Humility is definitely a hallmark of a legend. In course of my work, I have met many megalomaniacs. Their sense of inflated self-importance changes the impression you carried about them in a matter of moments. But then, there are a few like Pandit Birju Maharaj, who not only bowl you over with their wittiness and humility, but also gift you a few unforgettable moments to cherish for a lifetime. I spoke to Panditji last week while covering the Margazhi festival in Chennai. He was equally at ease posing for a few shots after the conversation ended. Given below is the interview that appeared in the TOI. He has spoken about his experiences as a teacher, performer and choreographer, where he made the likes of Madhuri Dixit, Kamal Hassan and even Amjad Khan dance to his tunes! You can also check the link here.
What are your earliest recollections of learning kathak?
The nawabs of Awadh were huge patrons of arts and my ancestors performed at their durbars. My father, Pandit Acchan Maharaj, used to say that even as a child, I would relentlessly play some beats on the table. Music and rhythm were all around me. My uncles Pandit Lachuu Maharaj and Pandit Shambhu Maharaj were big names in the classical circuit and the Hindi film industry.
You have performed many times in the city. How does it feel to be here for the Margazhi festival?
In Chennai, every art is interspersed with bhakti. Once, I was in Calcutta and met one of the Shankaracharyas, who had come there with his disciples. He said that while the saints strive to reach the divine, a true artiste would have already reached there. There was a time, when cities like Mumbai and Kolkata had around 15-20 Kathak conferences throughout the year. All that is gone now, which is why I feel so glad to be here in this city, where a carnival of classical arts is still thriving.
While the presiding deity of dance is Shiva, Kathak is inspired heavily by the life of Krishna. What is your relationship with the deity as a performer?
When it comes to Ram or Shiva, you maintain a distance of respect. But Krishna can be hugged as a friend or loved as a lover. Even the dance traditions of the south have a heavy influence of the Krishna cult. In the green room, as I get ready for a performance, I tell Krishna that I am dressed like your loved one. Now come and give your glimpse to the viewers there.
In an age of experimentation,what is your approach to change?
There are the basic colours. How you combine those colours and get something new is your creativity. An artiste’s attempt is to try different mixtures and come up with a shade that has never been seen before. Along those lines, change, that does not meddle in fundamentals, is always welcome.
You have been speaking about the importance of the guru shishya parampara very often. How have you maintained that in your institute Kalashram?
For me, my guru was not less than God. We surrendered ourselves at his feet and we wouldn’t dance, unless told to, for we felt that he knew best. Besides, we would do all his work, like sweeping, cleaning and buying things for him. That was a disciplining process. But one has to be practical to understand that things will never be the same. Some, like Rajan-Sajan Mishra, still have students with them. Some students like Saswati Sen have been with me for more than 43 years. But I do not expect all of them to become maestros. In a palace, you need all kind of people, from a king to a doorkeeper. Everyone can strive to reach for the throne of excellence. Many people, who are close to me, have started various ventures in my name. But I am not directly associated or responsible for those ventures.
What is the teaching methodology you have adopted in Kalashram?
We have a multi-disciplinary approach. You need to know different art forms. If you see the way Pandit Ravi Shankar played the sitar, his fingers danced over the strings, which was a result of his training in dance. Jagit Singh once told me that for a singer, the music comes from his throat, but for a dancer, his entire body becomes a piece of music.
The Hindi film industry has changed from the days when your uncles directed dance sequences.How has been your experience with the film industry?
In films, I think the ability to express with your face is a huge challenge now. They tend to go overboard. I have worked with some great artistes. I choreographed a few Kathak sequences for Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi and Amjad Khan was baffled when I asked him to dance. But he was extremely cooperative.When Sanjay Leela Bhansali came to me with a request to choreograph a dance for Devdas, he asked me to recreate the magic of Mohe panghat pe from Mughal-eazam, which was done by my uncle Pandit Lachuu Maharaj. Madhuri (Dixit) was wonderful and did exactly as I told her. It helped that she had learnt Kathak right from her childhood. Even when Kamal Hassan came to me for choreographing Viswaroopam, I taught him a few steps and I am very impressed with the end result.
How difficult has it been to bring an art that was enjoyed by the classes to the masses?
Every body has a language. When my students find it difficult to understand some aspects of movements, I associate them with the movement of birds and animals, or even with our routine daily activities. I do the same for the audience to simplify matters for them. There was a time, when the common man could not understand the Ramayan as it was in Sanskrit. But Tulsidas translated the divine epic into the language of the masses and it is popular to this day. My attempt is to be the Tulsidas of Kathak and take it to the common man.