At 77, he is still at the top of his game. Post a performance at the Jagjit Singh Music Festival, which went on for well over two hours, Pt Birju Maharaj sat down for a tête-à-tête with HT Café to speak about the secret to his energy and his journey in Bollywood.
What is it that keeps you going even at this age?
It is all by God’s grace. Jo kala hai na, woh taaza rakhti hai hamein (It is the art that keeps me fresh). Look at Hari (Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia; flautist). Even the late Bhimsen ji (Joshi; classical singer) and Pt Ravi Shankar ji (sitar maestro) — they all dedicated their entire lives to their art.
Watch: Madhuri Dixit in Kaahe chede from Devdas
Are you happy with the representation of classical dance in Indian cinema?
Every Indian film should showcase classical dance in at least one song. V Shantaram made entire films on classical dance. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955) and Navrang (1959) are some of his most memorable projects. I believe each era should have a director who, out of 10 films, makes two that are dedicated to dance, and inspires people to say, “Now this is an Indian film.”
The importance you give to riyaaz is quite well-known. Is there any other tip you would give to aspirants?
Do not forget your guru. Even if your guru is no more with us, his or her presence should be acknowledged. One should remember the teachings of one’s guru, and the corrections and criticisms that he or she suggested.
Watch: Jagaave saari raina from dedh ishqiya
How different is it to train an actor, as compared to training a dance student?
The only difference is that the actors’ training comes with a lot of breaks. They do several things at once. Recently, someone spoke to me about the choreography I did for Deepika Padukone. I was asked whether I had changed my style of training. I told them, “No, I did not. I was supposed to teach Deepika the thumri and she did exactly that.” She came to Delhi to train for three days. Then, for another three days, she rehearsed in Mumbai. Then, on the sets, she would practice before the shots. Slowly and steadily, she was fully immersed in the colours of Kathak.
You have also worked with Madhuri Dixit Nene...
Yes, and this was duly noted by Deepika too. She told me, “Madhuri is a seasoned dancer, but I am not like that.” All I said was, “Koshish karo (You have to try).” People liked the choreography so much that I won an award for it. In fact, I think this song (‘Mohe rang do laal’ from Bajirao Mastani; 2015) has become just as popular as ‘Kaahe chhed mohe’ from Devdas (2002).
Your home in Lucknow has been turned into a museum. What prompted this decision?
It had been my wish for many, many years, and finally, the government has granted it. Ab main nishchint hoon (I am at peace now). The place where my father (late Acchan Maharaj) once walked, where his pupils, people like Jaddanbai (mother of late actor Nargis Dutt) and Gauhar Jaan (singer and dancer), trained, is now preserved. It will be a sanctuary for art. Cultural programmes will be held there every month.
Watch: Mohe rang do laal from Bajirao Mastani
You have given online Kathak lessons. Is technology changing the way people train these days?
When your guru is not in front of you, it is not the same. Even if you are attending online classes, there should be some sort of an interaction between the guru and the shishya (student) in the real world too. That will always add to the value of the training.
Is there anything else you dream of achieving?
I wish the legacy of classical music and dance is carried on forever. In this fast-paced life, we should not leave our traditions behind. My institute, Kalashram, will try to ensure that. There are about 600 students there, who are from countries like USA, China, South Korea and Japan, among others. One of my students has already opened an institute in Tokyo, Japan; approximately 100 students have already enrolled too. I am happy that my students are spreading the love for Kathak globally.
Pt Birju Maharaj on the film-makers he has worked with:
On Satyajit Ray : I have worked in more than one capacity on his films. I sang ‘Kanha main tose hari’ for his film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi(1977). Dada (Ray) was a great human being. He was a man of detail. He would tell me, “I want the setting to be such that even the dancers’ nails should be visible.” He was extremely knowledgeable. My journey in films began because of him.
On Sanjay Leela Bhansali: Sanjay bhai’s vision set the tone for Bajirao Mastani (2015) perfectly. When it came to the dance sequences, as a trained Odissi dancer himself, he knew exactly when to take close-up shots of the eyes, hands, etc.
On Kamal Haasan: He performed so well for Vishwaroopam (2013). He trained hard. The song in the film where he dances, by God’s grace, was loved by everyone, and I got a National Award for it.
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