January 20, 2022 - 6:00 am

Maestro Birju Maharaj Passes Away at 83

       The artist who inspired generations of men and women to take up Kathak, a temple dance form that thrived when it moved to the Mughal courts, A rare combination of virtuosity and expression, grace and control, Pandit Birju Maharaj, who became synonymous with Kathak, passed away in Delhi at the age of 83. He suffered from kidney ailments and had been on dialysis for some months. He contracted Covid a few days ago and had a heart attack on Monday morning.

    Born Brijmohan Mishra into the illustrious Kalka-Bindadeen  gharana of Kathak, which had many great artists preceding him, he was a child prodigy. His deep immersion in the form, astute observation of nature/humanity and expansive imagination took Kathak beyond its geographic context and brought it centre-stage, not only in India but globally. He transformed not only Kathak’s repertoire but its presentation, pedagogy, life-span and yet kept its essence intact. Though dance itself was a tradition he had inherited from his family, he created ‘in the moment’. Every life experience, however minute, was given a new meaning in the most profound dance. Maharaj's oeuvre was not just about dazzling performances, choreographies, and that delicate glance of the eye. It was also about his intrepid belief that dance could convey just about everything. Gender, in all of this, rarely mattered as he sought to move beyond any constraints that his art form offered.

    Maharaj also contributed to Hindi film choreographies. Be it the piece he choreographed for his student Saswati Sen in Shatranj ke Khiladi or for Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Paagal Hai and Devdas, for Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani or Kamal Haasan in Vishwaroopam, these intricate performances showcased his sense of precision and fine choreography. His ginti k itihaais are studied rigorously by students of Kathak.

    At 28, Maharaj was one of the youngest artistes to be honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademy award. He was also conferred the Padma Vibhushan and was the head of Kathak Kendra till his retirement in 1998. Yet, all these accolades dim in comparison to his immense artistry. Every breath he took was immersed in dance, his body, mind and heart one with the resonance of his bells.

    In the passing of Pandit Birju Maharaj, India has lost yet another legendary dance icon. The maestro’s immaculate display of a stellar dance form, with his dancing eyes and the footwork and rhythm, created visual splendor. He has left behind a rich legacy of Kathak with his unique style of ‘immersive dance’ to depict epic stories. The resonance of Maharaj ji’s radiant artistry will live through the many tributaries that he gave birth to and nourished. Many of us will forever treasure the gift of dance that he generously gave us.