is taken seriously. Look at the likes of Madan Mohan, Shanker Jaikishen, their music inspired the classical dances. Also, if the common man likes jumping and taking rounds and considers them dancing, films will only showcase that. What choreography do you think of when you think of a song like Sarkai Lo Khatiya Jaada Lage? (laughs) I have almost stopped going to the theatre to watch films. Once in a blue moon, even if I do, I walk out before the film is over.
In all these years of your teaching, you have taken very few ganda-bandh disciples. What are the qualities you look for in a ganda-bandh disciple?
There was a time when the gurus used to tie the gandhas at fairly early stages of training. Sometimes you don’t know which way the student would be headed --- if they will turn out to be naalayaks (laughs). I tie the gandhas very late, sometimes 15-20 years pass. I assess how honest and committed they are. How true are they to the style and the form.
Talking about films, your collaborations with Madhuri Dixit have led to some timeless performances. What is it about Madhuri the dancer that appeals to you the most when you choreograph songs for her?
She is a very graceful and beautiful woman. There is something about her eyes, whenever she changes a bhav, it reflects beautifully in her eyes. In my eyes, she stands in the league with Madhubala and Meena Kumari.
How do you feel about your felicitation at IFFI 2019?
I am receiving this award for my contribution to the film industry and I wish to continue the same.
How was your experience in the Hindi film industry? What feedback did you receive from the audience?
What inspired you to go into Kathak?
What is one of the greatest lesson you have taken from your father Acchan Maharaj about Kathak?