Veteran Kathak dancer Saswati Sen is dressed in a green cotton lehenga-choli with golden gota border, not very different from what she wears on stage, but sans the make-up. In between phone calls in the living room of her Chittaranjan Park, Delhi, residence, she describes why she has written Birju Maharaj: The Master Through My Eyes, a memoir about the great Kathak exponent. “About a decade ago, I had worked on a few books on thumri, which set in the process of thinking about a book on Maharaj-ji. When the offer came from the publishers, I jumped at it,” she says.
In eight chapters, the book details the different stages in Birju Maharaj’s life—from a childhood spent among the legends of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Kathak to becoming the greatest exponent of the dance form. With numerous photographs of the dance maestro with his disciples, the coffee-table book unravels layers of his personality as witnessed by Sen in the last four decades—a dutiful family man, a zealous master, a great and unassuming artiste and a compassionate human being. “Once, at the New Delhi station, the coolie carrying Maharaj-ji’s luggage turned out to be his childhood friend. He hugged him and wept inconsolably. On Delhi’s Minto Road, Maharaj-ji once helped a cart-puller pull his overloaded cart after parking his Morris Minor on the road,” Sen recalls.
There are anecdotes of the maestro’s fascination for gadgets, his experiments with the humble kurta in Kathak performances, and why he stopped composing the taranas he once composed for film actor Asha Parekh’s stage productions Anarkali and Chauladevi.
Sen, the maestro’s dance partner for more than four decades and his seniormost disciple, says she struggled with finding a balance between recounting her own memories of the guru and writing about his life and achievements as a biographer. The book offers rare glimpses of the master’s experiments with Kathak in the bylanes of Varanasi and on the streets of London, UK, and New York, US. Sen recalls a teenage Birju Maharaj’s early experiments with inventing a new grammar for the dance form: “Kathak was largely practised solo as a court dance and experiments in thematic compositions and group choreography started only around the 1960s. The popular notion of Kathak was as a dance of chakkars (spins) and tatkar (footwork),” Sen says. The maestro liberated the dance form. “He composed music, he wrote lyrics for ballet compositions. Almost every day, he woke up with new ideas on how to make students enjoy the dance. When explaining a gesture, he used similes from nature and everyday situations and transferred to the audience the joy of playing with numbers and transcribing them into imaginative body language,” Sen recalls.
One great example of Birju Maharaj’s visual dictionary for Kathak is his interpretation of the Malkauns raga. The maestro told an enraptured audience once what they should imagine when the raga played—a freshly bathed body, lightly clad with bare, strong shoulders, approaching elegantly with a slow gait and regal smile. “He decorated ragas with rich clothes, jewellery, headgear, beautiful drapes, and perfumes,” says Sen.
The artiste in Birju Maharaj is self-effacing. Once, while performing in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Birju Maharaj was inspired by the beauty of the Bolshoi dancers. “Maharaj-ji had developed a paunch and was quite embarrassed by it. After seeing the Bolshoi dancers, he realized how much a fit body could add to the beauty of the dance form. Kathak dancers in those days focused on rhythmic interplay, speed and beauty of movements but the body was given very little importance,” recalls Sen.
“Good Kathak training is to make students understand divinity in the dance form, discover a thirst for it. We dancers have very little needs and are happy in our world. Why can’t we teach this to today’s generation? When will the divinity that we can see be seen by them too?’’ she says.