Kathak Samraat Shambhu Maharaj
Based on materials from the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection
Photos: Mohan Khokar
|November 4, 2008
Shambhu Maharaj passed away on Nov 4, 1970. Each month, a date relevant (though often forgotten) in dance history or memory will become the source for such platforming.
Kathak and its history would be incomplete, if not poorer, were it not for its most major proponent, Shambhu Maharaj. This scion of the Lucknow school (gharana) of Kathak, has left an indelible footprint, which no amount of chakras or tode-tatkars can obliterate.
For six generations, this family had three sons or brothers! At the outset, there was Aragu, Kharagu and Tula Ram; then came Prakash, Dayal, and Hira Lal; then Durga Prasad, Thakur Prasad and Man Singh; then Binda Din, Kalka Prasad and Bhairon Prasad; then Achchan, Lacchu and Shambhu Maharaj. He himself had three sons: Shiv, Ram and Krishan Mohan.
This family tree was constructed by late Mohan Khokar, who interviewed and recorded Shambhu Maharaj as early as in 1957, when he was collecting material for a Marg special issue on Kathak. Those Marg issues, on many classical forms edited and compiled by Mohan Khokar, remain the most definitive works, referred by all, till date. In 1957, few knew of tape-recorders in India, leave alone the word dance documentation; that's why he is hailed as a pioneer.
"So you want my help?" Shambhu Maharaj snapped, in a palpably derisive tone. "Do you know how many people, seducers-of-sisters, come to me to learn about Kathak? And what do I get in return? Not even a bottle (of whiskey) to sip. Come again and bring a bottle, I respond better then. And I'm told your wife is a dancer; bring her with you next time. Your wife may understand me better as she is a genuine artiste."
"The encounter left me aghast," writes Mohan Khokar (in his diaries, now with me).
"This roughness was only a façade...," notes Mohan Khokar. "... for, behind this crustiness lay a lion-hearted man, who was royal, simple, straightforward and sensitive."
"His words were rash but his art was sublime; his behaviour was eccentric - even for nawabi Lucknowis! But his heart was genuine. He could be abusive of language, rude in disposition but once he got to like a person, he would open up and be sweet and sincere." A true great!
The great Kathak master was born in 1912, as per Padma award, Sangeet Natak Award citations and brochures of Kathak Kendra then housed at Bharatiya Kala Kendra, record. These citations are not fool-proof because often the agencies compiling these depend on the family of artistes to help with facts. Sometimes, a few facts get concocted and / or creatively written! All involved think no one would be wiser. Strangely, his centenary was celebrated by the Kathak Kendra of Delhi, a few years ago in 2004. Imagine two arms of the same govt. bodies, the Akademi and the Kendra - located literally at arms length from each other, do not have the same date or year of birth of a dance legend! It is premised that Kathak Kendra would know Kathak history more than the Akademi (vested with overall in-charge of all dance forms and music) which then means (if they celebrated his centenary in 2004) he must then be born in 1904. His nephew Guru Munnalal Shukla re-iterates that theory and confirms his year of birth as 1904.
This date and year of birth of some veteran gurus and dancers remains a common problem for dance historians like me who like to base writings on facts and proofs and not on conjecture and self-created myths. Official institutions like Akademi are generally busy doing festivals and seminars and do not have correct, basic data. Forget good documentary films, they do not even have correct bio-datas. Birth dates of senior gurus, especially 19th and early 20th century (and some of pre-independence era) also remains a grey area for many reasons: There were no hospital or municipal records in that era, especially in traditional families. Often, one would hear that a certain guru or dancer was born on or near Basant or Nag Panchami! Or, four days after Diwali (and such festival dates are not fixed dates each year but shift according to lunar calendar or almanac- panchang). Sometimes, the year (of birth) generally escaped most also because there were many children in a family and after a point, the parents forget who was born when! Or artists being creative people, reduced age to help stay younger...
