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Pt Birju Maharaj creates cherished rasanubhava moments at Saptak
- Dr. S.D. Desai

February 12, 2020

What happened in the concluding session of the 13-day Saptak Music Festival with even international art lovers in attendance could be a cherished memory for an artist. After two members of the Maharaj family warmed up the viewers on the chilly night of 13th Jan 2020, a special mini stage with steps was put up in the centre for Pt Birju Maharaj (82) to sit and perform and at 1am (yes, past midnight!), the ruling Maharaja of Kathak wearing his characteristic simplicity and smile entered. With his entry all spectators, those on gaddi seats with a little discomfort, right up to the last row got on their feet unprompted to warmly greet him. This was a moment of fulfillment also for Saptak. In forty years, evidently it has developed discriminating taste as also sensitivity for music and dance.

Pt Birju Maharaj & ensemble (Photo: Karansinh Parmar)

Mentioning with reverence baba Bindadin Maharaj, the iconic originator of Bindadin-Kalka Gharana of Kathak, the style now prevalent, he set off with Bindadin's characteristically delicate lyric of amour, Mujhe chhedo na Nand ke chhel (Tease me not, O Son of Nand!) dripping controlled and tantalizing sentiment of shringar. The sentiment oozes from the voice accompanied by notes on the harmonium he played. Hand gestures and eyes add to his vibrant facial expression. In Badi der bhayi ghar jana (It's pretty late and it's time for me to return home), the thought was not lost that the prekshak-bhav seemed to be one with the sweet gopi-bhav. The proverbial line from the medieval Gujarati devotional poet Dayaram must have flashed on the mind of many a listener - mukhe neem leedho, man kahe palak naa nibhavu-n... (I'm only swearing an oath, my mind knows I can't honour it even for a moment). Such are the ways of amour, both the young and old, held captive by its expression, lost track of time.

In drut laya, the Nayika would teasingly seem to make off and get coquettish with 'Na-hi b-o-l-oon-gi'. Young dance learners sitting packed in front must have felt they were having rare demonstration lessons from their revered guru! It was a treat to steal glimpses at keen and enraptured responses from Panditji's chief disciple Saswati Sen sitting on his left slightly away at the back. His abhinaya was so full of suggestion and freshness. While the thumri on Hori was being sung, she could not help leaving the mini stage and breaking into an impromptu dance in front to 'Tum kaahe ko karat barajori...' (Pray, why do you torment me?) That was a first-rate short abhinaya piece done by Saswati with delight interacting with Birju Maharaj stretching his hand in abhinaya. Viewers showed their appreciation with applause.

At the same time, in the informal format of a vocal expression of delicate bhavas with only subtle suggestions for their visible expression that had developed, sensitive rasikas were enjoying the performance at a different level anyway. The invisible Nayak and Nayika with their chhed-chhad they were watching in imagination were made of greater poetic stuff. Images conceived in fancy / imagination in such a context, have a greater lyrical power. A flitting bhava like K'aan, kheloji magar chhoona nahi is perhaps better left to imagination. Formless, with a sweetly stealthy denial of it by the mind, implied it promises a more lasting appeal!

Pt Birju Maharaj

Ipsita, Krishnamohan Mishra
Photos: Harshit Mehta

At the outset of this session's program, Birju Maharaj's cousin Krishnamohan Mishra, and his daughter Ipsita, presented Kathak's basics with Mukundraj's brilliant accompaniment on the tabla, prompting at one stage even the viewers to participate by sharing the beats with claps. While the vocal was by Jaywardhan Dadheech, the padhant was by Bhaswati, Saswati's sister. When after fifty years or so art lovers would talk of the illustrious Kalka-Bindadin Kathak Gharana, they would weave in tales of Birju Maharaj's charismatic personality dripping abhinaya in the form of a kimvadanti as they have currently been of his illustrious predecessors. Even if without being on his feet, may Panditji during the years to come continue to create moments of a rare rasanubhava!

Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts Critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti, Nartanam and Attendance. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.

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