Legend had come to the UK frequently and left a deep impression….
PARTS of the British artistic community remain in a state of shock and deep mourning over the sudden death of legendary Kathak dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj.
The artist who received tributes from far and wide was regarded as on a par with one of the most famous modern artists to have ever emerged from India – Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Pandit Maharaj-ji is understood to have suffered a heart attack on Monday (January 17) and had been on kidney dialysis treatment more recently. He was 83 and died at his home in Delhi surrounded by family and close acquaintances.
He had a long and extremely distinguished career that encompassed almost all the traditional Indian classical arts – he was an accomplished musician and composer as well as being an outstanding Kathak dancer.
He popularised the art form, taking it into Indian cinema more widely – Saswati Sen, his student performed in ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (‘The Chess Players’ 1977) and more latterly there was composition work for ‘Dil Toh Paagal’ (1997) and Aishwarya Rai as the doomed courtesan in ‘Devdas’ (2002) and South Indian star Kamal Haasan’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ (2012) and Bollywood icon Deepika Padukone’s dance in ‘Bajirao Mastani’ (2016).
But it was on the stage as a dancer, and very much a teacher that people in Britain remember him.
Sujata Banerjee, who runs her own dance company (Sujata Banerjee Dance Company/sbdc), in London told www.asianculturevulture.com that the Kathak legend was talking to her just last week about staying with her as he often did.
“He used to tell any organiser that he didn’t need a hotel (when he came to the UK). He would tell them that he would be staying with me.
“We used to speak a lot on the phone and on video. He was my Guru (though she explained that she did not learn Kathak from him).”
“My students are in a state of shock – many took the day off (on Monday), some were very close to him and had met him and been taught by him. We lit candles and held prayers.”
Banerjee is now in Delhi and is paying her respects and spending time with his family there. “They are all very good professional dancers. His legacy is huge – it will last generations,” she told acv before jetting off on Wednesday (January 19).
She has known Pandit Maharaj-ji for many years and first saw him perform in Kolkata where she grew up as a young girl.
“It must have been in the 1970s – I remember going with my Maasi (aunt) to an all-night concert and there was clapping, and people were just mesmerised.”
She said the comparison with Pandit Ravi Shankarji was appropriate.
“Pandit Ravi Shankarji called him a truly, a creative genius.
“And in the early days, Pandit Maharaji-ji played pakhavaj (an instrument similar to the tabla) with Ravi Shankarji. (on sitar)”
She said the huge outpouring of grief recognised the deep impression he had made as an artist of exceptional gifts.
“His sense of aesthetics was incredible – while some forms of contemporary dance can be disconnected and soulless – his was Love and in tune with Nature.
“He was amazed with creation and the natural world – wherever he went other artists would bow down to him.”
She felt that he had taken the art form to a whole different level.
“Maharaji-ji dance was not just movement, it was like a form of music with a fine bodyline, an intricate movement and music all culminate in his creations.”
She remembered that during the Asian Games (1982) – Pandit Maharaji-ji had choreographed a piece based on Kabaddi – a national pastime which now has its own professional league in India.
“His Lucknow dance style is a language. It’s a form of expression that can’t be categorised in that way – such as not being a purist.
“Maharaji-ji was not just a dancer, he was a musician, a composer, a painter and poet.”
She first met Pandit Maharaji through another well-known Indian dancer Vijai Shankar. They established a friendship and began working together shortly after the introduction.
“Maharaji liked nothing better than to be in the company of music and dance loving people.
“He was always very humble and open and loved to teach – if anyone was nervous around him he would put them at ease and instruct them gently. Teaching was his calling.”
She told acv that Pandit Maharaji had last been in the UK in February 2018 and was planning to visit the UK this year.
“He told me about a month ago he would be coming to my Hemantika Festiva (an Indian dance festival in London held annually in November).”
She said that the great maestro also used to ask her son to show him videos of fight sequences on his phone.
“He liked watching the movements,” she recounted.
She also remembered that as a young boy Pandit Maharaji-ji would love to fly kites but couldn’t really afford them.
“The shopkeepers would request a little dance and then gift him one,” Banerjee chuckled.
Another person who has very fond memories of Pandit Maharaji is Mira Kaushik, who ran one of Britain’s oldest established dance oranisations, Akademi.
She told acv: “He was magical and was like a magician on the stage and mesmerised audiences.
“He was one of the great artists and a master of technique and danced with spirit and soul. When you watched him it was full of ‘wah’, (a traditional appreciation of an audience at a classical concert).
She also said his talents extended to painting, music and poetry. She had seen him in September (2021) in India and had carried back a memento of poetry and sketches for Banerjee.
“He had such a simple, childlike quality about him andwas very funny and slightly mischievous,” she remembered fondly.
Alpana Sengupta, a well-established choreographer and dancer in the UK told acv: “He was a legend and an Emperor of Dance rightfully took his place on the Throne of Kathak. He will be sadly missed by all.”
Pandit Maharaji-ji was cremated within 24 hours of his passing and it is understood his ashes will be taken close to the place of his birth in Handia (some 60 miles east of Varanasi).
Pandit Birju Maharaj-ji leaves a wife and five children.
Pandit Birju Maharaj, dancer, teacher, composer, musician, painter, poet 1937-2022
*Look out for music and concert producer Jay Visvadeva’s piece about bringing Pandit Birju Maharaj to the UK – connect to us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook to know when it is out.