The dancer who loves gizmos
D ufferin Hospital. Lucknow, February 4, 1938. On that balmy autumn day, the maternity ward witnessed the birth of several girls. There was just one boy, healthy and wheatish. The neighborhood uncle christened him Brij Mohan Mishra, the only Krishna among innumerable gopis.
You cannot lure Birju Maharaj, India's most famous kathak
dancer, with a 10 carat diamond. Give him some electronic
gizmo instead, or challenge him to a game of kite flying…
But that name was cold shouldered early on, the baby grew up to be known the world over as Birju Maharaj.
Dance has been a consistent passion that binds his childhood and adult life together. In his ancestral house in Golaganj, Lucknow, which was gifted by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to his grandfather "it was dance that dwelled in its precincts" says Birju Maharaj, remembering his childhood. "Even at four in the morning one could hear the clangor of ghungroos . And everyone walked in - from tawaifs to bhands of Rajasthan to anyone who loved rhythm and sound."
Little Birju was drawn into it naturally and he accompanied his father for dance performances all over the country. Dance not only mesmerized him, it also lured his life on. Till death clanged on the doors, when at 10, Birju lost his father and "life lost its rhythm for a while". He awoke from the nightmare when his mother took his little fingers and led the way. There was someone else who was worried." Kapila Vatsayan asked my mother 'Is the boy doing something?' I had to find my moorings and I soon packed my bags and moved to Delhi where I joined Sangeet Bharati," recalls Birju Maharaj, earmarking the moment where it all began. At 14 he was already a teacher. "Even as a child I always wanted to command, always wanted people to listen to me and the teacher in me fulfilled that."
Nearly 46 years later, Birju Maharj is doing exactly the same - totally 'in command' of the situation at Akshara Theater, New Delhi. His troupe is to leave for Lucknow and he is busy with last moment details and rehearsals. His daughter Mamta is also there, urging 'babu' to repeat a step. "We are not like you, please do it once, just once more," she pleads. Not once did art falter, not for one moment could one separate the dance from the dancer. But Birju Maharaj is a little worried. He needs to go to the dentist. "What if my teeth fall off in America and I need to go to a dentist," he laughs.
There is always much laughter when he around. Though he seems to love every successive minute, every detail of life, he does have his special passions - flying kites and electronic goods. "I just love flying kites, I can stop anywhere and lend a hand to anyone flying a kite," he says with a smile. Not for him the lure of gold or diamonds. "If you were to gift me gold or diamonds it would not really make me happy, but an electronic item would do the trick, I am fascinated by them." It may not be one of his favorite things but Birju Maharaj does wear thick gold chains around his neck. Two of them.
But simplicity remains his hallmark. "I like people who are simple and straightforward, who are not treacherous, who do their work with sincerity." Even his hunger subsists on simplicity. "Give me anything and I will eat happily - missi roti, dal, vegetables; even bread or biscuits will do," There is nothing grandiose about his dream either. "I have devoted all my life to dance and I want to do something for it, " he says of his ambition.
"My roots are in Lucknow, but I have lived in Delhi all my life. These two places are like my two eyes and I want to build an ashram in Delhi. No, not a kothi, but a small place that would house my dance and my dreams."
It is a wish yet unfulfilled, but faith will show the way. For seven generations, the Mishras have worshipped Lord Krishna. But Brij Mohan Mishra also bows to one woman who made it all possible : his mother. "It was amma who helped me, it was she who stood by me whenever I needed her", he says remembering his mother who is no more. The man who flunked the school examinations because of "bad English" today expresses himself with a beautiful body language. His supple movements narrate agony and ecstasy, you almost read a fable in them. He also paints. Nothing in him seems discordant, there is harmony even between his dreams and reality.
Birju Maharaj is in sync with life itself.