Even at 77, he’s dancing away and mentoring dancers. India’s famed Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj says he does not understand the government policy of retirement at 60, as he feels he has worked even more since he retired as head of the state-run Kathak Kendra classical dance school. And he is happy that more and more foreigners are appreciating and learning India’s classical dance forms and ‘want to learn our Indian culture”.
Birju Maharaj retired in 1998. But his craft and skills have been passed on to dance enthusiasts for years even via his own Kalashram dance school.
“When gurus get enough experience, the government says we have retired… But in fact, since then (my retirement), I have worked even more. I don’t understand this policy. While we are well and functioning, why should retirement come in?
“Until I faced retirement, I had not realised that the school wasn’t really mine,” Birju Maharaj, who started teaching dance at another institute when he was all of 13, said.
Birju Maharaj has the legacy of seven generations of Kathak dancers in a small village near Varanasi which produced stalwarts like Thakur Prasad, Durga Prasad, Bhairon Prasad, Maharaj Bindadin, Achchan Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj.
With his uncle Shambhu Maharaj, he taught at Bharatiya Kala Kendra, later known as Kathak Kendra.
He says that in the past few years, classical Indian dance had taken a backseat with a sudden boom of western dance styles gushing into India’s film industry. The result was the emergence of a barrage of schools teaching contemporary, jazz, hip-hop and more forms of western dances.
The love for Indian classical dance is however making a comeback. And that too, globally.
“What makes one happy is that people in foreign countries are now getting tired of their dance styles… more and more people are enrolling for classical Indian dances. Be it Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak… the respect for our dance styles is coming back,” he said, adding: “It makes one feel very happy that people want to learn our Indian culture.”
Despite believing strongly in the one-to-one guru-shishya tradition, Birju Maharaj has been open to the idea of evolution, especially with online training in dance. In fact, he even collaborated with Bollywood’s dancing diva Madhuri Dixit – a trained Kathak dancer herself – for her online dance school in 2013.
He feels that the online medium is good for someone to learn the basics of classical dance.
“The people who want to learn can very easily learn from there… and whenever you feel you want to learn more nuances, you can join the live classes. There are dance schools across the globe,” said the Padma Vibhushan awardee, whose talent and expertise have also been lauded with honours like Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Kalidas Samman, and honorary doctorate degrees from the Banaras Hindu University.
Sitting with the grace that his dance form commands, Birju Maharaj explained how in a live dance class, the sound of the guru is “crucial”.
“A guru correcting you, teaching you, refining you and your mudras (hand gestures)…it is very important. You cannot compare the two (online and live classes). Online is good for an idea of the dance, but to learn it actually, a classroom and your guru are important,” he said.
Having performed innumerable times on various stages across the world, the National Award winning Birju Maharaj has also lent his skill to choreographing for films like Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj ke Khilari”, Madhuri Dixit-starrer “Dedh Ishqiya” and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas”.
Birju Maharaj’s latest work in Bollywood was for “Mohe rang do laal” from “Bajirao Mastani”, for which he taught nuances of Kathak to actress Deepika Padukone.