At the age of nineteen or twenty, Birju Maharajji was invited by Shrimati Nirmala Joshi to work at 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 small 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 Bharatnatyam. 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.

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, focussed 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-batting) dance. 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.

Birju Maharaj | Image credit: Sudhanwa / CC BY-SA 3.0

Maharajji choreographed several successful dance-dramas during his tenure at 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. 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 whole 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 artist, 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.

The first major ballet composition, with the guidance of Lacchu Maharajji, was Malti Madhav in 1959. Krishna Kumarji played Madhav, Kumudini Lakhiaji was Malti and Maharajji was Makarund. Though he was not in the lead role, he felt happy as there was a lot of dance for him in comparison to the hero, who only had to pine for his beloved.

Then came Shan-e-Avadh, based on the artistic life of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow. Maharajji portrayed the character of his illustrious great-grandfather Thakur Prasadji who was in the court of the Nawab. His dance, based on a dhrupad composition, Kunjan Me Racho Raas, by Dagar Sahib, drew tremendous applause from the audience. Soon after this, Kalidasa’s Kumar Sambhava was prepared with a huge cast. The music was composed by the Dagar Brothers. Maharajji and Kumudiniji paired as Kamadev and Rati. This duet became immortal, as the two artists complemented each other perfectly.

Another interesting pastime that Maharajji indulged in was kathputli or puppeteering. Rehiji was a puppeteer at Bharatiya Kala Kendra and Maharajji composed the background music for many of his puppet shows. He also sang songs and spoke the dialogues for them. All the senior artists enjoyed working behind the scenes and Maharajji remembers some hilarious incidents during the recording of these productions.

Once they were recording music for the ballet Jhansi ki Rani and during the war scene they needed the sound of guns. Toy guns with cork and small fireworks were being used. While inspecting one of these toy guns, John Lobo got burnt; he had a big scar on his cheek. On another occasion, Dagar Sahib was requested to speak some dialogues in the background for the play Dhola Maru. As they were listening to the recording before the opening of the show, Dagar Sahib was very upset on hearing the voice of a junior artist, Batukda (Jyotirindra Moitra) in the role of the emperor, scolding him. Dagar Sahib commanded Rehiji to erase his voice. However, when everyone explained the situation, the matter got sorted out.

Birju Maharaj: The Master Through My Eyes

Excerpted with permission from Birju Maharaj: The Master Through My Eyes, Saswati Sen, Niyogi Books.