India’s President calls it the “end of an era”
by Mamie Colfox
MUCH of the Indian art world remains in mourning over the death of Kathak legend Pandit Birju Maharaj. He helped to popularise Indian classical dance and its North Indian style of Kathak in the West and had connections with Britain – story to follow.
The Kathak master died surrounded by his family and disciples, after playing ‘antakshari’ (a sing-along game) yesterday (January 17). One of India’s best-known artists, he was on dialysis treatment for a kidney problem before he died and his family reported that he fell ill suddenly.
Daughter Ragini told the Press Trust of India that the family, including his two granddaughters, were with him and described his last moments. “He was smiling and laughing,” she told PTI. “He was lying down… and suddenly his breathing became uneven. We think it was cardiac arrest.”
Pandit Birju Maharaj was awarded the Padma Vibushan award in 1986, the second highest civilian award for his contribution to the performing arts, along with two choreography awards in 2013 and 2016: the National Film Award in spy thriller ‘Vishwaroopam’ and the Filmfare Award in historial romance ‘Bajirao Mastani’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also expressed condolences on Twitter: “Deeply saddened by the demise of Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, who gave Indian dance forms a special recognition across the world. His passing is an irreparable loss to the entire world of art. My condolences to his family and fans in this hour of grief.”
Whilst the President of India Ram Nath Kovind commented that his loss was “the end of an era”.
Indian classical dancer Geeta Chandran wrote on Facebook: “Very few artists have been equally good as performers and as teachers. Maharaj Ji certainly scaled new heights in both roles.”
Born into a family of famous Kathak dancers, he was trained by his uncles and father, Acchan Maharaj, performing his first show at seven years old. Known for his dancing, he was inspired by ancient Indian epics, and he used dance as a way of telling a story. Typically he used animated facial expressions, light footed movements and conveyed further emotions using ghungroo (the bells attached to the ankles of Indian classical dancers).
Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was among those paying tribute on social media, acknowledging that the maestro had taken Kathak around the world.
Photographs: ©Mira Kaushik