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When Pandit Birju Maharaj had to prompt Sitara Devi through a show

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At the age of 19 or 20, Birju Maharajji was invited by Shrimati Nirmala Joshi to work at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, where Shambhu Maharajji had already joined. Maharajji’s main task was to assist his uncle and also to compose items, ballets and dance dramas for their new unit.

Most of his students were children, the only older one being Rashmi Jain (now Bajpayi). Maharajji taught Rashmiji with great care and sincerity so as to be able to win the minds of all the seniors. The first recipient of a Ministry scholarship who chose to learn from him was Pratap Pawar. Pratapji was nearly Maharajji’s age and had been trained in Bharatanatyam. He became his first ‘ganda-bandh shagird’ (formal disciple).

Maharajji took up the challenge of moulding his body for Kathak with a disciplined technique. His first task was to create a grammar for understanding every movement. For similes, he used nature and everyday situations. Everyone was quite curious when they heard about this new style of teaching and composing. Maharajji was actually enjoying his own thought process.

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Kathak was mainly practised as a solo form and experiments in thematic compositions and group choreography started only around the Sixties. Kathak dancers, in those days, focused on rhythmic interplay, speed and beauty of movements. The body was given very little importance.

Even ‘abhinaya’, which was the origin of the dance and main communicative media, became secondary. The general masses recognised Kathak as a dance of ‘chakkars’ (spins) and ‘tatkar’ (footwork) only, while some criticised it as a makkhi-maar (fly swatter) dance.

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The presentation of thematic compositions, beautiful choreographic lines and melodious accompanying music to enhance the mood had to be meticulously worked out. Dance-dramas, ballets and short items were composed; the masses liked it. During the Sixties and Seventies this was the most popular way of reaching out to the uninitiated audience.

Maharajji choreographed several successful dance-dramas during his tenure at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, including ‘Kumar Sambhav’, ‘Shan-e-Avadh’, ‘Malti Madhav’, ‘Dalia’ and ‘Krishnayan’. The first group compositions that he made were ‘Govardhan Leela’ and ‘Holi Leela’.

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For ‘Holi Leela’ Sitara Deviji was invited from Mumbai to play Radha (particularly to draw an audience, as she was quite popular in those days through her films) and Maharajji enacted the role of Krishna. No one had much experience on presentation, choreography, costumes or stage décor. However, they were full of ambition and commitment and their technique was strong.

Sitara Deviji arrived on the morning of the show, as she had been very busy with her stage performances and film shootings until then. When the rehearsal began, it was evident that she was not able to co-ordinate with the other dancers who had been practising for a long time. So, Maharajji and her co-dancers had to prompt her throughout the show.

Maharajji recounts how the experience was hilarious! The concept of proper rehearsals for choreographic work was obviously not well understood in those days and it was felt that the presence of mature dancers would make all the difference.

I was lucky to have seen the ‘Govardhan Leela’ composition as a little girl, though I did not know Maharajji then. As a versatile artiste, he was always inclined towards composing music. In some of the earlier dance-dramas the senior Dagar brothers (Fahimuddinji and Aminuddinji) composed the music, but later, Maharajji did so himself. At times he also wrote the lyrics.

During the preparation of the dance-dramas, Maharajji recollects with nostalgia how they worked through the night on every aspect of the presentation — painting, making of the sets, props, erecting them on the stage, as well as using all kinds of crude gadgets for creative lighting and sound effects.

(Excerpted from ‘Birju Maharaj: The Master Through My Eyes’ with the permission of the publisher, Niyogi Books. Vidushi Saswati Sen is a disciple of Maharaj ji and a renowned Kathak dancer.)

–By Saswati Sen

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