Birju Maharaj, revered in India as one of the exponents of one of its oldest and most established classical dance forms, and who has choreographed steps for Bollywood hits and classics of Indian cinema by directors as Satyajit Ray, died on January 16 in New Delhi. He was 83 years old.
The cause appears to be cardiac arrest while he was undergoing dialysis, a granddaughter, Ragini Maharaj, told the Press Trust of India news agency.
Mr Maharaj performed in the Kathak tradition, which has roots over 2,000 years old, according to some evidence. Kathak dance was practiced in royal courts across the country and found favor in Hindu and Muslim cultures. It is one of eight genres of classical dance in India, each largely based on the region and each with its own sophisticated and diverse vocabulary.
Kathak lineages were associated with three cities in the central Indian states of Uttar Pradesh (Lucknow and Banares) and Rajasthan (Jaipur). Mr Maharaj was brought up in a Lucknow tradition, a form that has become widely popular.
Kathak is the most interconnected tradition with live music. The dancers, using steps and facial expressions, tell a story, often inspired by ancient Indian epics. But it’s also an art of virtuoso, painstakingly paced footwork, often with tight rhythmic patterns that suddenly stop on the beat.
Mr. Maharaj’s eyes, mouth, arm gestures and footwork were all part of the brilliant and charming skill with which he made Kathak famous. Like several other Indian genres, kathak uses anklets bearing dozens of tiny bells that ring with the steps of bare feet; the counters chimed by Mr. Maharaj’s anklets were often staggering.
Brij Mohan Nath Mishra was born on February 4, 1938, into the seventh generation of a distinguished Kathak family, known as the Maharaj for their mastery of the art.
He received his early dance training from his father, Jagannath Maharaj (popularly known as Acchan Maharaj), who had been the court dancer in the princely state of Rajgarh and became his son’s guru and his fellow interpreter. The British were still ruling India when Birju, at the age of 7, gave his first public performance.
Two years later, her father died and two of Birju’s uncles – Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj – continued her dance studies. When India became independent in 1947, Kathak enjoyed new glory, with Birju as its main exponent.
He moved to New Delhi as a boy. At 13, he began teaching Kathak at Sangeet Bharati, a major performing arts school. By the age of 20, he was nationally recognized as one of his country’s greatest dancers. He also practiced and performed Hindustani vocal music, composed new music, played several musical instruments, wrote poetry and painted.
He then taught, with his uncle Shambhu, in dance schools in New Delhi, opening his own school, Kalashram, in 1998.
Mr. Maharaj married Annapurna Devi in 1956. They had three daughters, Kavita, Anita and Mamta, and two sons, Jaikishan and Deepak. His sons and daughter Mamta are leading figures in the practice of Kathak. Mr. Maharaj’s wife died in 2008. A full list of survivors was not available.
Early in his career, he took part in the cultural troupes sent abroad by the Indian government. When mythological and historical dance features became the norm in the 1970s, he choreographed a number of them, some with Mughal themes. In the 1980s, he focused on abstract, fully rhythmic compositions. Humor and sensitivity became part of his storytelling, along with math and numerology.
He choreographed a number of dances for Indian films, beginning with Satyajit Ray’s classic “The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi)” (1977). He also did famous dance numbers in hit Bollywood movies like “Devdas” (2002) and “Dedh Ishqiya” (2014).
Mr. Maharaj gave Kathak dance lessons to movie star Deepika Padukone for the movie “Bajirao Mastani” (2015). He won a Filmfare Award, a major Indian film industry accolade, for best choreography for the number “Mohe Rang Do Laal” in this film.
Widely known as Pandit Birju Maharaj – Pandit refers to skill, scholarship and authority – he has danced in Europe and the United States, visiting Washington in 2014 and New York in 2019.
At least until the late 70s, Mr. Maharaj showed how Kathak could display a brilliant, jazzy interplay with its musical accompaniment while remaining an art of both communication and play. He was devoted to his musicians , always traveling with them. They often teased him in performance with skeins of rhythmic complexity to which he happily rose.
He also showed that dance was part of something larger: a response to nature and divinity.