Just before he began his famous ‘mayur gat’ (a gat is the depiction of a style of walking in Kathak) at the NCPA Mudra festival, Pandit Birju Maharaj spoke about how no one save for his father ever attempted this dance piece, so perfect was the latter’s embodiment. Even Maharajji’s uncles desisted from performing the piece till his father passed away. As a torchbearer of a different generation, Maharajji had taken it upon himself to preserve this unique gems.
The piece lasted barely a minute and was so intensely mesmerising that made an imprint on the mind. When he danced, Maharajji brought a sense of unabashed, unbridled joy and for a moment, I was humbled by the fact that I was in the presence of history. This wasn’t just a dance. It was the manifestation of taaleem that is disappearing too fast from our cultural milieu.
Maharajji comes from a family of kathakars, or storytellers as kathak dancers are wont to call themselves. With Achhan Maharaj for a father and Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj for uncles, Maharajji’s style is an amalgamation of three very diverse personalities. When he performed the mayur gat, it made one realise that the training he had received as a child was so markedly different from the training that is now given in dance.
Hailing from a family of artists, be it musicians or dancers, is never easy. Ordinary people can look to inherit houses and cars, but musicians and dancers give their children very different inheritances – their art forms, intangible, expansive. As commoners, we always believe that creativity in dance is easy. In fact, in any form of dance, it is the exact opposite. One can’t be creative in a language that one does not know and for dancers, classical musicians and singers alike, the vocabulary of their art is so extensive that mere mastery of the alphabet can take a lifetime.
Maharajji’s training would have been very different for he wasn’t being trained in a hobby, as most of us are when we take up a dance. Instead, he was being trained in a living tradition, which would mean hours on end every day mastering footwork, facial gestures, todas, tukras and chakkars. His birth into a house of Kathak maestros may have been pure chance but his mastery of the form is not. And yet, in spite of his stature, the man’s humility is heart-warming, sneaking through in his interactions with his accompanying musicians and the audience.
Above all, Maharajji is a great story-teller. And unlike most of us who make feeble stabs at writing stories, he doesn’t need mere words. His story-telling repertoire can have anything from birds to animals to the bhajans of Surdas and Meerabai, replete with the colours of Hindustani music, the stories of Brijbhoomi, Vrindavan and even Kailash. At 74, his story-telling is so uninhibited that he can bring grace into the likeness of a duck’s gait, or an elephant’s walk.
But it is among the stories of Krishna that Maharajji brings alive, that his true legacy lies. He has often spoken of the metaphysical relationship in dance, where he believes the Lord dances through him, be it as the divine musician or the mischevious infant too busy stealing butter.