I miss the golden days of Hindi cinema: Pandit Birju Maharaj
The Kathak maestro gave a masterclass in Dubai where young kids began their incredible journey into the world of classical arts
Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj, who is known as the greatest exponent of Kathak was in Dubai today to conduct a masterclass for the students of GEMS Modern Academy. City Times met him while he launched Malhaar's flagship integrated Indian Performing Arts Programme in the school called 'Listen, Learn and Perform' model for primary school students.
"I am just back from America. I was there for around 22 days teaching Kathak. I love being in Dubai, and we have prepared something special for the Dubai team," said Pandit Birju while addressing the auditorium full of young kids and their parents. This is an attempt from the school to bring the soulful world of Indian classical music and dance to their students. The kids treated him like a rockstar throughout his time in the school. Pandit Maharaj focused on the importance of the appreciation of Indian classical music and dance at the event.
Originally, Kathak was part of a storytelling tradition from ancient times. Katha means story and Kathak dancers were storytellers, and that is how the name was derived from the word Katha. The 81-year-old spoke passionately about the journey of Kathak which travelled from temples to social gatherings and mansions of the royals and on to the main stage in today's time as dance concerts. Pandit who was born to a family of Kathak devotees and performers had witnessed and been part of this tradition since performing in temples with elders when he was a toddler. He reminisced about the earlier days when makeup was not the main focus of this dance form. "I come from a simpler time when we would apply sandalwood paste on our face as makeup and would chew betel leaf, so it gave us a red stain on our lips. And of course, a little bit of Kohl for the eyes. I see everyone doing lots of makeup these days and it is beyond my understanding."
He also spoke about the importance of rhythm in everyday life and how heartbeat is the first rhythm of life. His grandfather, Bindadin Maharaj had written and composed around 5000 thumris and bhajans. "I think music freshens you just like how taking a bath in river Ganga energises you. When you join forces with music, then you feel relaxed. I have been part of music and dance since I was a toddler."
He seemed extremely enthusiastic to be around young kids from the school who performed for him and were also curiously listening to every word that came out of his mouth. "I feel thrilled to see kids. It brightens my day to hear their voices and to see them dance."
Talking about his inspirations, he said, "We learn from every situation, be it good times or bad times. Hence we consider every person as our teacher. Nature also teaches us, we also learn from birds and the way they feed their babies."
A lot of childhood stories of Lord Krishna is incorporated in Kathak and Pandit said that he learns the mannerisms of Krishna by observing little kids. "It is only through kids that we learn how Lord Krishna must have behaved in his childhood. We see Krishna in every kid and learn from them. I become delighted when I see kids. I love the innocence in their eyes. I am here for a workshop, and I want to give them as much time as I can. I am thrilled to be around kids. Kids are the lights of the future. They will make their school proud."
He also revealed how his name was inspired by Krishna. "When I was born, I was the only boy in the delivery room, and the rest were all girls. Hence they named me Birj Mohan as a tribute to Lord Krishna."
Pandit Birju is very particular about the work that he does in movies. Alia Bhatt recently trained under him for a few days for Ghar More Pardesiya from her latest release Kalank. He has also trained Madhuri Dixit Nene for Kaahe Chede for Devdas and Jagaave Saari Raina from Dedh Ishqiya. He also composed the music, and sang, for two dance sequences in Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari. Kamal Haasan also learned Kathak from Birju Maharaj for an essential portion in the film Vishwaroopam. He recently got the Filmfare Award for best choreography for the song Mohe Rang Do Laal from Bajirao Mastani.
When asked about his criteria to work in Bollywood films, he said, "I miss the golden days of Hindi cinema when you had eternally graceful actresses like Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman, etc. I am very selective about the films that I do. I want to know the lyrics of the songs as I want to make sure that they are clean. I am very comfortable working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He understands and respects my idea of creation, art, and dance. It is extremely important for me that the actress I choreograph is dressed in a respectable outfit."