Saswati Sen explains how Birju Maharaj introduced dramatic dance and choreography to kathak

At the age of nineteen or twenty, Birju Maharajji was invited by Shrimati Nirmala Joshi to work at Bharatiya Kala Kendra where Shambhu Maharajji had previously joined. Maharajji’s main task was to assist his uncle and also to compose plays, ballets and dance dramas for their new unit. Most of his students were young children, the only older one being Rashmi Jain (now Bajpayi).

Maharajji taught Rashmiji with great care and sincerity so that he could win the minds of all seniors. The first ministry scholarship recipient who chose to learn from him was Pratap Pawar. Pratapji was almost Maharajji’s age and had been trained in Bharatnatyam. He became his first ganda-bandh shagird (formal disciple).

Maharajji took on the challenge of molding his body for Kathak with disciplined technique. His first task was to create a grammar to understand each movement. For comparisons, he used nature and everyday situations. Everyone was quite curious when they heard about this new style of teaching and composition. Maharajji actually enjoyed his own thought process.

Kathak was mainly practiced solo, and experiments with thematic compositions and group choreography only began around the sixties. Kathak dancers at that time focused on rhythmic interaction, speed and beauty of movement. The body was of very little importance. Even the abhinaya, which was the origin of the dance and the main means of communication, has become secondary.

The general masses recognized Kathak as a dance of chakkars (turns) and tatkar (footwork) only, while some criticized it as a dance of makkhi-maar (fly kick). The presentation of thematic compositions, beautiful choreographic lines and melodious accompanying music to enhance the mood had to be meticulously crafted. Dance dramas, ballets and short films were composed; the masses loved him. During the sixties and seventies, it was the most popular way to reach the uninitiated public.

Birju Maharaja | Image credit: Sudhanwa / CC BY-SA 3.0

Maharajji choreographed several successful dance dramas during his tenure at Bharatiya Kala Kendra including Kumar Sambhav, Shan-e-Avadh, Malta Madhav, Dalia and Krishnayan. The first group compositions he did were Govardhan Leela and Holi Leela. For Holi, Leela Sitara Deviji was invited from Mumbai to play Radha (especially to attract an audience, as she was very popular at that time thanks to her films) and Maharajji played the role of Krishna.

No one had much experience with presentation, choreography, costumes or stage set. However, they were full of ambition and commitment and their technique was solid. Sitara Deviji arrived on the morning of the show, as she had been very busy with her stage performances and film shoots until then.

When the rehearsal started, it was obvious that she was unable to coordinate with the other dancers who had been practicing for a long time. Maharajji and his co-dancers therefore had to cheer him on throughout the show. Maharajji talks about how hilarious the whole experience was! The concept of adequate rehearsals for choreographic work was obviously not well understood at this time and it was felt that the presence of mature dancers would make all the difference.

I was lucky enough to have seen Govardhan Leela’s composition when I was a little girl, even though I didn’t know Maharajji at the time. A versatile artist, he has always had a tendency to compose music. In some of the early dance dramas, the elder Dagar brothers (Fahimuddinji and Aminuddinji) composed the music, but later Maharajji did it himself. Sometimes he also wrote the lyrics.

While preparing for the dance dramas, Maharajji fondly remembers how they worked through the night on all aspects of the presentation – painting, making sets, props, mounting on stage, as well as using all sorts of rudimentary gadgets. for creative lighting and sound effects.

The first major ballet composition, under the direction of Lacchu Maharajji, was Malta Madhav in 1959. Krishna Kumarji played Madhav, Kumudini Lakhiaji was Malti and Maharajji was Makarund. Although he was not in the main role, he felt happy because there was a lot of dancing for him compared to the hero, who only had to long for his beloved.

And came Shan-e-Avadh, based on the artistic life of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow. Maharajji portrayed the character of his illustrious great-grandfather Thakur Prasadji who was at the court of the Nawab. His dance, based on a dhrupad composition, Kunjan Me Racho Raas, by Dagar Sahib, received tremendous applause from the audience. Shortly after, Kalidasa Kumar Sambhava was prepared with a huge cast. The music was composed by the Dagar brothers. Maharajji and Kumudiniji paired up as Kamadev and Rati. This duo has become immortal, as the two artists complemented each other perfectly.

Another interesting hobby that Maharajji indulged in was kathputli or puppeteering. Rehiji was a puppeteer at Bharatiya Kala Kendra and Maharajji composed background music for several of his puppet shows. He also sang songs and spoke the dialogues for them. All the senior artists enjoyed working behind the scenes and Maharajji recalls a few hilarious incidents while recording these productions.

Once they were recording music for the ballet Jhansi ki Rani and during the war scene, they needed the sound of guns. Toy guns with cork and small fireworks were used. While inspecting one of these toy guns, John Lobo burned himself; he had a big scar on his cheek. On another occasion, Dagar Sahib was asked to deliver background dialogues for the play Dhola Maru. As they listened to the recording before the show opened, Dagar Sahib was very upset to hear the voice of a junior artist, Batukda (Jyotirindra Moitra) as the Emperor, scolding him. Dagar Sahib ordered Rehiji to erase his voice. However, when everyone explained the situation, the matter was settled.

Birju Maharaj: the master through my eyes

Excerpted with permission from Birju Maharaj: the master through my eyes, Saswati Sen, Niyogi Books.