Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Birju Maharaj a force to be reckoned with

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): When Birju Maharaj dances in Jakarta he will not only entertain, but his performance will provide a glimpse into a civilization of a bygone era.

For India's Birju Maharaj is not just a leading exponent of the Kathak dance. He is an entire cultural legacy of a time when riches rained upon Lucknow, his hometown, bringing about much licentiousness and imbalance in both thoughts and action. Then pleasure seeking had proliferated but the arts were also forced to flower if for no other reason than to please the nobility.

Dance at that time was made a vehicle for coquetry and poetry was invented for the extreme glorification of feminine beauty.

At the performance of the Kathak style in Jakarta, his first, he will dance to excerpts taken from the epic story Ramayana. In a colorful piece composed specially for audiences here he will celebrate the Indian spring festival of Holi on stage along with Saswati Sen, his muse and spiritual consort for nearly three decades and Deepak Maharaj his son and disciple.

Birju Maharaj is the quintessential Lucknawi which, if used in a pejorative sense, suggests foppishness and indulgence in elaborate etiquette, the idle preoccupation of powerless aristocracies everywhere.

But to know Lucknow is also to know all about the spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding that existed in the cosmopolitan capital of architecture, dance, music and creative writing between different cultures not only from the Indian subcontinent but from around the world.

The city that gave birth to Birju Maharaj was once the unwalled capital of Shia Muslims who became its rulers in the 18th century. They were descendants of a family from Nishapur in Iran who within a decade of their arrival converted the ancient Hindu city into a dream world of gilded domes and minarets.

The Europeans who followed further conceived it as an Indian version of a luxurious spa back home. With fortunes flowing in from the fertile countryside and secure under the protection of the British armed forces, the rulers retreated for almost 200 years into a world of make-believe as if there was no tomorrow. Lost within their baroque homes the locals thought they had arrived either at London's Windsor Castle or the Versailles near Paris, while Lucknow's rich European population imagined itself reborn into an Islamic pleasure garden.

In a predominantly Hindu state with a Sunni Muslim majority, the Iranians and the English soon created a city with pastoral suburbs where they lived in huge bungalows surrounded by gardens and paved roads with a small Gothic church, a post office, banquet hall and tennis courts. These dwellings were considered a gigantic folly by some, while others were unable to decide whether the structures resembled a castle, a wedding cake in brick or a baroque fantasy.

It is in the womb of this very disparate but imaginative Hindu heartland also home to Persians and Europeans alike that Birju Maharaj was conceived more than six decades ago in a Brahmin family that believed Shiva, Parvati and Krishna to be founders of their art. The only son and disciple of his father, Birju Maharaj gave his first dance performance when he was seven years old.


Although he lost his father when he was just 10 years old, he continued to dance under the guidance of three uncles who delighted in imparting to the youngster all those little family secrets that have kept dancers from this family famous for over 300 years. Today Birju Maharaj is not just a master of dance and drama but a fine vocalist and drummer too. He is able to play many a musical instrument with as much ease as he composes poetry and it is quite obvious that age has only added to his phenomenal knowledge of bol (musical phrases), laya (speed of movement), taal (beat) and bhava (expression), all important components of the Kathak dance.

The ancestors of Birju Maharaj were professional kathaks (storytellers) in neighboring Brijbhumi, the land of Krishna who sang and danced in praise of the gods at temples. Mesmerized by the energetic dancing and music, Muslim rulers invited some of the devotees of lord Krishna to court. Since the rulers themselves concentrated on much poetry and music, having little to do on the battle field, they exchanged tunes on musical instruments brought with them from Iran and absorbed the religious fervor of the kathaks into different aspects of sensuousness and romance as well.

The city's musical activity reached its zenith under Wajid Ali Shah, Lucknow's last ruler who would himself compose, dance and sing along with the ancestors of Birju Maharaj, enthralling one and all with his excessive gaiety. It is here that Persian mingled with the local dialect and added another dimension to Urdu, a language initially born out of the unavoidable interaction between the invading speakers of Persian and Turkish and those who spoke various Indian vernacular languages.

But the variety of Urdu that bloomed on the soils of Lucknow is so special for its extreme graciousness that it is known to bring tears of joy to all those who hear it. The same language is used to compose the most heart-wrenching of love songs that are called ghazal and which will be rendered here by Soma Chakravarty Ghosh in the first half of the musical extravaganza.

The ghazal is loved to this day for its unique combination of spirituality, melancholy, loftiness of thought, profound lamentation and tone of longing. The Urdu language continues to play a great role in keeping alive the syncretic Indo-Muslim culture that is also dubbed by its critics as flamboyant, effeminate and decadent.

British colonialism managed to put an end to the kingdom in 1856 but the city's rich tradition of dance, music and poetry continues. The pomp and glory of the prince may well have been trampled over by the gigantic strides of time but as long as Birju Maharaj continues to swirl ecstatically, the musical life of Lucknow will remain alive and kicking.

Birju Maharaj and Soma Chakravarty Ghosh will perform at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta at 7 p.m. on Saturday. For further information call 330407, 7657025 or 08161820836.