In Shambhu Maharaj's case, there is however, a clear document of his first public and professional performance. This took place in 1926 at the All India Music Conference in Lucknow and he must have been in his prime of youth to be featured (so he could not be just sixteen) on such a prestigious stage, hence, 1912 as year of birth will not hold and 1904 sounds more likely. Strangely his immediate surviving family does not know birth etc dates. They look to us historians to provide that basic information.
Shambhu Maharaj moved to Delhi in 1955 at the invitation of Nirmala Joshi, (some sources say it was Kapila Vatsyayan who cajoled him to move to the city of patronage and power) the founding secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, who had made it possible for this master of Kathak to move from Lucknow to Delhi, where he taught Kathak at the fledgling Bharatiya Kala Kendra, set up by the industrialist's wife, Sumitra Charat Ram.
He was a prodigal. He was born that way. That whole family was. Kalka Prasad, his father, was a tabla wizard and his father's elder brother Binda Din, was the Natwar Krishna incarnate. Natwar Krishna is the romantic persona of Krishna and both he and Shambhu Maharaj specialized in that depiction. The third brother, Bhairon Prasad did not amount to much, in Shambhu Maharaj's words. It is not clear if he meant artistically or as a person/family member or as an influence on him.
Binda Din was also Shambhu Maharaj's guru, by his own admission. A small, waspish man, he got totally transformed on stage. He made Krishna the lover, Krishna the prankster, Krishna the saviour and Krishna, everything rolled in one. Binda Din never married but the Begum of a leading state was his chief patron and benefactor and engaged him as a dancer. When he left her, she sent him laden with diamonds and pearls, it is said. But more than these gems, his real treasures were the over 150 thumris he composed. Unfortunately, he died when Shambhu Maharaj was only ten and thus the young talent was left guru-less. Shambhu was already fatherless since the age of two.
It was his elder brother, Achchan Maharaj (Birju Maharaj's father) who being elder, learnt the most from Binda Din, and thus imparted further training to Shambhu and Lachchu. There was strangely a gap of seven years each between Achchan and Lachchu and Lachchu and Shambhu! Strange, because no one did family planning those days. In fact, the rule was, the more the merrier!
Achchan Maharaj influenced Shambhu Maharaj greatly. He was a virtuous and godly man. He was named Jagannath Prasad but because he was full of good deeds, everyone started calling him "achcha" (good) and thus the name stuck! In his dancing and in his technique, he was exceptional. At a young age, he was appointed a dancer in the court of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan of Rampur. He continued there for three years, receiving a high remuneration of Rs.250/- as monthly plus Rs.2/-, yes Rs.2/- as house rent. Imagine if house-rent then was Rs.2/- what a sum of Rs.250/- implied? Perhaps, Rs.2.50 lakhs of today, per month! A Kathak dancer was paid that much then! Of course that dancer was no ordinary dancer and the employer was royalty.
The Court also had many great musicians. Among them, the beenkar and dhrupad singer Mohamad Ali Khan, vocalists Hyder Khan and Mushtaq Husain Khan, pakhwaj player Ayodhya Prasad, tabla genius Ahmed Jan Thirakwa and sarod virtuoso Fida Hussain Khan. One can imagine what these galaxy of maestros taught! Shambhu Maharaj grew up under such greats. The end result was for all to see. After this, the family returned to Lucknow and often he played the tabla for Achchan Maharaj's performances and sometimes the great master-brother played the tabla for young Shambhu.
Shambhu Maharaj made his debut in 1926, at the All India Music Conference in Lucknow (those days these music conferences were the few major platforms where dance was showcased) and was awarded a gold medal for his tayari. His head swelled with pride and "when organizers came to me for fixing performances after that, I raised my fee to a unimaginable Rs.500/-, higher than even my guru and bhai Achchan Maharaj but the achcha man that he was, he never minded."
