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Kathak Samrat Padma Vibhushan Pt. Birju Maharaj – The World at his feet!!

Pt. Birju Maharaj, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2005

A Dance virtuoso, Kathak legend Padma Vibhushan Pt. Birju Maharaj left for the heavenly abode on 17th January, 2022 creating a great void in the field of Indian Classical Dance and music.

Birth and Early Life

Born in Lucknow in the year 1938 on Vasant Panchmi into the family of Lucknow Gharana’s renowned Kathak artist Pt. Jagannath Mishra popularly known as Pt. Achhan Maharaj, Pt. Birju Maharaj was a child prodigy. Amongst the children who were born in the hospital ward that day, he was the only boy (Brij Mohan) and the rest of them were girls (Brij Gopi). That is how he was named “Brij Mohan” Mishra.

Pt. Birju Maharaj at the Saptak Annual Music Festival

From the age of 4, he started dancing with his father who was his first guru also. After losing his father at an early age, he continued his learning from his uncles Pt. Lachhu Maharaj and Pt. Shambhu Maharaj. Representing Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin Gharana, he had dance, laya, grace and music in his blood.

A Guru

He started his journey as a teacher at Sangeet Bharati, Delhi at a tender age of 13 and later on went on to teach at the Bhartiya Kala Kendra. Very soon, he got a chance to serve as the Head of the Faculty at Kathak Kendra, a unit of Sangeet Natak Akademi. 

He remained a lifetime revered guru for a list of his disciples which runs into pages. To name a few, Sushri Saswati Sen, Panditji’s children Pt. Deepak Maharaj, Pt. Jaikishan Maharaj and Sushri Mamta Maharaj, grandchildren Ragini, Yashaswini and Tribhuvan Maharaj.

Synonymous to Kathak

A leading exponent and a torch bearer of Kathak, Pt. Birju Maharaj had everything that was required to be a complete dancer. He made Kathak globally famous. It is rare when the art is known by the artist and not the other way round. He could see dance in every facet of life. His style of performing was unique.He could make the complex mathematical counting very interesting and exciting by making it analogous to a day to day situation such as mother sparrow feeding a child sparrow, children skating on the road street and many more. He used to decorate his dance with unprecedented facial expressions and nimble feet.His ability to engage the audience was impeccable. His dance had the glimpses of impactful “Shiv Tandava” as well as blissful “Radha-Krishna Raas leela”.

Pt. Birju Maharaj, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2014

He was conferred with numerous awards and recognitions including the second highest civilian award of India “Padma Vibhushan” for his unparalleled contribution to the field of dance and music.

For him, Kathak was not merely a dance; it was meditation, yoga, a path leading to a complete communion with the almighty.

Beyond Dance

A sensitive poet, a naturalistic painter, an accomplished percussionist, a consummate composer, an impressive director, an excellent writer, a melodious singer, a captivating orator and above all, a very good human being! As if all arts had to find the same residence, Pt. Birju Maharaj was a multi-faceted versatile artist.

Pt. Birju Maharaj, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2020

Pandit ji had composed many Bandishes anddirected numerous“Nritya Natika”s. Number of bollywood films had dances choreographed by him such as Devdas, Bajirao Mastani and many more.

Saptak Connection

Pt. Birju Maharaj’s association with Saptak goes back to the late 90’s which started in an interesting manner. As many would be aware, Saptak was a home for Tabla Samrat Pt. Kishan Maharaj. He used to actively play his role in organising Saptak Annual Music Festival. On one such instance, he said to the founder Trustee of Saptak and a renowned tabla player Pt. Nandan Mehta who was his disciple too, said that the Music is complete only when the “Gayan” (singing), “Vadan” (instrumental music) and “Nritya” (Dance) converge. And therefore, incorporation of Dance Performance in Saptak Annual Music Festival will complete the circle. The suggestion was accepted wholeheartedly and from the very next year, the dance performance was made an integral part of the Saptak Annual Music Festival. The obvious choice to introduce dance to the Saptak Audience was none other than Kathak doyen Pt. Briju Maharaj. Since then, Pt. Birju Maharaj remained associated with Saptak for 25 long years.

Felicitation of Pt. Birju Maharaj at the hands of Pt. Kishan Maharaj & Pt. Rajan Mishra
at Saptak Annual Music Festival, 1998.

Very few people know that Pt. Birju Maharaj was a great percussionist himself. Memories of magical Trio of 1997 in which Pt. Birju Maharaj (Naal) performed along with Pt. Kishan Maharaj (Tabla) and Pt. Ravishankar Upadhyay (Pakhawaj) still reverberates in the ears of listeners. 

(L-R) Pt. Birju Maharaj, Pt. Kishan Maharaj, Shri Ravishankar Upadhyay & Pt. Ramesh Mishra, Saptak Annual Music Festival 1997

He was felicitated by Saptak Pariwar twice; First time in the year 1997, by Pt. Kishan Maharaj and Pt. Rajan Mishra and second time in the year 2013 in the august presence of a group of renowned musicians. 2013 was also his 75th birth year and the celebration started from the Saptak stage. 

Felicitation of Pt. Birju Maharaj, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2013

As they say, artists never die. Pt. Birju Maharaj, his dance and music will live forever. 

An excerpt from the poem composed by Pt. Kishan Maharaj and recited in the felicitation of Pt. Birju Maharaj on Saptak Stage in 1997 aptly describes the colossal stature of Pt. Birju Maharaj:

अब पहनाओ कथक नृत्य का ताज,  यार संगीत जगत में,

ब्रिज मोहन बन गए बिरजू महाराज, यार संगीत जगत में I

शुरू शुरू में छोटी बड़ी तिहाई आती, 

दुनिया भर की लय मानो उसमें दर्शाती,

सम आते ही झूम उठे सब साज़, यार संगीत जगत में,

ब्रिज मोहन बन गए बिरजू महाराज, यार संगीत जगत में I

आमद, ठाठ, अंगसंचालन, मुद्रा हस्तक,

मटकत कमर छात गर्दन भोएं और मस्तक,

नैन बतावे क्रोध प्रीत और लाज, यार संगीत जगत में,

ब्रिज मोहन बन गए बिरजू महाराज, यार संगीत जगत में I

(Photo courtesy: Saptak Archives)                                                                 – Saptak Pariwar

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