About the Book
Maharaj is not only an unmatched Kathak
dancer but also a superb vocalist, a generous teacher, and an imaginative
painter. The book reveals how this icon of Indian dance, who is a mentor for
thousands and an inspiration for countless people across the globe, is actually
an unassuming, simple person outside his artistic world.
Accompanied by rare photographs, this is a heartfelt
tribute to a man who, among his many achievements, has spread awareness about
the classical dance form of Kathak, not only in
India, but abroad while touching innumerable lives along the way.
This memoir of the legendary Kathak
maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj presents layers of his personality- his simplicity,
modesty, generosity- as witnessed by one of his foremost disciples, Saswati Sen, who has known him
for over forty-five years.
regarded as one of the best exponents of the famous Lucknow
gharana of Kathak,
is the driving force behind Kalashram, Pandit Birju Maharaja dream institution. She has received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Sanskriti Award, the Shringar
Mani Award and the Critic's Recommendation Award. She has performed at the
RIMPA (Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts) festival in
Varanasi, the Kathak Prasang
in Bhopal and Jaipur and the prestigious Khajuraho Festival of dance, among
After her initial training under Reba Chatterjee Vidyarthi at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi, she was awarded the
National Scholarship in 1969 by the Ministry of Culture. She then graduated to
become one of the foremost disciples of Pandit Birju Maharaj.
Perhaps this would be the first book on me that is
written with a deep insight into every aspect of my life and work. After many
decades of study and observation, Saswati has been
able to capture my innermost thoughts and feelings. She has taken these
experiences and penned them into this heartfelt memoir.
Even as a child when she was under the tutelage of
Reba Didi I could see a commitment in her towards art. Her total dedication and
surrender gave me the opportunity to mould her the way a potter moulds clay
into a beautiful pot. Taal, ang, abhinaya, in all these facets of
dance, she has seen and absorbed my training with thorough and complete
understanding. She has trained with me as a performer, a teacher, a choreographer and
an adept stage presenter. Her hard work and efforts are now the driving force
behind my institute, Kalashram.
I am very happy to extend my blessings for the
success of this book and its author, my loving disciple, Saswati
Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Mata Sundari Road, New Delhi.
A young dance student, dedicated to her learning, hurries through the sprawling
lawns to reach her dance class on time. She gets a strange feeling as several
eyes move with her and whispers get loud, though not discernible. She is aware
that they are talking about her. A quick glance over her shoulder, and she
rushes into the classroom.
My first dance teacher, Reba Chatterjee
Vidyarthy, or Didi, as we called her, was probably
the most caring and hard working teacher for beginners and young aspirants. I
was one of her most sincere students. Learning dance gave me great joy.
However, the unsettling episode with the 'whispering group' kept repeating
itself and soon I began finding ways to avoid class or change my timings or
even my route.
In 1969, I was awarded the National Scholarship by
the Ministry of Culture and this led me to seriously think about dance as a
secondary profession (though my family dreamt of my becoming a doctor). Didi
delivered me under the tutelage of a senior guru from the gharana (school of music or dance),
and suddenly, there I was, in front of the person who I had dreaded confronting
the most-the same person who seemed to be the leader of the 'whispering group'
who used to talk about me while I was on my way to class!
Maharajji (later I came to know him
as Pandit Birju Maharaj) welcomed me warmly and spoke highly about my
seemingly bright future career. He told Didi how he and the others such as
Pradeep Bhai and Pratap Bhai always appreciated my commitment towards learning and
the humble appearance that I bore. None of this really moved me to shed a sense
of wariness. My friends envied me for this great opportunity but I remained
passive in class. I made it very clear within the first few days that I was
unhappy to be in his class and would be happier if sent back to Didi. However,
that would probably have meant forgoing my scholarship. Painstakingly, Maharajji tried to pull me out of my shell for some time.
Finally, one day, he let me go, saying: 'Man kare
toh aana, par nakhre mat dikhao' (Come if your heart is in
it, but don't expect me to bear your tantrums).
I kept going to class and watched him teach Surama Gandharias, a Uruguayan
student, and other seniors, for almost six months. Craving to learn and dance,
I realised what I would lose - Maharajji's teaching
was wonderful, with minute attention to detail for every movement, body line
Finally, one day I gained the courage to apologise
for my behaviour and stood up to learn. Since that day, there has been no
looking back. Maharajji's teaching was so perfect, so
analytical, so interesting, that anyone could almost immediately experience the
aesthetic beauty that it holds. We spent days learning and correcting each
piece (tukral tihailaamad) that he taught. Hearing a word of appreciation from
him (with which he was miserly in those days!) was like an achievement. Our
training moved gradually with no hurry or immediate targets to meet. Both Surama and I enjoyed learning the challenging patterns of
technique and the subtlety in execution. Our passions were similar towards
dance and our goal was humble - a satisfying smile on our mentor's face.
Analysing the present day scenario of learning, it
surprises me how drastically it has changed with one generation. The most
about Maharajji's teaching is the way he co-relates
every rhythmic phrase and its corresponding movement or footwork with a simile or a known action. This easy method of teaching students
has also helped in reaching the uninitiated audience.
As a child I had witnessed a few Kathak
performances, most of which left an impression in my mind about the dance being
full of fast footwork, pirouettes and undefined brisk movements, quite obviously
different from the three other main forms-Kathakali, Bharatnatyam and Manipuri-all of which had clear, graceful
lines and stances. Maharajji was working on giving
the form an elegant, picturesque look. While teaching and correcting, he
humorously referred to the plight of the poor photographer who only wanted to
make some quick money by taking a few pictures of the dancer performing, which
he never really could, as there was no point of freeze. I remember how excited
we were, nearly three decades ago, when for the first time we saw some
beautiful poses photographed while in action. I developed a deep
admiration towards his training methods (a process which continues till this
As I compile memories of the last fifty years in
this book, I see the aura of a great man-my guru-even through my closed eyes.
An icon of Indian dance, a living legend, a mentor for thousands, an
inspiration for countless people across the globe, Pandit
Birju Maharaj is an
unassuming, simple person outside his artistic world. Though I know him well, I
am unsure whether I can do justice in describing this divine personality. Birju Maharaj:
The Master Through My Eyes is my tribute to a great man who, among his many stellar
accomplishments, spread awareness of the classical dance form that is Kathak, not only in India, but abroad, while changing
innumerable lives along the way.
The Great Heritage
Developing the Dance Mould
The Dancer Divine
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