The Last Ma­haraj of Luc­know

The kathak mae­stro re­turns to re­vive the dance form and sal­vage his an­ces­tral home

India Today - - INSIDE - By S. Kal­i­das

All of Kais­erbagh is in a jam. The traf­fic snarl around the famed Safed Baradari—a white, twelve-door pavil­ion built by Nawab Wa­jid Ali Shah in the 1850s—tells you that laid­back Luc­know has been jolted some­what. It would seem the en­tire city has turned up to re­live a for­got­ten his­tory. Birju Ma­haraj, 76, has re­turned af­ter a gap of some years to per­form where his an­ces­tors had danced at the courts of the nawabs of Awadh and laid the foun­da­tion of what is now known as the Luc­know Gha­rana of kathak.

He has come for the an­nual Mahin­dra Sanat Kada Fes­ti­val or­gan­ised by Madhavi Kukreja’s NGO by the same name. With mu­sic, dance, sto­ry­telling, theatre, Awadhi food, tex­tiles, qawwali, chikan em­broi­dery and other crafts on dis­play, it has be­come the must-at­tend event on the lo­cal fes­ti­val cal­en­dar. “It took a Pun­jabi woman’s drive to bring about a cul­tural re­nais­sance in this hubris-rid­den city,” says his­to­rian Saleem Kid­wai, who be­longs to the old Luc­knowi elite.

“I am so happy to be back in the city of my birth,” an­nounces the vet- eran kathak mas­ter as he takes the stage. “I dance all over In­dia and the world but dancing here is dif­fer­ent. I was born here, just down the road at Gola Ganj. My fa­ther, my un­cles and my grand­fa­ther and his brother, and two gen­er­a­tions be­fore them, all lived and danced here,” he adds. Over the last hun­dred years, fate, fame and for­tune took them away—to Raigarh, Ram­pur, Bom­bay (as it was called then) and Delhi, which be­came the cap­i­tal of free In­dia. “Now I re­ally wish to re­turn to Luc­know,” says the Delhi-based Ma­haraj of kathak, upon whom the govern­ment be­stowed the Padma Vib­hushan, the sec­ond high­est civil­ian hon­our, in 1986.

Over the next two hours, Birju and his troupe of dancers and mu­si­cians, led by his prime dis­ci­ple Saswati Sen and son Jaik­is­han Ma­haraj, keep the au­di­ence riv­eted un­der a tented pan­dal de­spite the win­ter chill. Luc­know kathak is a com­pelling com­bi­na­tion of bod­ily grace, com­plex rhythms, lyri­cal melody and nar­ra­tive mime. What be­gan as a sto­ry­telling ( kathakaar) tra­di­tion where the nar­ra­tor sang, spoke, mimed and danced to mytho­log­i­cal tales in tem­ple court­yards, de­vel­oped into a highly sophis- ticated canon­ised form of court dance un­der the pa­tron­age of the nawabs of Awadh, es­pe­cially the last prodi­gal Wa­jid Ali Shah whose de­pose­ment by the Bri­tish led to the war of 1857.

This evening, apart from sur­pris­ingly ag­ile foot­work and pure dance se­quences, Birju Ma­haraj sings and mimes to a thumri in the raga Gaur Mal­lar that his grand-un­cle Bin­dadin Ma­haraj had com­posed. Time stands still as the age­ing mas­ter trans­forms be­fore your un­be­liev­ing eyes into a bash­ful maiden com­plain­ing of the pranks played by Kr­ishna. His mas­tery over bhaav batana (art of telling an idea/tale through mime and song) is truly trans­port­ing. With large lu­mi­nous eyes, fa­cial ex­pres­sions, an­i­mated hand ges­tures and min­i­mal body move­ments, he casts a spell that makes you ex­pe­ri­ence the nar­ra­tive as if you were liv­ing it from the in­side.

“Ma­haraj has a tremen­dous imag­i­na­tion that con­verts the whole world, even ev­ery­day things he sees around him, into an ab­stract lan­guage of ges­ture and rhythm,” says leading critic Leela Venkatara­man. In­deed, from the chirp­ing of birds in na­ture to the edit­ing of a film in an edit­ing suite to the mov­ing of files in a govern­ment

of­fice—noth­ing escapes the amaz­ing art of Birju Ma­haraj. Old timers in Luc­know and Delhi still re­mem­ber his un­cle Shambhu Ma­haraj for this art with great nos­tal­gia. Birju, too, touches his ear in re­spect, a ges­ture com­monly used by sub­con­ti­nen­tal mu­si­cians and dancers when re­call­ing a revered teacher or mas­ter, when he talks of Shambhu Ma­haraj’s bhaav batana. “My fa­ther, Achch­han Ma­haraj, died when I was very young. Af­ter his death, I honed my skills un­der my un­cles Lachchhu Ma­haraj, who lived in Mum­bai, and Shambhu, who taught at Su­mi­tra Charat Ram’s Bharatiya Kala Ken­dra in Delhi,” he says.

