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Maestro Speak

Kathak is a 24-hour addiction


Pandit Birju Maharaj is one of the finest exponents of Kathak in India today. As he turned 75 on February 4, the maestro talks about the joy of his art and how reality dance shows send a shiver down his spine

To your mind, what is the primary difference between Kathak and other dance forms?

Kathak is a form of sachitra (live imagery through dance) and bhav (expression) derived from traditional scriptures like Ramayana and the Krishna Leela. It's not a formatted dance form like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi or Odissi which are inspired from the temple art of sculptures with definite posture and Ajanta-Ellora-type mudras (hand movements). Kathak is about live, real people and their movements. It's ever evolving and subject to individual interpretation. For example, jab main shoonya se baat karta hoon to shoonya jagrat ho jata hai, aur jab Ram ya Krishna sochoon to woh dikhai padhte hain. (When I talk to an illusion I can create that illusion and when I think of Lord Rama or Krishna you'll see them in my form. That's the power of Kathak).

So is Kathak a way of life for you?

Yes, it's a 24-hour addiction. Shoonya ke har kan mein lyay vyaapt hai (There's a rhythm in each particle of the universe). Common people don't understand this rhythm. They walk, but they don't understand the rhythm of walking. They cry but they don't understand the emotion. I feel all this - be it someone's death, marriage, birth or celebration - each occasion creates an imagery for me and I'm translating that into my dance.

How do you work on imagery in dance?

I'll give an example from cinema. When Sanjay Leela Bhansali contacted me for Devdas, he wanted a glimpse of Mughal-e-Azam's Madhubala in Madhuri Dixit. He said "Maharajji, I want you to somehow re-create that Madhubala's bhav of Mohey panghat pe nandlal chhed gayo re in Madhuri for Kahey chhed chhed mohe. Incidentally, the Mughal-e-Azam thumri was composed by my baba. Naushad chacha had told me that I've made Madhubala dance to your baba's thumri. My uncle, Lachchu Maharaj, used to pay great attention to words while choreographing. Once, he explained how he choreographed Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kya in Mughal-e-Azam. He showed the bhav of courage through the action of pulling out a sword. Hiding one's feelings, he would say, is suffocating or restraining a sword in a scabbard. Such was the method in his choreography. He used similar thinking in his songs in Teesri Kasam and Pakeezah's Chalte chalte. I've imbibed all that in my dance.

Who are your Bollywood dancers?

Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini - all had displayed some sort of classical background and that brought a beauty to their dance - be it in Teesri Kasam, Pakeezah, Chitralekha or Mughale-Azam. Even Madhuri imbibed most of the bhav associated with my gharana (school) in Kahey chhed chhed mohe. She was so dedicated that after every step she would check the monitor and say 'Maharajji aapke jaisa nahi ho raha hai (I can't do it as well as you do). ' And Sanjay would console her: 'Even if you can pull off 5-10 per cent of what he does, I'd consider it a job well done. ' She would reply: 'I'm trying. '

Are you working on any new film?

I'm called for only classical choreographies. But I do only select films. Besides, I work in films only on one condition - the heroine should be fully dressed, from top to bottom. The three-minute dances that are done on helicopters, in boats, forests and god knows where else to fast beats - sitting, jumping, lying down - are not my cup of tea.

So what do you think of popular dance reality shows on television?

The modern dances that we see on TV channels today do not generate any learning. The movements, clothes and concepts send a shiver down my spine because they are so obscene. Is this dance? There are women hanging from ropes, jumping through hoops, climbing over their partners. These are animal, not human, movements. When I watch these dances, I feel like breaking the television set. Even the anchors look desperate to show skin. I just don't get it. Hindustan ki woh ladkiyan jinko ma-baap, buzurgon aur guru ke prati ek adab aur lihaaz hota thaa, woh kahan hain (Where are the Indian girls who were respectful towards their elders, parents and guru)?

You are in a position to act on these concerns. Have you spoken to television channels about them?

I did go to Indian Idol to voice my concerns and told them, do your tamasha but in between do something satvik (aesthetic) like classical as well. To all dancers, including the ones in cinema, I'd say that if money is the only criteria, you will be left with no quality. But if it isn't, then make the audience watch good art. Zamana jhukta hai, jhukaney wala chahiye (The world bows to talent, only you have to know how to make it).

Your roots are in Lucknow. Are you still
connected to the city?

Delhi has been my home for the last 50 years but I've treated it like a friend. Dilli dost hai, na janey kab daga de jaye (Delhi is a friend;but I don't know how long it will stay loyal to me). Maharashtra pita hai (Maharashtra is like a father to me) because I got a lot from regions like Sholapur, Nagpur, Pune, Mumbai and Kolhapur. Kolkata is ma. But my hometown Lucknow is my all-time beloved. I keep visiting the city where I spent my early days flying kites, spinning the lattu (top), playing kanchas (marbles) and racing with friends. I delight in the fact that the city's lay folk are learned and well mannered. Once in early 1940s, I took a tanga (horse cart) and I heard the tangewala (horse-cart puller) humming a thumri. When I asked him what he was singing, he retorted: 'Arre, don't you know there once was a Bindadin Maharaj here. Unhi ki thumri gaa raha hoon. (I am singing his thumri)' He didn't know I was the grandson of Bindadin. He once happened to attend one of the many mehfils (get-togethers ) at my home, where my grandfather offered him tea, snacks and made him write down this thumri. I was so humbled to learn that people like him cherished our gharana's bandish (poetic piece), nurtured and hummed it.

Who do you think is a worthy successor to your art?

To my over 300 disciples across the world, I'd only say one thing - three or four of you can turn out to be genuinely talented. Also, as long as the tree stands tall, the grass remains in the shadow. But that doesn't mean that it will get swept away. My advice is to stick on. And for this, they need to be encouraged. I'm doing workshops in Mumbai - us sey Mumbai sambhal gaya (that's how Mumbai has retained its sanity). Otherwise, it was overrun by filmi influences. Kolkata is doing well in acknowledging Kathak. I have unwittingly and unintentionally left marks on the psyche of these cities - and on my competitors and critics.

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