Follow us

Pt Birju Maharaj and family dazzle in Parampara: The Tradition
- Madhuja Mukhopadhyay

August 8, 2018

Courtesy: Katha Dance Theatre
It takes an enormous endeavor to bring Kathak maestro Pt Birju Maharaj accompanied by the torch bearers of his own family of enormously talented Kathak dancers and tabla maestro Utsad Zakir Hussain on the same stage. On June 10, 2018 Rita Mustaphi, the artistic director of Katha Dance Theatre, based at St Paul/Minneapolis, did just that when she hosted Parampara - The Tradition, a three hour long evening of Kathak. The program coincided with the 80th birthday of Pt Birju Maharaj.

The evening was split into two halves. While the first part focused on Guru Vandana by Rita Mustaphi and her students followed by solo dance performances of Saswati Sen (principal student of Maharaj) and the Kathak king respectively, the second half spun around the performances of  Maharaj and his progenies. Throughout the program Pt Birju Maharaj was accompanied on tabla by Ustad Zakir Hussain.

The evening started with lamp lighting ritual by Mustaphi performing an arati of Maharaj on stage which set the mood of Guru Shishya Parampara. He was felicitated by Katha Dance Theatre and Ustad Zakir Hussain marking the beginning of the ceremony. This was followed by Guru Charanan (a composition by Birju Maharaj), offering reverence to the Guru by Mustaphi and her students. The very first item of the evening from the house of Maharaj was Krishna Vilas, performed by Saswati Sen.

Then came the most awaited moment of the evening when Pt Birju Maharaj entered the stage and enthralled the audience with his nritta. This was not the first time I was watching the maestro or Zakir Hussain performing live in US but watching them together on the same stage was certainly a lifetime experience. The mystical chemistry that these great masters have while they travel together in their rhythm journey transports audiences to another world far away from mundane chores. The duality created by the king of Kathak and the doyen of tabla when they shared and challenged each other in crisscross rhythmic passages in the time cycles of 16 beats – Teental – led to an other worldly experience. Their masterpieces focused around Lord Krishna and his leela. I have heard tales of these two legends performing together even before I was born and how it used to catalyze adrenalin rush of the onlookers. The same happened that day and I could feel goosebumps as the masters performed. Vocal support to this part of the program was provided by Maharaj’s son Deepak Maharaj.

The second half of the program was a blissful showcase of Parampara Pravah which means the eternal flow of tradition. Pt Birju Maharaj’s family who accompanied him on his US tour included Deepak Maharaj (son), Mamta Maharaj (daughter), Shinjini Kulkarni and Ragini Maharaj (granddaughters), and Tribhuwan Maharaj (grandson). The entire family set the stage on fire with their spectacular footwork, breathtaking expressions and subtle abhinaya. Each of them represented an avatar of Pt Birju Maharaj thereby proving they are the true flag bearers of the Kathak king’s tradition by every possible means. Shinjini performed Jhaptal (rhythmic time cycle of 10 beats), Tribhuwan performed Ashtamangal (asymmetric pattern of an 11-beat cycle), Ragini performed Chautal (lyrical grace and rhythmic strength in 12-beat cycle). Three of them created beautiful patterns while taking their turns and interacting gracefully on stage through powerful eye and facial expressions.

Deepak Maharaj performed Layakari (rhythmic time cycle of 13 beats, Taal Jayat) which was followed by Saadra, an abhinaya depicting the war between Lord Rama and Ravana. Mamta Maharaj performed Dhrupad Ang interlaced in pattern of 14 beats, Taal Dhamar. Saswati Sen performed Pancham Sawari (rhythmic patterns woven in the complex 15 beats configuration) and concluded with her iconic chakkars covering the entire stage.

Before each presentation, each performer followed the maestro’s style of explaining the nuances of the rhythmic pattern by reciting the parhant which made their performances not only visually appealing but also easier to understand. They were accompanied by Anirban Bhattacharyya on vocal, Chandrachur Bhattacharjee on sitar and Utpal Ghoshal on tabla.The Paramapara Pravah continued with Pt Birju Maharaj performing Thumri and Gat along with Ustad Zakir Hussain again on tabla. This is an expressive composition by the master portraying the playful mischief of Lord Krishna with the milkmaids and a story depicting the childhood of Krishna.

The climax of the evening transported the audience to a godly biosphere where the entire galaxy came down upon the stage. The star-studded cast performed a Chaugalbandi, as Maharaj would call it. The four coordinates of the challenge were Pt Birju Maharaj, gen-two Saswati Sen, Mamta Maharaj and Deepak Maharaj, gen-three Shinjini, Tribhuwan, Ragini and finally Ustad Zakir Hussain. Maharaj started the footwork which was echoed by gen-two next, followed by gen-three and passed on to Zakir Hussain which continued until it reached the zenith of rhythm rhapsody. This was the finale of the evening where three generations of Kathak were brought on the same stage.

Photo: Subhajit Sen

Maharaj’s recital could be described as prayer-in-motion. The items that he performed exhibited how Kathak draws inspiration from the world around us. He even performed an extempore piece on a Thumri which he composed just two days before the program. As the word ‘Kathak’ means storytelling, Maharaj’s dance sets up a unified conversation between his facial expressions, his rapid footwork, each bell of his ghungroo and the audience, no matter if you are a dance aficionado or a novice. His lucid techniques - while he traverses across the stage moving towards the edge and your eyes following his feet and your ears listening to the jingle of his ghungroo - are bound to indulge you into a tête-à-tête with the Master.

Ustad Zakir Hussain made his entry to the stage holding a Kathak posture and an impish spark in his eyes. His ability to communicate with the audience and create a jovial environment makes him endearing. Hussain used his several techniques, notable was striking the tabla using opposite side of his hands which created a different tone. The jugalbandi between the masters created tight excitement, the onlookers thoroughly enjoying the challenges that each threw to the other. Towards the end of each of their combined items, Hussain established his magisterial technique. He maintained a smiling face never looking down at his tabla while he played and interacted with Maharaj on stage. The movement of his fingers on the tabla were so fast that it created an illusion of a hummingbird fluttering its wings, something which exists but is invisible.

What strikes most beyond their artistic geniuses are the down-to-earth humility which distinguish Maharaj and the Ustad from within the multitudes of great exponents as legends. As aptly elucidated by Maharaj’s own words, “When you walk with your body bent forward in humility, you are climbing upwards; when you walk with your body bent backwards in pride, you’re actually going downhill.”

The captivated spectators inside The O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul- Minneapolis raptly watched the myriads of expressions ranging from Lord Krishna’s mischievous smirk while following a gopini to making plaits with long hair, from rippling sea waves to bouncing of balls, from snake and ladder game to downfall of Ravana and much more. The male gait of the tabla followed the female jingle of the ghunghroo at every pass. The success of the program could be gauged from the uproarious standing ovation that the entire team received. There was a cake cutting ceremony on stage at the end to celebrate Pt Birju Maharaj’s 80th birthday. This program, as mentioned by Rita Mustaphi, was a tribute to celebrate the maestro’s birthday.

The rhythmic memories of this magical evening was a dream come true for many art lovers across United States which was made possible by Katha Dance Theatre. I looked up into a pitch dark night sky jeweled with dazzling stars and told myself that “age is just a number.”

Madhuja Mukhopadhyay is a student of Bharatanatyam who is also a software consultant by profession.