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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Unsung Genius: Pandit Nikhil Banerjee

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, 1931-1986

In 1986, sitar maestro Pandit Nikhil Banerjee cut short a late-night performance at the Dover Lane Music Conference and apologised to his audience. Two days later, at age 54, he was dead of a cardiac arrest.

Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, who accompanied Banerjee on the tabla for that concert, recalls how worried he was about the maestro’s evident unease as he took the stage, and how he stopped playing the tabla in order to force Banerjee to stop playing, too.

Steven Baigel

Chaudhuri’s reminiscence is one of several poignant moments that Steven Baigel captures in That Which Colours The Mind, an 80-minute documentary on Banerjee, which is likely to become one of the very few pieces of research conducted on the life and music of the reticent sitarist.

For Baigel, it is clearly a labour of love. He describes the documentary as “work in progress”, because some amount of fine tuning, such as colour correction and audio mixing, remains to be done. However, he is in town to screen the film, looking for financial support as he seeks to transfer the film to a DVD, with help from sur sringar exponent Anindya Banerjee, who was closely associated with Banerjee and his family.

Having begun work on the documentary over a decade ago, Baigel, who himself never met Banerjee, is conscious that had he been alive, he would never have agreed to be thus publicised. His own introduction to Banerjee’s music came through a friend in the US. “I had heard Ravi Shankar before that. But Nikhil Banerjee’s music changed my life, I had no idea music could be so spiritual. I just kept listening,” he says, his emotions evident.

Baigel has spent “thousands of dollars” on the project already, but the exorbitant cost of the footage featuring Banerjee’s performances in India and abroad, footage that he would like to include, will require massive investment, and he needs solid financial backing if his dream is to come true.

Also on his list of concerns is the fact that he has to strike a balance between Indian and Western audiences. “When Anindya saw the film, he asked, ‘Why have you only included afternoon ragas?’ No Westerner would ask me that, and the answer is that this is all I have,” Baigel explains.

The documentary editor and occasional documentary maker and producer is, however, determined that his viewership should be as wide as possible, clearly in the hope that their lives will change the way his has.

“Having spent a series of evenings at classical music concerts in Benaras in the 1990s, I bought myself a sitar and started learning. I love Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan… but Nikhil Banerjee’s music touched me so deep. I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.

Baigel has already met a few potential sources of support, though the outcome is not too hopeful. But, having come this far, he will not let his tribute to the forgotten genius fade into darkness.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times, Kolkata, on February 4, 2010

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