Kathak Maestro Birju Maharaj says he don’t believe in fusion….A special report by Somrita Ghosh
Classical dance and music forms are pure and aesthetic and fusion with modern genres will detract from the charm of their originality, Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj believes. “Art should be kept pure. I don’t believe in fusion. Every art has its own originality and fusion can never generate the originality of the pure art form,” the 78-year-old said.
To reinforce his point, the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second-highest civilian award, recollected how at a performance in Europe he shared the stage with a tap dancer.
“As music started playing, I performed Kathak and she did her tap dance. There was no fusion, we both retained our original forms and this was highly appreciated by the audience,” he added.
What about classical dance in Bollywood? He contended that only a good director with knowledge of the classical form can portray it perfectly, adding that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali “understands the value of classical dance”.
“I will be happy if Bollywood culture and classical dance go together. In the early movies, a heroine would perform solo in a song, but now there are over 50 back-up dancers along with heroines,” he said in a tone that suggested that while he was not too happy with this state of affairs, he could live with it as long as the purity of the form was retained.
Birju Maharaj has, in fact, choreographed many a Bollywood song, the most recent being “Mohe Rang Do Lal” from “Bajirao Mastani”. He was full of praise for its lead actress, Deepika Padukone, but his favourite remains Madhuri Dikshit, whom he has choreographed in “Devdas”, “Dedh Ishqiya” and “Dil To Pagal Hai”.
“It is always a pleasure to choreograph Madhuri; I have found no one like her among Bollywood actresses. If she is not pleased with her expressions, she goes for retakes until she is satisfied. She is very dedicated and hardworking.”
From a trained Kathak dancer, that is some praise indeed!
The conversation then switched to the nitty-gritty of the Kathak genre.
“I don’t like too much of body movement. It is the expression which matters the most. Dance is all about conveying feelings and emotions through expressions. Excessive body movements are unnecessary. Ornament your body with gestures rather than moving it,” he maintained and for good measure demonstrated for some moves from his self-written thumri dedicated to Lord Krishna and his gopikas.
Little wonder then that every time he is on stage, like at the recent Sabrang 2016 show presented by Kalahetu Academy, he mesmerises the audience with his “abhinaya” as “bhav” and, with his ghunghurs and thumris, creates a seamless connect with his viewers.
“Now-a-days I don’t perform for long on stage,” he said reflectively, adding: “But still, I can dance for 40 minutes at a stretch.”
“These days I have been writing my own thumris,” said the maestro who belongs to the Lucknow gharana.
He also expressed his desire to make Lucknow the Kathak capital of India and build a Kathak Gram there. “I am already in talks with the government and have asked it to allot me a two-acre plot for building the Kathak Gram,” Birju Maharaj said, adding: “There should also be one day dedicated to Kathak.”
Talking about the present generation of youth, he lamented that they are losing interest in classical dance forms because of being unaware of their values.
“Parents should take the responsibility to make their kids aware of the importance of classical dance and they will gradually learn about it. Children need to be taught patience to learn art; it cannot be gulped in a few minutes.”
This apart, he had another grouse or two. For instance, he was unhappy that people often misused his name and took undue advantage of him.
“People take pictures with me and use it to promote themselves and their institutes. And other people come under the false impression that ‘woh maharaj-ji ka khaas admi hai’ (the individual is special to maharaj-ji). Most of the time I am not even aware of those dance institutes, but I never complain. At least people are learning classical dance,” Birju Maharaj said.
He also voiced his dissatisfaction over the Padma awards, saying: “Now-a-days the awards are distributed as if they are on sale. Earlier they used to be given only to those artistes who excelled in their genre.”
The interaction, however, ended on a positive note. Asked about the recent controversy relating to Pakistani artists performing in India, he said that lines should not be drawn for artists.
“There should be no boundaries for art. We all learn the same basics of classical music and dance as they do. Dadra, thumri cannot be different in other countries. If there is a political crisis, target that, not art and culture,” Birju Maharaj concluded.