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Pandit Birju Maharaj, Kathak Maestro, Passes Away At Age 83

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Back in 2010, at a concert in Delhi’s Kamani auditorium, Girija Devi sang the lilting Hori – Rang daarungi nand ke laalan pe, rang daarungi – a Braj bhaasha piece about Radha’s explicit desire to colour Krishna. Next to her sat Pt Birju Maharaj, who embodied Radha in the moment – the adakaari in place, the heart in tow. As he interpreted this one line in numerous ways, he articulated the desire of a woman, with all its sensuality in place. Girija Devi smiled, ear to ear, and put her shawl on Maharaj’s head, indicating his brilliance at being Radha. Maharaj acknowledged, turning it into his veil. Tumultuous applause followed. “I don’t know a single woman dancer who can be a better Radha,” Devi would say often.

A rare combination of virtuosity and expression, grace and control, Pt Birju Maharaj’s oeuvre was not just about dazzling performances, choreographies, and that delicate glance of the eye. It was also about his intrepid belief that dances could convey just about everything; and gender in all of this never mattered. Maharaj, who sought to move beyond any constraints that his artform could offer and became synonymous with Kathak, passed away at the age of 83 in Delhi. He suffered from kidney ailments and had been on dialysis for some months. He contracted Covid a few days ago and had a heart attack on Monday morning.

Born Brij Mohan Nath Mishra, Maharaj began dancing when he was four. Kathak was in the family. His father, Achhan Maharaj was from the prestigious Kalka Bindadin family of Lucknow and Maharaj took his legacy forward. A small house in a narrow Lucknow lane would reverberate with the tinkle of ghungroos. “My father used to be happy and would tell my amma ‘Ladka bohot leyadaar hai. (The boy is extremely rhythmic.),” he had said in an interview to this reporter in 2013. He began performing at concerts with his father before his first major solo in West Bengal. While still in school, Maharaj would write the bols of Kathak in his notebooks, instead of class notes.

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