118 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
sunday reading
Sunday, August 30, 1998
Bollywood Bhelpuri

Living Space
Wide angle

"An artiste must keep trying to change the world"

THE three phases of life —creation, preservation and destruction — are clearly reflected in the traditional order of kathak dance. Its presentation beginning with thaat and ending with tatkaar sums up the total journey of life. The graceful gaits and pirouettes are symbolic of the cycle of life as well as the Sufi concept of the whirling dance of the darveshis, moulvis, which means "whichever way you turn you face God."

Descendant of an illustrious seven generations of kathak dancers from Hadiya, a small village near Varanasi that produced stalwarts like Thakur Prasadji, Durga Prasadji, Bhairon Prasadji, Maharaj Bindadinji, Achchan Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, Brij Mohan Nath Mishra, popularly known as Birju Maharaj, earned an independent reputation for himself. Endowed with lasya and gat he perfected bhav and mudras through his keen observation. His contribution in popularising the dance form and providing it a pedestal of respectability is immense. Carrying tradition and style of the Lucknow gharana of kathak, he enriched it with innovations, so as to add contemporary appeal to this dance form.

Frail and short statured at 60 he is a dynamo of creativity. The growth of his consciousness combined with energy transforms any form of art he touches into an object of connoisseur's delight. His poetry reflects a playful use of words creating a visual treat that contains philosophy as well as a great sense of humour. His paintings are a rhythmic riot of colour and form. When he plays the tabla or the pakhawaj, professionals bow in amazement. He sings as beautifully as he dances. It is difficult to decide which art form reflects his genius better. These combinations make him an exacting guru, difficult to please — a wizard in his own way.

Recently his retirement from the Kathak Kendra kicked up a lot of controversy raising questions on the concept of retirement for an artist, in line with that of a soldier, or a bureaucrat. An artist grows with age and maturity. The older he is, the more fragrant is the flowering of his art form. In an exclusive interview, Vandana Shukla tries to explore the unique phenomenon of creativity that Pandit Birju Maharaj is. The artiste is the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, the Kalidas Samaan, the Andhra Ratna, the Nritya Chudamani — to name a few.

Excerpt: Do you attribute your success as a Kathak dancer to your lineage or to your hard work?

My great grandfather was invited by Wajid Ali Shah in his court. Wajid Ali learnt kathak from my fore-fathers. After Awadh fell into the British hands, my family was patronised by the Rampur Nawab for 22 years. After 1947 when the states were dissolved, all artistes like us had to find means for survival. I was very young when my father died. I had to dance in a mehfil to earn money to perform my father's last rites. We were in Kanpur. I took up a tutor's job for Rs 25 to keep the hearth burning. I was studying. I failed in high school. Few people would give programmes to a young lad of 14 and I could only dance. Then I was given a teaching job at Sangeet Bharati at Delhi by Dr. Nirmala Joshi. Later, Dr Kapila Vatyayan gave me a six-month tenure as a junior dance teacher at Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. She had a condition. If I worked hard, my tenure would be extended. My guru and uncle Shambhu Maharajji was also a teacher there. This far — the family name.

I am very independent by nature. I was around 18 when I realised if I continue to teach dance, I will never be able to grow as an artiste. Gradually we started productions. I played Makarand in Malati Madhav at Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Then we performed Shane-e-Awadh. Roopmati-Baj Bahadur Malvikaagni Mitram etc. I gave a lot of thought to this dance form. I believe what makes a tukda or paran effective is achieved through hard work, good values and love. Good art cannot be faked. One has to go through the test of fire. If I love my son more than any other child simply because he is mine, I am not an artiste. If a shagird is more deserving and hard working, he receives more than my son.

From a traditional solo performer to a group ballet — the form of kathak was modified by you. How did it come about?

When Kathakiyas narrated the tales of Krishna Leela in gat (movement) and bhumika (action) in temples, he needed only an accompanist or two to provide the rhythm and sur. These Kathakiyas used to roam from village to village narrating the tales of divine actions. My ancestral village Hadiya had 979 families of artistes — each had perfected one form of art or the other. It was called the village of Kathakiyas. Then kathak entered the darbars and mehfils of kings and aristocrats. A solo performer served the purpose well. He could strike a rapport with the closely sitting audience. But in an auditorium a solo performer cannot relate to the audience and vice-versa. I thought of Ras Leela where Krishna danced with numerous gopis. The presence of gopis did not dilute Krishna's nritya. So I decided to use the total space of stage. The synchronised action and rhythm created a tremendous effect. The flowering was multiplied on stage — both visually and rhythmically.

Art grew among the common people before it entered and gained exclusivity. In the post-Independence democratic set-up things have not changed much. Art has a cosmetic role to play performed by a few akademis. Do the artistes prefer exclusivity?

As long as an artiste received patronage from a king, he was obliged to perform only in the darbar. He could not perform for others. But it had its own advantages — the artiste had freedom to refine his art form and he knew it would be appreciated by the knowledgeable people. This continued for a very long time. The masses lost touch with fine arts. Even after Independence, it was mainly the aristocrats who expressed interest in classical art. While organising a conference the organisers were risking their money. The ticket rates were kept high. Once again classical arts catered to the upper sections of society. A few efforts like Maharashtra Nritya Samiti or SPICMACAY have tried to bridge that gap. SPICMACAY has been quite successful in popularising classical art.

