Rhythm Divine: Pandit Birju Maharaj

Acting it all out

He’s a small man, Pandit Birju Maharaj. If you’ve never met him face to face, that is one of the first things you are likely to notice about him. And yet, when he is dancing on stage, he seems to cast a shadow over it, so larger than life is his personality.

As we enter the modest room where the interview is to take place, India’s foremost Kathak legend is sitting cross-legged on the bed, in a simple blue kurta, and humming the Lata Mangeshkar classic, Rasik Balma. Once again, those who don’t know enough about the dance maestro will be taken by surprise at how well he sings.

And just in case you thought that was it, during the course of our conversation, the 72-year-old fishes out a notebook and, with childlike glee, shows us his pencil sketches of a jhalmuri wala, and a group of dancing children, made on the train to Kolkata. Oh, and he also writes poetry and composes music.

However, all of this, he insists, is secondary to the joy of teaching, something he has been doing since he was 13, trained by his father and guru, Achhan Maharaj. Also part of his lineage are his legendary uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj. “The way I see it, my values and skills should reflect in each and every one of my students,” he says, as his American ‘shagirda’ (disciple) Natalia, who sits in on the interview, nods vigorously.

There is a joy in watching Panditji speak, because the impeccable abhinaya (dramatisation) that he brings to each of his performances permeates his conversation as well. His eyes, his hands, his entire face and body, sketch graceful, intricate movements as he describes the joy that Radha and her sakhis feel when Krishna teases them, but the show of mock anger that they put on.

In between, the conversation takes in his students in countries as far apart as China and the USA, who have been propagating his uniquely contemporary version of Kathak, which remains true to tradition in many ways, and yet incorporates such ‘untraditional’ forms as satire, humour, and social commentary, emerging from the stereotyped Radha-Krishna ‘leela’.

Sadly, though not uniquely, his efforts to set up an academy have been in vain. Kalashram, his dance school in Delhi, is a two-room affair courtesy the municipality, where 250-odd students train. “This is not a degree diploma waali taalim, yeh anand waali taalim hai (they don’t train for a degree or diploma, they train for pleasure),” he smiles. “But I wish I had some help from somewhere. When I see the government rewarding sports stars, I sometimes feel, what of artistes? Not that I have anything against sports stars…”

On his return to Delhi, the maestro, who was in Kolkata to record for a private album, will begin rehearsing with his troupe of 400-odd dancers for the Commonwealth Games opening, assisted by son Deepak and daughter Mamta.

What of filmdom, and his compelling work in such films as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi or Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas? “Haven’t received worthwhile offers, really,” he says, with a straight face. “Today, dancing in films is confined to the hips.”

So he will continue to travel the world, disseminating the “laya (rhythm) that God created”, teaching his students that each of us is born with rhythm. “There’s rhythm even in the way we breathe,” he beams.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

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Dance Like Me

A performance by Kolkata Sanved members

Sitting in the sparse, nondescript Kolkata Sanved office deep inside Jodhpur Park, the slim, soft-spoken Sohini Chakraborty hardly seems the kind of woman who, with her Sanved team, is driving a relatively unique concept – dance movement therapy (DMT) – that appears to have the potential to actually heal broken minds.

A student of Sociology, who took a special paper on criminology, Sohini is also a trained dancer who was with Manjushree Chaki Sircar’s Dancers’ Guild. “But I always knew I wanted to do more with dance than just perform or teach,” she explains. And the idea took firmer root as Sohini began studying such issues as women’s trafficking and violence against women. “There is a tendency to view dance as either entertainment or, if it’s a classical dance form, as elitist,” says Sohini. “But dance is much, much more. In its purest form, dance is total catharsis.”

The dancer-cum-social activist realised she could attain her goal when she came across a poster for the NGO Sanlaap at the Kolkata Book Fair, and took the first step towards a life-long dream of working with survivors of trafficking and violence. And yet, when she first began teaching the women how to dance, she realised she was not connecting with them. “I was using stereotyped, traditional dance moves, and I realised I would have to devise something new,” she says.

One thing led to another, and Sohini finally set up her own NGO, Kolkata Sanved, in 2004. Today, she can proudly say that many of the girls whom she worked with during those early days are now dance therapists themselves. “We sort of discovered dance therapy without realising it was already a valid therapy tool in the West,” she laughs, describing the time in 2000 when she helped organise Rangeen Sapne, a physical theatre performance comprising dance and mime, with 120 children.

Once they did realise it, however, there was no looking back. From training 10 dancers initially to propagate what Sanved calls ‘saving lives through dance’, Sohini and her team have now devised a whole DMT curriculum that focuses on ‘body awareness’ and ‘integration’.

“Being a trained dancer helped me, but if you look at it another way, dance is in all of us. We can’t survive without movement, and dance is nothing but a series of coordinated movements,” Sohini says. “And movement is in itself a liberation.”

Based on that principle, Sanved has been working with inmates of the city’s Lumbini and Pavlov mental health centres and has commissioned a study on the effects of DMT on mentally challenged individuals. “In terms of rediscovering the body, discussions reveal dance brought in an element of magic and fantasy that energized and inspired the participants,” says an extract from the abstract of the study.

“We like to think we have broken the elitist approach to dance,” smiles Sohini. “Of course, Sanved is not a miracle worker, but we do recognise that DMT has had an impact on people living with mental illness, as well as helped numerous women live purposeful, dignified lives.”

On March 27, Sanved launched the Kolkata Sanved Curriculum – Dance Movement Therapy for Mental Health & Recovery. For details, call +91 33 24174093 or write to sanved_india@rediffmail.com

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