A tribute to Birju Maharaj

Dastan-e-Kathak: The Story of a Storyteller was an event conceptualized and created by Shivani Varma to celebrate the birth anniversary of dance legend Pt Birju Maharaj and to commemorate his birthdate as World Kathak Day. Shivani is a Kathak dancer who has trained under Maharaj ji and Guru Shovana Narayan, and has been mentored by danseuse Sharmistha Mukherjee. Her early training was with Guru Manish Gangani and Guru Tirath Ajmani.

Shubhi Johari with Maharaj ji's image in the backdrop

With legends of Maharaj ji’s stature, with a lifetime of work behind them, the disappearance of their physical form does not dent their presence in minds and hearts. At this event it was literally so, with life-size pictures of Maharaj ji lining the path to the amphitheatre and a video by Innee Singh playing on a huge screen. As you walked towards the amphitheatre, you were drenched in awe as you watched life-size photographs of Maharaj jii in various moods of dance on both sides. The short movie presented images from Maharaj ji’s life very realistically and it was only while Innee was watching Maharaj ji dance that he coined the hashtag #whenyoudanceidancewithyou.

Swaransh Mishra and Pt. Sajan Mishra

The title itself had an attraction to it. It was held at the Sunder Nursery heritage monument amphitheatre in Delhi on 3 and 4 February 2023. Even the chilly winter evenings of February could not stop the audience from flocking to this very aesthetically designed venue. The entire stage had colourful flowers everywhere and lit candles all around. The lighting was the high point of the event. The performance was memorable for many reasons and one of them was the whirring drones overhead that were used for videography and photography. You knew that technology has arrived for the classical arts too!

Shivani Varma

On day 1, the opening piece was called ‘Tat Twam Asi’, ‘you are that’. The poetry for this piece was by Swaransh Mishra and concept and direction was by Shivani Varma. The section began with poetry recitation by Swaransh in eight beats about Lord Krishna as the child who was caught stealing butter and the one who played the flute which mesmerized everyone. In the second section, the poetry was in seven beats, and it was about the prowess of Maharaj ji in the technique of Kathak. Young school-going dancers in white Kathak costumes moved in formation, clapping their hands in a sequence which had also been taught to the audience, so that they could join in. Dancers and musicians from five different traditional Indian dance forms performed with five percussionists to show how we are all based on a common point of origin of laya, taal and raag and yet, we are all different in essence.

Shubhi Johari, Madhur Gupta, Himanshu Shrivastava and Yamini Reddy

Shubhi Johri performed Kathak with Yogesh Gangani on the tabla, Yamini Reddy performed Kuchipudi with Manohar Balatchandirane on the mridangam, Anwesa Mahanta performed Sattriya with Hari Prasad Saikia Barbayan on the khol, Madhur Gupta performed Odissi with Namrata Dave on the mardala and Himanshu Shrivastava performed Bharatanatyam with Sannidhi Vaidyanathan on the mridangam.

Yamini Reddy

It was a pure nritta presentation where each dancer presented the rhythmic pieces of their form and then stood in sam. However, they performed it to the bols of Maharaj ji’s compositions. For example, Shubhi did a tukda, Anwesa did a bandish, Madhur did a tihai and Himanshu a parmelu. Finally, they took postures – Shubhi as the peacock, showing the gait of a peacock and then standing in position with a back leg lift. Himanshu as the bagh or lion, moving his shoulders and flexing his arms like a lion, Yamini as the chidiya or bird, moving softly with the jatis, flying tenderly with a back leg lift. Anwesa moved with agility as the gau or the calf. Madhur moved his hands to depict the movement of the trunk of an elephant. Shubhi moved again, fluttering her feathers and spreading them out. The rest of the dancers came forth as the animals they were dancing as.

Anwesa Mahanta

Maharaj ji’s interest and prowess in various percussion instruments and rhythms was taken as the theme for the next section. After the rhythmic clapping, all the five percussionists played their instruments, first separately and then together. Each one of them is a seasoned artist and Sannidhi is emerging  as an excellent mridangist. It was like a taal kutcheri.

Himanshu Shrivastava

The third composition was in six beats. It was about the influence and teachings of Maharaj ji’s predecessors in the family tree. Shubhi showed the attributes from Lacchu Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj, Acchan Maharaj, Bindadin ji and Kalka ji that had been lent to Birju Maharaj ji during his training under them. His footwork and tatkar were like the pitter-patter of raindrops. He had mastery over all three forms — nritya, gayan and vadan. Shubhi danced the peacock like him. Anybody who has seen Maharaj ji dancing in his heyday knows how beautifully he danced the peacock, looking at the clouds and dancing with feathers spread out. Madhur depicted the attributes of Shyamsundar, Shri Radha and Meera in graceful nritta. 

Madhur Gupta

Himanshu showed the love and affection that Maharaj ji spread, and then depicted him dancing into his final journey to the Vaikunthlok. Anwesa enacted the respect that he earned and people bowing to him. Yamini portrayed the Shiva in him and the Braj Shyam in him. Finally, the dancers came forward together in footwork amid clapping by the young dancers in the same pattern, and the audience joined as a crescendo to the performance.

Hari Prasad Saikia Barbayan

Sannidhi Vaidyanathan

Namrata Dave

The entire piece was memorable for its poetry, but sometimes the vocals were drowned out in the open space. The lighting created scenic effects. The choreography by the dancers was very catchy, the rhythm and the percussion were thumping and the entire production was a spectacle, a befitting tribute, with drone cameras whirring around overhead.

Yogesh Gangani

Taking it forward was the very dapper Muzaffar Ali, who came on stage with his spectacles on his head in his trademark style and a notebook in his hand. He recited the poetry of Wajid Ali Shah about his love of Lucknow. Wajid Ali Shah wanted to come back to Lucknow, Maharaj ji wanted to return to the land of his forefathers, and that love is shared by Muzaffar Ali. Shivani came dressed in a red lower and a red dupatta and enacted the piece. The recitations by Muzaffar Ali were somewhat lost in the acoustics of the open space, again, but the ghazal was very slow and melodious, reflecting the pain of being away from one’s roots.

Manohar Balatchandirane

The poet wants to see Lucknow in every soul, whether awake or asleep. Shivani, seated with her costume spread out around her, moved in a circle, and it was very graceful with her skirt spread out around her. The sarangi added to the melancholy piece. The lyrics and portrayal showed that if Lucknow hasn’t come to her, then by god’s grace, she should move towards it. Shivani performed a gat and then a sudden tug towards her destination. Even in death, the jannat is Lucknow. The poet wants to be married to Lucknow, putting its raj or dust on her head, and be embraced by it. The memories of Lucknow are unforgettable. Shivani presented a few tukde, aamad, gat and chakkars in the end. It was a piece that took you to the lanes of Lucknow where such music flowed in the times of the nawabs. An amazing thing was that despite the cold and the wind, the candles kept burning throughout. Again, it was quite the spectacle, with the majestic Muzaffar Ali walking around and the very graceful Shivani dancing.

Muzaffar Ali

The magic of live vocals is unmatched. The legendary Pt. Sajan Mishra, Maharaj ji’s brother-in-law, and Swaransh Mishra presented vocals for the end of the evening in khayal gayaki.

Pics: Anoop Arora