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India’s Kathak Maestro bids adieu – A look at Pandit Birju Maharaj’s legacy & contribution in performing arts

Today, India is mourning the passing away of a legend of performing arts; the Kathak maestro and a recipient of the country’s second-highest civilian award, Padma Vibhushan, Pandit Birju Maharaj took the heavenly abode in the early hours of Monday, i.e 17th January 2022 at the age of 83. He would have been 84 next month.

About the legend who took traditional Indian dance to the world:

The world-renowned Kathak exponent and the torchbearer of the dance form, Birju Maharaj took the traditional Indian dance form to the world with his unique style. His performing arts was an institution and an inspiration across the globe.

Popularly known as Maharaj-Ji or Pandit-Ji by his disciples and legions of followers, he was a descendant of the Maharaj family of Kathak dancers. Born into the house of renowned Kathak proponent Jagannath Maharaj of Lucknow Gharana, he got the training from his father and uncles Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj. Pertinent to mention that Pandit-Ji gave his first performance at the age of seven and he went on to master the nuances of arguably one of the most difficult classical dances of India. Known for his facial expressions and nimble feet movements, Pandit Birju Maharaj is considered the epitome of Kathak by many.

A familiar face of Indian Kathak dance all over the world, Pandit-Ji had performed in several countries and also associated with singing, having a grip over, Thumri, Dadra, Bhajan and Ghazals.

A celebrated teacher: Looking at his Life as a Teacher:

It must come across as a surprise to many that Pandit Birju Maharaj started his career as a teacher when he was just 13 years old. After a successful stint at Sangeet Bharati, where he began his career, he went on to teach at the famous Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Soon, he was presented with the opportunity to head a team of teachers at the Kathak Kendra, a unit of Sangeet Natak Akademi. After serving as the Head of Faculty at the Kathak Kendra for many years, he retired in 1998 at the age of 60.

To get more glimpses of Pandit-Ji’s life, his childhood and how he aced the world of performing arts, watch this interview from Doordarshan Archives.

Time Capsule: A Look at the Film career:

Pandit Birju Maharaj was not only a world-renowned dancer but was also a noted film personality. In the movie ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ a film by ace director Satyajit Ray, Birju Maharaj had composed two dance sequences for which he had lent his voice as well. In the 2002 film ‘Devdas’, Maharaj-Ji led the choreography of the song ‘Kaahe Ched Mohe.’ His work as a choreographer can be reflected in well-known movies like ‘Dedh Ishqiya’, ‘Umrao Jaan’, and ‘Bajirao Mastani.’ In 2013, he went on to make his South Indian movie debut when he choreographed the song ‘Unnai Kaanatha Naan’ for the Kamal Haasan starrer ‘Vishwaroopam.’

The Legend: A look at his accolades:

His passion for the performing arts led him to be the recipient of several honours and accolades. Pandit Birju Maharaj has received the coveted Padma Vibhushan in the year 1986. He has been awarded the Kalidas Samman by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. He has also been honoured with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Soviet Land Nehru Award and Sangam Kala Award among other awards. In 2002, he was honoured with the Lata Mangeshkar Puraskaar. Pandit Birju Maharaj has also been conferred with honorary Doctorate degrees from Khairagarh University and Banaras Hindu University.

In 2012, he bagged the National Film Award for Best Choreography for the movie ‘Vishwaroopam.’ He also went on to win Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Choreographer for the same movie. In 2016, he bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Choreography for the film ‘Bajirao Mastani’.

Tributes pour in for Kathak Maestro:

As soon as the news broke out of his demise, people took to social media to express their condolences. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote that the maestro’s passing away is a huge loss to the entire art world.

Finance Minister also took to social media to express her condolences.

“Pandit Birju Ji Maharaj was a doyen of India’s art and culture. He popularised the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak dance form around the world. Deeply pained by his demise. His passing away is a monumental loss to the world of performing arts. Condolences to his family and admirers” wrote Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

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