At a 2019 lecture-demonstration as part of the Manodharma Festival in the capital hosted by Delhi-based Odissi representative Sharon Lowen, Pandit Birju Maharaj presented a thumri in raag From. It is a composition of his grandfather Kalka Maharaj, who together with his brother Bindadin Maharaj is known to be the architect of the current form of Kathak in the Lucknow gharana. Point Birju (born Brijmohan Mishra) sitting cross-legged and improvising in rhythm on poetry – Jaane from maika or sajanwa (Let me go, oh beloved). And in that one sentence, he encompassed many expressions, assuming male and female roles with indistinguishable ease. While her sultry Radha pouted and appealed, even grew angry, her Krishna was implacable and mischievous. Under the subtext of venerealism and adoration, and while emphasizing the delicacy of expression, it effortlessly blurred gender lines.
“Maharaj ji could play a woman better than a woman, without being effeminate. As Krishna, he was delicate yet manly,” says Shovana Narayan, Kathak exponent and Birju student, of his exceptional ability to present sringar ras (representation of romanticism and eroticism in the arts). It was not only a legacy of tradition and lineage, but also a work of his formidable mind that tapped into tradition and transformed it.
Death of Pt Birju at 83 last week was a reminder of what pushing the boundaries of the art form can sometimes offer, making us realize that gender roles aren’t rigid.
Kathak was born out of the idea of telling stories. In the villages, when there were no schools, kathakars used to tell mythological stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata to educate the public. These itinerant musicians were also present in temples and important during the Bhakti movement in the 15and century. The kathak had flourished when it entered the Mughal courts and found patronage.
As for sringar ras, he was one of the pillars of the Lucknow gharana. And the story was often from the woman’s point of view. According to Puru Dadheech, 82, an Indore-based senior kathak dancer and contemporary of Pt Birju, “Nayika Pradhan Coins (focused on women) have always been important in the Lucknow gharana as they were preferred in the courts of Awadh. the nazakat (balance) and Nafasat (the finesse) in Kathak comes from there”.
It has been well documented in Ma’danul Moosiqui (“The Mine of Music”), a compilation by Hakim Mohammed Karam Imam, courtier of the last nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, according to which the nawab was a major patron of the arts and was himself a poet. He also preferred sringar ras more than any other. He even considered himself Krishna and danced with his wives, asking them to be gopis for the evening. He wrote and composed several thumris – including an, Babul mora, naihar chhooto hi jaaye (O father.. my house escapes me), which he wrote in exile, is still sung at concerts.
Not just Pt Birju, but many senior dancers such as Maestro Odissi Pt Kelucharan Mohapatra and Kathak Guru Pt Lachhu Maharaj have immersed themselves in shringar, lasya (soft movement) and bhav (expression) for decades. But for many male Kathak dancers today, the dominant themes come from the world of taandav, representing masculine energy. The concern of turns flush (heroic) and radra ras (anger) is more because it is more acceptable to the masses. The focus is on the footwork – how fast, innovative and technically sound it can be. “But where is the facial expression, one of the pillars of dance? These people are bright and talented, but the focus is on virtuosity,” says Delhi-based Narayan, 71.
Dadheech says hardly any thumris were written from the point of view of men. “But that doesn’t mean that men will now be monkeys on stage, going from place to place on the stage, with no sense of chaindaari (calm),” he says.
Narayan says the reason for this is the need for instant gratification and the lack of a meditative approach to dance. “The pace quickened and the grace and thehraav (stability) is gone. It’s because people are looking for instant applause,” says Narayan. And the assumption is that instant applause is what you get with technical virtuosity. “Abhinaya (playing) has to come from your heart. It’s something you have to feel and I think now they don’t feel it as much. They just want to throw their hands and feet. Do they read literature? Very little,” she says.
Kolkata-based kathak dancer Sourav Roy says the problem is also related to the audience’s attention span. “If there’s nothing catchy at the start, the audience gets bored. During the pandemic, with so many online concerts, how many dancers had bhav? If they did, people would just parade. If they didn’t pirouette or tihaais or not showing virtuosity through the footwork, there wouldn’t be many views,” says Roy, 37. He reveals that the danger of being seen as effeminate or being socially teased also causes young dancers to avoid sringar ras.
The technical genius of Pt Birju in terms of his footwork is celebrated. At the same time, his abhinaya resonated with immense energy and nuance. “It was never on top of each other,” Narayan says. Pt Birju has also never done many laps in his own performances. “When I was a student, he made me do 27 pirouettes and 33 pirouettes (they are related to the time cycle), but he said to do it once and that’s it. To focus on bhavNarayan explains.
When Roy was learning dance in Kolkata, his guru Malabika Mitra, who learned under Lucknow and Jaipur gharana, asked him to attend a workshop led by Rajendra Gangani, a guru from Jaipur gharana. the gharana is known for his superb footwork, quick movements and virtuosity. “I was asked to see how a man dances with strong postures and bold movements,” Roy explains, “Jaipur had warriors and the courts preferred virtuosity, that’s what you see in the work of this gharana. For the nazakat, they preferred to watch the courtesans and not the men present bhav“says Dadheech. But unlike the Mughals, they frowned on the idea of women dancing in court until it actually happened. For a long time, only men practiced Kathak in this gharana.
But what many don’t understand is that sringar ras is not only about Krishna-Radha, or lovers yearning for each other. It’s deeper than that. Pt Shambhu Maharaj, Pt Birju’s uncle and another colossal name from Lucknow gharana was known to present a sringar ras style that transcended the physical, in addition to a more arduous form of the repertoire. Then there is the dancer’s own interpretation. “It’s Krishna and Radha but you also take them as symbols of atma and schedule. The desire is shringarik (romantic). But it must be understood that the concept of thumri is not at a trivial level. Through Geet Govind of Jaidev, we are not portraying him on a trivial level, but you are in dialogue with this lord,” Narayan explains.
After the death of his father, Achhan Maharaj, a young Pt Birju was taken under the wing of his uncle Shambhu and taught him vigorous movements and pieces. He then briefly left for Mumbai, where he trained under his other uncle Pt Lachhu Maharaj, who choreographed some of the most elegant choreography in Hindi cinema, including the iconic pieces of Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972). Lachhu asked his nephew: “Kya sikhaya chhote ne(what did my little brother teach you)? He was appalled when he saw elements of taandav. He asked her where is the abhinaya, and delicately taught him the same piece. When Pt Birju returned to Lucknow, Shambhu was unhappy with this “girly dance”. Pt Birju was so confused that he decided to take the best of both worlds.
But the lack of bhav in today’s generation has led to a change in the way the dance form currently exists. Roy doesn’t think so. “These are also technologically sound times. Many like Birju Maharaj have left us with many performances and interviews explaining ringar for us, and for the younger generation to observe. They also passed on their art to many students who will teach the form further,” says Roy. Narayan says there are problems, yes, “but the younger generation is talented, they just need a nudge in the right direction.” Dadheech wants mutual respect which will lead to better understanding. “Why is there still so much rivalry between Lucknow and Jaipur. Students don’t even extend pranaams to the gurus from opposite sides. Once we get into the fundamentals, teach values in addition to art, the dance form will be fine,” he says.
Narayan remembers Pt Birju saying that stage lights were just external things to create atmosphere. “If I was playing in the winter and the play took place in the summer, the audience must have felt the hot, dry summer winds,” he said. Such must be the power of expression,” says Narayan.