A glimpse of a nine-generation lineage in Kathak at Saptak

Pandit Birju Maharaj
Pandit Birju Maharaj at Saptak (file photo)

Charisma is not definable. It drips and gets felt. Among performing artists, Pt Birju Maharaj has it. That had the audience that chilly night wait right till midnight, as it does every year at Saptak, for him to appear on stage to a warm round of spontaneous applause. And during around 90 minutes the stage was his, two very interesting dimensions emerged. Preceding his performance, awaited with expectancy, his grandchildren Tribhuvan Maharaj, Ragini Maharaj and Shinjini Kulkarni performed. And finally when he himself did, it was a sitting performance, which seemed to have disappointed a negligible few but gradually turned absorbing.

Viewers had a rare glimpse of an illustrious nine-generation lineage in the Kathak tradition. The seventh generation exponent of our captivating classical dance tradition, the inimitable octogenarian legendary Birju Maharaj presented a few of the bandishes composed by Bindadin Maharaj, who with his brother Kalka Prasad, created the celebrated Lucknow Gharana way back in the nineteenth century. The lineage has continued till now with legendary practitioners of it enriching it with exemplary dedication and passion and in the process lending it dignity and style. When the indigenous culture of the country is at crossroads, three representatives of the ninth generation in the unbroken dance tradition performed with their grandfather sitting with the musicians lending voice and beats and uttering words of encouragement.

The young trio appearing together on stage offered solo performances one after another and did one in a group. They chose to ebulliently demonstrate their admirable technical virtuosity in the nritta aspect of the dance form in varying patterns and in perfect harmony with the musicians – Akram Khan on the Tabla, Ikram Khan on the Sarangi, Somnath Mishra on the Haromonium with vocal support and Mehmood Khan on the Sitar. With the rare privilege of the ambience they have grown up in and the training received, they emerged excellently skilled.

Not that they have not demonstrated abhinaya at other venues. The choice looked a gesture of appreciation of the level of collective sensibility of the viewers at Saptak, among whom there were accomplished Kathak dancers nationally and internationally known. Modesty was a trait with the growing dancers, characteristic of the tradition being carried forward in the family. Each of them invariably said, ‘Whatever good you notice in the performance is given to me by my grandfather and guru. If there are blemishes, they are mine.’ This is an exemplary attitude of one who pursues an art form.

The segment cherished, unanimously judging by the audience’s involvement even as mercury dropped further, was when ‘Chahaji’ opened his precious treasure. Spectators listened to him wide-eyed as he referred to some 5,000 compositions created by the legend among legends Bindadin Maharaj. The extant around 300 of them have been culled out from pages of worn-out books and ‘amma’s’ fading memory. Interestingly, he traces the tradition of ‘a sitting performance’ to the days of raja-maharajas. He begins with Bhajo re man … dripping bhakti from the singer’s visage and rendition.

Thumris and Dadras give him greater scope for playful expression. In jaane do maika with lines like chhodo chhodo chhodo kar mohe in light treetaal he turns delectable with his characteristic ease in expressing love, sulking, impatience, mock anger, pranks and the like. The jhoolat Radhe Navalakishorbandish with lightning and a gentle breeze blowing is as exciting. Baalam to se haari ushered in the last prahar of the memorable night.

Saswati Sen prompted, where necessary, lines to the Guru from time to time from a source. Prahar Vora would certainly cherish the time being by his side gently rendering a bandish or two and getting his appreciation.

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