Now, when I look back I feel instead of giving awards and honours that become a bone of contention, the government could have brought artistes closer to people under its patronage.

So you believe awards have done harm to art?

There is nothing wrong with awards. It depends how the receiver takes it. If getting an award is the motive, then art will suffer. For me these are only a few stations that lure. If I were stuck there, I wouldn't move ahead. If the government recognises our work, we are obliged. In the absence of recognition, can we stop working?

Most classical artistes pick up traditional themes which fail to appeal to a modern analytical mind. Why do the classical artistes fail to pick themes from the complexity of modern day life?

Once our director asked me to do a dance ballet on modern poetry. Now this poetry could not be woven into music. It was in free verse. But it contained emotions that were musical. We set the emotion to tune and recited the words. In my opinion, no artiste can remain untouched by the turmoil in society. It affects us, it pains us. I did Anand, Lohe Ka Tukda, and Samachar Darpan. We did Lohe Ka Tukda during terrorism days where a piece of iron, being used as a sword, narrates its tale of woes and compares itself with the fate of a gong in the temple. Samachar Darpan was a story of newspaper, and how a newspaper is used in different ways by members of a family.

Since you have retired from the Kathak Kendra, how do you feel about it in retrospect, and what do you plan to do in future?

In fact it is difficult to perceive Kathak Kendra as not a part of my being. It was a beautiful garden nurtured by stalwarts like Kundan Lalji. My emotional attachment was such with the kendra that till they told me of my retirement, I never realised I was doing a job. I was not even conscious of my age. People thought of Kathak Kendra as a synonuous with me.

When I was director, Guru Purushottam Das, the great Pakhawaj player, was given retirement. I got his tenure extended. In my case the Chairman told me his hands were tied. I did not want anyone to be troubled over it. I am happy wherever I am, but I cannot breathe without dance. The government allotted me some land in Gulmohar Park, but somebody got a stay order. Now the case in the court and nobody knows how long it is going to take. I will have to vacate even this house.

The world of art is different from the world of bureaucracy. An artiste is not a soldier. An artiste matures his art from at around 50 and then he creates his best till 70-75. Mallikarjun Mansoor sang so well in the last leg of his life. Bureaucratic interference has spoilt the atmosphere required for creative activity. If at the kendra, you tell the tabla player that you are going out of rhythm, he goes to the union. The relationships are polluted by politicisation of everything at every rung. I am pained by this. The world will not change. Yet, an artiste must keep trying.

How do you explain the diminishing popularity of kathak as compared to Bharatnatyam and Odissi? What about its future?

When a thing is new it holds more attraction. In northern India people had not known Bharatnatyam for long. Secondly, Bharatnatyam had only female dancers whereas kathak had mainly male dancers. In fact these minor shifts continue. Odissi and Kuchipudi grabbed a little attraction off Bharatnatyam. Kathak is now understood in simple terms because it has a narrative, and a beautiful form that is easily understood by the audience. All dance forms have their own place of importance.

Modern westernised dances are enjoying an unprecedented popularity. They have generaled mass hysteria. Do you expect youngsters to carry this classical tradition with the kind of dedication you had put in?

There is little effort on the part of the youngsters. They want everything easy and fast. They don't want struggle. I find it lacking even in my own children. They have comforts and the comforts kill the instinct of learning. As such the objective is commercial gain. Art is used as a medium to achieve a faster and shorter route to success. The objective is not perfection and refinement of art. But in art there is no easy way out. Copy work cannot last long.

I also admit that we are responsible for the popularity of pop and rock. We did not provide our younger generation enough choices. Nothing is wrong with pop and rock. One should listen to it. But listening to it at the cost of our own music is bad. All over the world people admire Indian classical music. It is sad that, in our country few people appreciate it. I hope these new trends will pass. They are seasonal, they will pass by.

Any memorable performance?

Once I was asked to perform kathak after a jazz show in Bombay. I saw people going into that ecstatic frenzy with the loud music. After these heightened emotions, it was difficult to satisfy them. I went on to the stage and said the Naad - Braham had produced many sounds of storms, flood and devastation. People were agitated. Then came the sound of peace. After this storm, I have brought peace for you. And the audience watched in pin-drop silence. I told them my dance is like a small needle but the needle can stitch huge clothes and give them a shape.

Why do you need a multi-layered creative process? How do you create new concepts in traditional mould?

Whenever I travel, the rhythm of movement inspires me. I conceptualise the whole ballets while travelling. Then, things that I observe need expression. Hence, other forms of expression. It just happens. I never make a deliberate effort. In fact, I am very shy of showing my poetry or painting to people. Few people know about it.

How do you perceive "Nritya",? How is it related to life?

It is my life. When I view life through the window of "nritya" everything seems nrityamaya (Like a dance). Life is movement and all beautiful movements are nritya. One journalist asked me in France why do you play Krishna and Yashoda all the time. I replied Krishna is not a person. Krishna is a feeling of love and compassion, Yashoda is a feeling, an emotion. She could sacrifice her own child to protect somebody else's. She is a mother. Krishna is a Purush. These emotions are eternal. They are celebrated in literature under different names all over the world.

In Nritya, I celebrate this emotion, this eternal, pure emotion, which is understood universally. But I am also aware of a new reality in our society. Today we need old people's homes, the old have no utility value. So they cease to be even part of a family.

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