The Lucknow gharana has always laid stress on bhava. Both Binda Din and Achchan Maharaj were gifted with a phenomenal capacity to evoke and project emotion and feelings in both dancing and singing. In Shambhu Maharaj's case, he derived all his taste and inspiration from Nasir Khan of Delhi gharana; he was his bosom friend. In fact, Shambhu Maharaj seldom performed Binda Din thumris but mostly Nasir Khan's. According to this interview given in 1957 and later again as an update in 1970, when Mohan Khokar was director of Kathak Kendra (where Shambhu Maharaj was then technically employed), Shambhu Maharaj is on record stating that most Kathaks (that's how he and that generation of dancers called themselves, Kathaks not Kathakaars) performed Binda Din's thumris because it was suited for rendering in moderate tempo, which Shambhu Maharaj did not find conducive to the leisurely development of bhava. It was too hurried. Shambhu Maharaj also devised the courtly style of sitting and performing (as seen in early pics here), which made it less hurried, more elegant for bhava batana (depiction).
Dhrupads did not fascinate him. He found them too severe, too stately for any delicate interpretation. The beat, he found and claimed, was more suited to marching than dancing!
"I took to bhava only when I was grown up. In my teaching, whether to tawaifs (courtesans) or others in city classes I take now, I mostly impart plain dance. Bhava cannot be wholly effective unless you can yourself sing, and how many are capable of this? Even to my own two sons Ram and Krishna Mohan (there were three sons actually – remember each generation had three sons/brothers! - but the eldest Shiv Mohan, died just two days after his sister Gangotri had of small pox. Imagine, in two days, I lost two children. I sobbed and sobbed), I taught mostly plain dance, not bhava."
"My senior students Maya Rao, her sister Chitra Venugopal, Bela Arnab and Kumudini Lakhia (see rare picture of three together in a class at Bharatiya Kala Kendra pasted here) learnt my style and at some conference in Delhi in 1957, I did a duet with Maya Rao on Binda Din's thumri Niratata dhang. She also cajoled me into doing a ballet Kathak Through the Ages, but I never liked to do this ballet-shallet stuff and never did another one."
He was not well disposed to "ballets" in Kathak. "I have no patience for all this modern stuff. I accept there was some kind of dance dramas in Wajid Ali Shah's Court, but were they Kathak? You must understand Kathak is a very personal art, an intimate art, and it is not tailored for collective participation or projection. I refuse to recognize mummery of this variety."
"Kathak today is much shaken. It can only get worse. What can you expect of an art where endurance becomes the test of skill? If one dances ten hours, another will dance twelve and the audience will foolishly cheer. Surely, isolating the tinkle of one bell from 200 cannot be designated art? A ghost voice can sing your thumri and all you have to do is make faces. And the eyes – you can dart glances or ogle but where is the depth of expression? And the hands! You can show monkey, donkey, deer or snake with them but where is the place, the need for all this? Believe me, when I die, it will mean the end of a whole legacy of Kathak. The Kathak I dance is brewed in a heady atmosphere of poetry, women and wine and that milieu is lost. If I am hailed as Nritya Samraat, it is because truly I am King of Kathak."
In some ways it is good he is no more to see and suffer how his beloved Kathak has become today; the art of soloist replaced by group art because there are few soloists who can command audience for even an hour's presentation and because in group work, weak and insipid dancers too can merge and blend in such productions. Gurus are not gurus but mere teachers today and they are in the market to make money, name or fame. Shambhu Maharaj was one of the last greats (and after him, his nephew Birju Maharaj, fits that description) of Lucknow Kathak and truly "when I die, a whole era of Kathak will die with me" sounds strangely apt. Prophetic words? He died of throat cancer in Delhi on Nov 4, 1970. Birju Maharaj and others were with him at his death-bed in Willington Hospital and the great master was still showing some bhavarth till he collapsed.
Ashish Mohan Khokar is a qualified dance historian, who majored in History (merit-lister, Delhi University) and knows the principles and process of historical writing. With over 30 books to his credit, his is a very valued voice in the dance field backed with solid, sincere work. His yearbook – attendance - serves as study material and reference guide to many dancers, connoisseurs, institutions, libraries and Ph.D candidates. The UNESCO Dance Council has hailed it as a model dance journal. He is uniquely placed to further the cause of dance history, having inherited India's largest dance archives created by his father.