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Tributes to two veteran Kathak mentors
- Vijay Shanker

January 26, 2022

While the legendary Kathak mentor Pt Birju Maharaj's demise has attracted lot of media attention, it's sad the passing away of another veteran Kathak mentor, Pt Munnalal Shukla has not received much media response, hence it would be befitting for me to start my article on Pt Munnalal Shukla, whose contribution is nothing less but he always maintained a low profile. Munnalal Shukla (7 December 1943 - 11 January 2022) was the grandson of Late Achchan Maharaj and the nephew of Birju Maharaj and belonged to the traditional family of dancers and musicians, whose enriching contribution towards the propagation and promotion of Kathak, spans generations together. Munnalal was the son of Pt Sunderlal Shukla.

Pt Munnalal Shukla
Pt Munnalal Shukla

From 1968 -1975, Munnalal taught at Kala Chhaya in Pune and was also associated with Marathi theater and films and taught students of the Film and Television Institute of India. Some of his choreography includes Taalmala, Taal Chakra, Himraja, Shahi Mehfil, Hindola, Kathak ki Kahani, Holi etc and his dance dramas include 'Kaliya Daman', 'Makhan Leela', 'Bansi Leela' and 'Shyam Bansurya'. He also choreographed for dramas of the National School of Drama (NSD) like 'Azeezunisa' and 'Indra Sabha'. Munnalal joined Kathak Kendra in 1976 and continued till he retired in 2000. He also taught at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. I remember having met him at the Kendra, when I used to visit New Delhi to learn Kuchipudi from Drs. Raja and Radha Reddy and Kaushalya. Pt Munnalal Shukla conducted workshops in different cities and in Mumbai he conducted workshop at Dr Kanak Rele's Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya. Some of his disciples include Kavita Thakur, Shruti Shukla, Rakhi Dubey etc. He was the recipient of prestigious awards like the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the UP Sangeet Natak Akademi award. My humble tributes to this devoted mentor.

Pt Birju Maharaj
Pt Birju Maharaj

Pt Birju Maharaj (4 February 1938 - 17 January 2022) belonged to the Lucknow Kalka Bindadin Gharana and was the son of Achchan Maharaj. His famous uncles included Shambhu and Lachchu Maharaj, hence music and dance was in his genes. Quite early in life, Birju started performing and teaching as well and was possibly the most famous mentor at the Kathak Kendra in New Delhi, having trained several students. Many of them are professional teachers and performers. His family includes children Mamata, Jaikishan, Deepak and Anita Maharaj.

A few years back at the NCPA in Mumbai, there was this unusual and interesting program titled Kathak in Bollywood. The performance was held at the beautiful Tata Theater and the response was amazing - the theater with 1000 seats was almost full! It was quite an entertaining show, as the program commenced with choreography by Pt Lachchu Maharaj in some of the old Hindi movies and the choreography of Birju Maharaj in films like Satyajit Ray's 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi', Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Devdas', Kamalahasan's 'Viswaroopam' etc. The main director of this program was the ardent disciple of Pt Birju Maharaj - Saswati Sen. Maharaj has also choreographed for 'Bajirao Mastani' and other films. In fact, the Kathak dance sequences in 'Devdas' are so beautifully picturised, attracting the attention of youngsters to learn Kathak. Birju Maharaj also sang for this film. At a program in Mumbai, Maharaj said, "Dance is life, there must be beauty in every move and every glance; when you dance you feel as if you are in a trance, the involvement has to be complete. If you do not enjoy dancing then how will the audience enjoy?"

His powerful footwork of rhythmic excellence, his childlike innocence as "makhan chor," his humility and down to earth approach to life, will always be remembered by his disciples all over the world. My humble tributes.  

Vijay Shanker
Vijay Shanker is a Kuchipudi and Kathakali exponent, teacher, bilingual journalist, arts critic and actor.

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