Maharajji is a living legend, but humility could well be Pandit Birju Maharaj’s middle name.
Just a few days ago, the entire dance community celebrated the 79th birthday of legendary kathak maestro Padma Vibhushan Birju Maharaj. Dancers across the world, particularly kathak aficionados made frantic calls, sent emails and gifts to their favourite guru on his birthday. Maharajji is a living legend, but humility could well be Pandit Birju Maharaj’s middle name. I met him on two occasions, but I must admit that he has an elephantine memory.
My first interaction with him was when he came to give away the winner’s trophy (Takdeer ki Topi) on my hit dance reality show, Dance India Dance on which I was the jury along with director Farah Khan. The other time was when I went to Delhi and visited him at his dance class, where he introduced me to his super talented family.
I still recollect, during the shooting of the dance show, Maharajji was sitting besides me and giving takes after takes for long hours without any starry tantrums. At one point, he whispered in my ears, “Can I get something to eat, I am diabetic and I think my sugar is getting low.” That is the time when all hell broke loose on the set and almost everyone came forward to offer him variety of chocolates, candies, sweets, mithais and more.
The humble person that he is, Maharajji said, “Sandip give me two pieces of your glucose biscuit that is all I need.” This is how I will always remember the maestro, extremely humble, soft-spoken and down to earth. Reminiscing the memorable moments we spent together, I called Maharajji to wish him on his birthday and have a little tête-a-tête with him. Here are a few things that we spoke about:
How did you spend your birthday?
I was in Lucknow at my ancestral place, where people had organised a heart-warming show for me. Students performed on my compositions. I was completely overwhelmed.
What did you do in Lucknow?
Our house has been turned into a museum of sorts. I took out time and saw my childhood clothes. I also saw angarkhas and other outfits of my guru’s and family members. Some of my clothes are there but I don’t fit into them anymore (laughs).
What is the best gift you received this birthday?
Some of my close friends came home to meet me. Shekhar Sen, chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Pandit Rajan Sajan Misra, came and we all sang. It was like a mehfil. Everyone danced and sang non-stop. With students dancing and friends singing what more can I ask for? This is the best gift ever I feel.
Let us talk about Bollywood, who is your favourite dancer?
Madhuri Dixit is indeed my favourite. It is a pleasure to work with her. She has attended my workshops too. She has no ego hassles and even after a dance sequence is okayed, she asks for suggestions. I get many offers to choreograph for films but I turn most of them down. I taught Kamal Haasan a few kathak steps for his movie Vishwaroopam. He is a very eager learner. I enjoyed teaching him. Maine Deepika Padukone ko Bajirao Mastani mein teek tak nachwa diya... and got a Filmfare award for it. I am happy.
How would you rate today’s actresses?
Just the other day, I was watching Katrina Kaif on television, Usko naachna nahi, hilna bolte hai (it is not called dancing, it is called shaking). But it is not her fault. What is given to her she does that with sincerity. I can’t really blame her for the dance and the moves. There was a time when Waheeda Rehma, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini and Meena Kumari danced. They were mesmerising. I liked Helen too. She never looked vulgar while doing all those cabaret songs. Before I choreograph a song I ask the director, heroine kapde pehnegi na? This is because I can’t imagine a song choreographed by me being presented in a vulgar way.
Your advice to filmmakers of new generation?
All I can say is please go ahead and put commercially successful songs with exciting moves in the film. Put all the item songs and lovemaking songs but please put one song promoting Bharatiya sanskriti and sabhyata (Indian culture and tradition). Even if the song is of a short duration it should be fine but do promote our roots.
After my little talk with Maharajji, I spoke to his senior-most disciple, the very graceful and elegant Saswati Sen (aka Saswati didi). I asked her about how she felt about her guru turning a year older. She replied, “Till date I have never come across a person who is a maestro, a real genius of art in a true sense. Maharajji is a dancer, singer, composer, poet, writer, musician, painter, percussionist and above all an inspiration to millions world over. He has touched my life and made me who I am today. Each time I am with him, either dancing or just being around when he is creating a new composition, I thank the Lord for truly blessing me with a guru and a mentor like him. I wish him a life filled with art, may he always keep blessing us with his presence and never-ending knowledge.”
Later, I happened to mention about my conversation with Maharajji and Saswatiji to the maestro’s foremost student, Vijayshree Choudhary, a Hirkani awardee, who learnt kathak from Maharajji for many years. Talking to her made me realise the love, his students have for him. She shared details of how Maharajji would teach and how all the students were in complete awe of him. Vijayshreeji too wished him in a true shishya (disciple) manner.
She said, “With deepest respect, I wish my guru a very happy birthday, Maharajji has been a resounding inspiration in my life. He not only taught me the intricacies and nuances of dance, but also shared a deep understanding of the essence of life. He shared with me the wisdom of how dance influences life — our emotions, decisions, energies et al. How one can establish a connection with nature in order to learn its divine lessons and how nature ultimately teaches us everything, you need to absorb about dance and life. All that I know about kathak and the important of dance in our lives has come through him. His dedication to the preservation and growth of this classical art form is an inspiration to one and all. With deepest gratitude and respect, charan sparsh (I touch your feet) is all I can say.”
I am trained in ballroom and Latin American dances, but I remember one thing he told me, “Sandip, dance Indian style ka ho ya international western ka — a dancer is a dancer. Why differentiate between them? A dancer means, one who is dedicated, who offers his life to God (dance), that’s a complete dancer!” Today, through this article, I would like to wish the ‘King of Kathak’ abundance love and a journey filled with dance and music. May he spread the joy of his art to every artist, Happy Birthday Maharajji!
Sandip Soparrkar is a well-known ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with National Achievement Award and National Excellence Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on email@example.com.