Achch­han Ma­haraj, orig­i­nally named Ja­gan­nath Prasad, went to colo­nial Delhi in 1936 to teach at the Hin­dus­tani School of Mu­sic and Dance started by Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s friend Nir­mala Joshi. Among his first stu­dents from among the girls of the so-called ‘re­spectable’ Delhi fam­i­lies were Kapila Vat­syayan, Reba Vid­yarthi and Sha­ran Rani Mathur. Be­fore com­ing to Delhi, he had done long stints in the courts of Raja Chakrad­har Singh in Raigarh and Nawab Raza Ali Khan in Ram­pur. A ro­tund man, he was nonethe­less so nim­ble on his feet that the fa­mous vo­cal­ist Us­tad Faiyyaz Khan said of him: “Though built like an ele­phant, Achchan Ma­haraj is so grace­ful that it seems a fairy is dancing on a bed of su­gar candy.” Hor­ri­fied by the prePar­ti­tion ri­ots in Delhi, he re­turned to Luc­know only to die sud­denly in the sum­mer of 1947, aged 64. By then, his nine-year-old son Bri­j­mo­han (Birju) had al­ready started per­form­ing and took on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of look­ing af­ter his wid­owed mother.

“Af­ter my fa­ther’s death, I learnt from both my un­cles though mostly by ob­serv­ing them prac­tice and per­form,” says Birju. Bai­j­nath Prasad, the mid­dle brother bet­ter known as Lachchhu Ma­haraj, had made Mum­bai his do­main and taught many film­stars of yes­ter­year—from Meena Ku­mari, Nar­gis, Kumkum and Wa­heeda Rehman, down to Jaya Bachchan. He also chore­ographed dance se­quences for sev­eral films in­clud­ing the Thaare Rahiyo song in Ka­mal Am­rohi’s Pa­keezah. Shamb­hu­nath Prasad or Shambhu Ma­haraj, the youngest brother, lived and taught in Luc­know and Delhi. He was a great singer and fa­mous for his mes­meris­ing bhaav bataana and mel­liflu­ous thum­ris.

Their an­ces­tral home, or what re­mains of it, is sit­u­ated in a mod­est lo­cal­ity called Gola Ganj, less than a mile from Wa­jid Ali’s Kais­erbagh. It used to be called Kalka-Bin­dadin ki deodhi (Kalka-Bin­dadin’s abode). The roof of the main house has fallen but


the arched mehrabs and walls made of thin Luc­knowi lakhori bricks boast of a hoary past. Shambhu Ma­haraj’s fam­ily still lives at the rear end of the house. “I want to re­store this his­toric house and bring kathak back to Luc­know,” says the Ma­haraj, hop­ing that the present po­lit­i­cal dis­pen­sa­tion in Ut­tar Pradesh will help him achieve that goal. “This is where it all be­gan,” he rem­i­nisces, “where I grew up fly­ing kites from Bab­ban’s shop around

the cor­ner. I re­call play­ing Holi in the empty drums of Hamid bhai’s laun­dry across the street (Hamid Rizwi’s son now owns all of Luc­know’s laun­dries, be­sides a few ho­tels and restaurants). The maulvi sahib of the nearby mosque was quite tol­er­ant of our mu­sic and dance through­out the year, and we in turn would not put on our ghun­groos or play loud mu­sic dur­ing Muhar­ram. There was never a Hin­duMus­lim riot in Luc­know in our time.”

This fam­ily of Katthaks (caste) came from Handiya, a vil­lage in Al­la­habad district, and got pa­tron­age here even be­fore Nawab Wa­jid Ali’s time. Wa­jid Ali was Awadh’s Nero. A poet, com­poser and dancer, he was so im­mersed in the pur­suit of plea­sure that he had lit­tle time to ad­min­is­ter his king­dom. He had given this house, which be­came fa­mous among mu­si­cians and dancers across In­dia, to Birju’s grand­fa­ther and grand-un­cle Kalka Prasad and Bin­dadin Ma­haraj. The duo had be­come so fa­mous for their art that not only were they in­vited by many other In­dian princes to per­form at their courts, but also ev­ery nautch girl or tawaif worth her salt from Kolkata to Mum­bai, in­clud­ing the leg­endary Gauhar­jaan, came to Luc­know to be trained by them here. Bin­dadin was a pro­lific com­poser and left be­hind hun­dreds of mu­si­cal com­po­si­tions that are sung and danced all over In­dia even to­day.

Birju re­mem­bers how, on Thurs­day evenings ( jumme raat, the Sufi day of sa­maa) Shambhu Ma­haraj would sit un­der a guava tree in the court­yard with his close friends and per­form in­for­mally for them. “It was not pub­lic per­for­mances, but in­ti­mate me­hfils, where he was at his best,” he says, point­ing to the guava tree which has re­fused to die de­spite years of ruin all-round. Kathak, too, will sur­vive like the guava tree, long af­ter the tales of nawabs and colo­nial con­cu­bines are gone and the world has changed. In the mean­while, if we re­store Kalka­Bin­dadin’s house, we’d only be do­ing our duty to his­tory.

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