Rhythm and Grace

Rhythm and Grace

By Taru Bhatia | | 2 September, 2017
Pandit Birju Maharaj, Kathak dancer and musician, Padma Vibhushan, Tama Show, Classical dance, Kalashram, Acchan Maharaj, Bollywood
Pandit Birju Maharaj. Photo: Inni Singh
Veteran Kathak dancer and musician, Pandit Birju Maharaj, winner of the Padma Vibhushan award as well as scores of other national and international honours, speaks to Taru Bhatia about preserving India’s classical heritage, and his efforts to popularise traditional forms of music and dance among the young.

Q. Classical art forms, the whole range and variety of music and dance indigenous to this country, have all been driven to the margins of the cultural space, which is dominated now by mainstream entertainment. Do you think it is becoming increasingly difficult for practitioners of the classical arts to reach and connect with the younger generations?

A. Nowadays everything is so divided. There are so many television channels, for instance, unlike the time when there was only Doordarshan. And on Doordarshan, even today classicals arts are showcased. Otherwise there are numerous channels focusing on Western art and culture, or on popular dance forms, due to which the younger generations are now divided between popular and classical art forms. In our academy, Kalashram, some 700 students are learning classical arts, and I am very delighted that their parents are sending their children to me. My daughter and son both teach these students. We not only teach classical dance and culture, but also try to convey to them, through this art, a higher moral sense of life. So there are still people who hold on to their conviction that Hindustani music and dance are worth the time. I hope that with time we get to see more of these Hindustani art forms taken up by young teachers and students.

Q. Please tell us about your association with the Tama Show, the event recently held in Delhi? Do you think it is a good platform to promote arts and culture among the youth?

A. I really liked the way they are trying to bring back the classical tradition through these art forms that are originally from Hindustan. So, yes, it is absolutely a good way to promote the arts. All our folk dance and music has a rhythmic sense built into it. The art of bouncing around on this rhythm is so pleasurable. Ages ago, people, when they used to come home tired, after, say, farming, they would prefer to perform folk dance and music to relax.

Q. You have performed live at some of the best international venues. You have also performed with Western dancers on the stage alongside you. How was that experience, of being part of an East-West fusion piece?

A. It was a very good experience. It was in Europe, where I performed Kathak and this other dancer did her tap dance. She asked me to perform with her and out of friendship I did it. She was impressed by what she saw. She saw how through Kathak one could express so many different emotions, and evoke so many emotions in the viewers, just through movement and the rhythms of the ghungroo. See, just like yoga has now spread all over the world, and people are keen to learn it, in the same way our classical dance has also gained popularity in the West. Classical dance is a faith, a faith which enables us to spread happiness through the movements of our body and through our expressions.

Q. In your academy Kalashram, the curriculum lays emphasis on developing sensitivity towards the fine arts, yoga and voice culture. Could you talk about this?

A. We are very closely attached to our tradition and so many of our past generations have lived by just performing and promoting these art forms. Centuries ago, there was no train or car for fastest commuting. Our aim here is to promote classical art forms as much as we can. We also want to highlight the beauty of folk dances. If you observe each step in a folk dance closely, you will see that one step is from Manipur and the other step may be coming from Bharatanatyam.

Q. Do you think the guru-shishya parampara is well preserved today when it comes to arts education?

A. Guru-shishya parampara is really on the way out now, but it is still preserved in some pockets of our society. Not everyone values our age-old tradition anymore. Now students come and learn dance and go, but at the same we have some who want to know more about the traditional approach of imparting education. So, in a way, guru-shishya parampara will always sustain in our society.

Q. Do you think that we need more international campaigns to promote Indian arts and culture across the world?

A. Yes, absolutely. When we go abroad, we tell everyone very proudly that we are Indians and that we have come from a place where the arts are a part of the overall tradition. We should keep working towards promoting this view.

“During a live performance, we transfer our self from a normal world to the musical world. We engage our self into the tunes of rhythm and into the melody, the music, which is all part of a totally different world. When I reach the stage, I feel happy, delighted, and the entire environment around me is beautiful.”

Q. What goes through your mind when you’re performing on the stage?

A. During a live performance, we transfer our self from a normal world to the musical world. We engage our self into the tunes of rhythm and into the melody, the music, which is all part of a totally different world. When I reach the stage, I feel happy, delighted, and the entire environment around me is beautiful. Though there are no trees around me in such a setting, I do build trees, fruits and all the beauty of the world around me through my imagination.

Q. What is the future of classical dance and music in India?

A. See, I have some Japanese, Chinese, American students learning from me. I believe that the 600-700 students, whom I teach, wouldn’t have been here if their parents didn’t have faith in this form. I am very delighted about the faith we develop in our students and it shows that there is so much value and life in our traditions.

Q. What are your memories of your father and guru, Acchan Maharaj?

A. The environment in our home was all about students coming in and learning classical dance. Students use to come and practice for hours and the sound of the ghungroo was very attractive to me. I used to sit and watch their practice sessions. My father understood that I had a rhythmic sense and that was when he thought of training me and helping me develop as a dancer. I always used to tag along with my father for his shows around the globe. My mother used to ask my father to take me along, because she thought that seeing my father perform would help be become a better dancer. 

Q. What would be your advice to youngsters willing to learning Kathak?

A. I would like to advice them to have full faith in whatever lessons they are getting from their teachers. Learning Kathak is a lifelong experience. You cannot learn four steps of Kathak and then consider yourself a Kathak dancer. So it needs patience and regular practice. And if you understand the dance well, it can also present itself as a good career option.

Pandit Birju Maharaj during a live performance.  Photo: IANS

Q. You have choreographed Madhuri Dixit for the song “Kaahe Chhed Mohe”, in Devdas, as well as Deepika Padukone for the Bajirao Mastani song “Mohe Rang Do Laal”. Could you tell us about your choreography experiences in Bollywood?

A. Madhuri Dixit is herself a very good dancer and artiste. She has very graceful body movements and facial expressions. Kamal Hsan has also performed beautifully in Vishwaroopam, though he is himself is a Bharatnatyam dancer, he performed Kathak very gracefully. He understood every movement of Kathak. This goes for Deepika Padukone as well. She is a Kuchipudi dancer. With Madhuri Dixit we had an advantage as she was a trained Kathak dancer. I was delighted that everyone I worked with understood the dance and then tried to perform it.

Q. Why did you choose to do Bajirao Mastani? Was there any specific reason for choreographing the song “Mohe Rang Do Laal”?

A. I have a very close friendship with Sanjay Leela Bansali and when he approached me for this song and narrated to me the lyrics, I thought that this was my kind of song and that I could get expressions on this song. So I decided to take it up.

Q. Do you plan to take up more Bollywood projects in the future?

A. If some good director comes to me with really good songs based on Kathak music, then definitely I will do it. But my Kalaashram students and my stage performances remain my priority.

 

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