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Two gurus and an obit: Gurus Jitendra Maharaj and Kanak Rele
- Ashish Mohan Khokar

February 23, 2023

Two eighty year olds die within few days of each other. One a Kathak guru, another a Mohiniattam one. One in Delhi and one in Mumbai. Their initials also follow each other: J...K. Gurus Jitendra Maharaj and Kanak Rele - Feb 18 then 22 of the year 23.

What do they represent? They represent among the last of that generation value system when dance was first, not the dancer. When material was more important than men and women in power. When books were written and read, not just Facebook. When serving dance was serving God. When awards were deserved, not got or bought! When students were valued not devalued. When art was above the individual. When individual became an institution. When an institution became a temple. When temple was made of soul, not a hall of gold. She made Kanak Sabha, he made Sangeetika. She created hundreds of students, he made one pair equal to a hundred.

Pt Jitendra Maharaj
Pt Jitendra Maharaj
Dr. Kanak Rele
Dr. Kanak Rele
Pandit Jitendra Maharaj was the main shagird of guru Krishan Kumar, who was a star dancer of the sixties. He paired Kumudini Lakhia those days. He was neck to neck in competition with Birju Maharaj who was also a rising star in Delhi at Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Guru Krishan Kumar suffered much neglect from the system in the seventies, when Lucknow gharana got established and entrenched in Kathak Kendra. Benaras gharana was marginalized. One lone candle can throw light far but in the end the candle itself burns out.

Guru dada Krishan Kumar mentored Jitendra Maharaj and groomed him to continue mission impossible. He took charge of training of two sisters of Delhi called the Asthana sisters, Nalini and Kamalini. They became famous as Delhi Sisters too and in the end looked after their guru till his end came on Feb 18, after months of being bedridden. In his demise, Benaras Kathak has lost a gem.

A gem of an academic dancer was Kanak ben Rele. Born a Jain Gujarati, she mastered this form of Kerala and was interested in its pedagogy. Kavalam Narayana Panikker and Vallathol inspired her. She went deep into the subject and created in Mumbai an institution to teach and preach her art. Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya is a lighthouse for aspiring students from poor and rich sections of the society. Many dancers got jobs here as teachers too. By connecting it to university, Kanak ben assured its survival and longevity. Grants and awards followed her. She made research her mainstay. Kanak ben attracted all shades of people to her institute and awarded some too.

Kanak ben was no push over. Neither was Jitendra Maharaj. They stood their ground. They had clear vision about their mission. They also were interested in developing generation next. Both were academic and professional. Both went around the globe in reaching out with products and productions. When one thinks of both of them - one a gharana guru and one a city one - one sees dance art travel without labels and baggage. Both served their muse and both served society. India is richer because of such gems. May they continue to inspire and dance now in the heavens.

Ashish Mohan Khokar
Khokar is a critic and author by profession; historian by education; arts administrator by occupation; archivist by disposition; film compiler through documentation and celebrator of arts and artistes by tradition. More details on

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