Doyen of India’s culture, he left a mark across the world: Tributes pour in for Birju Maharaj

Maharaj-ji, as he was popularly known, died in the early hours of Monday in his New Delhi home, surrounded by his family and disciples, his daughter Ragini Maharaj said.
Pandit Birju Maharaj performs at an event in Bengaluru. (Arunkumar Rao)
Pandit Birju Maharaj performs at an event in Bengaluru. (Arunkumar Rao)
Updated on Jan 18, 2022 06:38 AM IST
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By, New Delhi/mumbai

Legendary dancer Birju Maharaj, who popularised the classical Kathak dance form around the world and became its most celebrated exponent by expanding its footprint from international festivals to Bollywood blockbusters, died in New Delhi on Monday. He was 83.

Born Brijmohan Nath Mishra in 1938 in Lucknow, Maharaj won a bouquet of national and global accolades, including the Padma Vibhushan in 1986, and became synonymous with Kathak in a career spanning nearly six decades. He is survived by five children, three daughters and two sons, and five grandchildren.

Maharaj-ji, as he was popularly known, died in the early hours of Monday in his New Delhi home, surrounded by his family and disciples, his daughter Ragini Maharaj said.

“He had his dinner and we were playing antakshari because he loved old music. He was lying down… and suddenly, his breathing became uneven. We think it was a cardiac arrest as he was also a heart patient,” said Ragini, also a Kathak dancer.

“This happened between 12.15 am and 12.30 am. We rushed to the hospital, but unfortunately, we could not save him,” she said. Maharaj died just two weeks shy of his 84th birthday.

President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the country in paying tributes to one of its most famous sons.

“Deeply saddened by the demise of Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, who gave Indian dance a special recognition world over,” Modi said.

“The demise of legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj marks the end of an era. It leaves a deep void in the Indian music and cultural space,” Kovind tweeted.

Maharaj was born in a Hindu Brahmin family with a long line of iconic artists who comprised the Kalka-Bindadin gharana. His grandfather, Bindadin Maharaj, wrote and composed around 5,000 thumris and bhajans, many of which Maharaj later re-documented from the memory of his mother and other students.

He trained under his father and guru Acchan Maharaj and gave his first public performance at the age of seven. In a form where artists use dance and facial expressions to tell a story, especially mythological epics, the young Maharaj drew quick praise for his animated facial expressions and lightfooted movements.

In later interviews, he repeatedly mentioned how the early years in his ancestral home moulded his craft. “It was like a sea of rhythm and beat, and for seven generations that was the only topic of discussion back home. Laya, swar, taal, bhangima, saundarya, aur nritya (rhythm, tone, beat, pose, beauty, and dance), that was all we talked about,” Maharaj told PTI in his last interview.

As a young boy, Maharaj began accompanying his father to places such as Kanpur, Allahabad and Gorakhpur, and then on to far off places, including Kolkata and Mumbai, where he shared the stage with him.

Tragedy struck when he was nine. His father died and the young Maharaj moved to Delhi and later started teaching Kathak at the Sangeet Bharti to support his family. He also taught at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, and at the Kathak Kendra (a unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi), where he was head of faculty and director, retiring in 1998. Birju Maharaj later opened his own dance school Kalashram, also in Delhi.

“Although he was a great dancer, not many know that he could sing and play the tabla really well,” said flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia. “I wish God could send back people like Birju, who have spent so much time mastering their craft, to wander the planet for at least two months each year, to teach people what it truly means to learn an art form.”

He was a poet – who wrote under the pseudonym Brijshyam – and a masterful thumri singer, who voiced a song for Satyajit Ray’s 1977 classic Shatranj Ke Khiladi, a film for which he also choreographed sequences.

He won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Sangam Kala Award, Andra Ratna, Soviet Land Nehru Award and Rajiv Gandhi Sadbhavana Award. In his decades-long career, Maharaj performed and taught Kathak – with images of his grace and poise beamed into millions of homes through televised performances. His abhinaya (expressions) and footwork became the gold standard in Indian classical dance.

He was a lifelong guru, said student and Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan, “He was painstakingly detailed. It was the spirit and ethos of dance, of Kathak that he gave me along with the technical skill and virtuosity and everything. He would come to my house for eight long years to teach me in the 1960s and never charged a single penny,” she said.

In his personal life, Maharaj also shattered rigid notions held in his family that barred women from dancing in public, and provided equal opportunities to his children as well as his students, without any gender bias.

“Even though he was the greatest legend of dance, he was so humble and modest and down to earth, that people would find it hard to imagine he could be so accessible,” said Saswati Sen, a senior disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj.

Later in his life, he taught several top Indian actors, including Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Kamal Haasan. Dixit-Nene, who trained under Maharaj and most memorably performed a song in the 2002 hit Devdas, said the exponent had a childlike innocence who never failed to make his students laugh. “There never was anyone like you guruji and there will never be,” she said.

(with agency inputs)

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