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Birju Maharaj, Virtuoso of Classical Indian Dance, Dies at 83

Birju Maharaj, who was revered in India as an exponent of one of its most ancient and established classical dance forms, and who choreographed steps for Bollywood hits and Indian movie classics by directors like Satyajit Ray, died on Jan. 16 in New Delhi. He was 83.

The cause appeared to be cardiac arrest while he was undergoing dialysis, a granddaughter, Ragini Maharaj, told the news agency Press Trust of India.

Mr. Maharaj performed in the Kathak tradition, which has roots more than 2,000 years old, according to some evidence. Kathak dance was performed in royal courts across the land and found favor among both Hindu and Muslim cultures. It is one of eight classical dance genres in India, each largely regionally based and each with its own sophisticated and diverse vocabulary.

Kathak’s lineages were associated with three cities in the central Indian states of Uttar Pradesh (Lucknow and Banares) and Rajasthan (Jaipur). Mr. Maharaj was raised in a tradition from Lucknow, a form that has become broadly popular.

Kathak is the tradition most interconnected with live music. The dancers, using steps and facial expressions, tell a story, often inspired by ancient Indian epics. But it is also an art of virtuosic, elaborately rhythmic footwork, often with tight rhythmic patterns that suddenly come to a sensational stop on the beat.

Mr. Maharaj’s eyes, mouth, arm gestures and footwork were all part of the brilliant and charming skill with which he made Kathak renowned. Like several other Indian genres, Kathak employs anklets bearing dozens of tiny bells that jangle with the steps of bare feet; the meters sounded by Mr. Maharaj’s anklets were often astounding.

Brij Mohan Nath Mishra was born on Feb. 4, 1938, into the seventh generation of a distinguished Kathak family, known as Maharaj for their mastery of the art.

He received his first dance training from his father, Jagannath Maharaj (popularly known as Acchan Maharaj), who had been the court dancer in the princely state of Rajgarh and who became his son’s guru and fellow performer. The British still ruled India when Birju, at age 7, gave his first public performance.

Two years later, his father died and two of Birju’s uncles — Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj — continued his dance education. When India became independent in 1947, Kathak achieved fresh glory, with Birju as a leading exponent.

He moved to New Delhi as a boy. At 13, he began teaching Kathak at the Sangeet Bharati, an important school of performing arts. By his 20s he was nationally known as one of his country’s great dancers. He also practiced and performed Hindustani vocal music, composed new music, played multiple musical instruments, wrote poetry and painted.

He went on to teach, with his uncle Shambhu, at dance schools in New Delhi, opening his own school, Kalashram, in 1998.

Mr. Maharaj married Annapuran Devi in 1956. They had three daughters, Kavita, Anita and Mamta, and two sons, Jaikishan and Deepak. Both his sons and his daughter Mamta are leading figures in Kathak practice. Mr. Maharaj’s wife died in 2008. A complete list of survivors was unavailable.

Early in his career, he took part in the cultural troupes sent abroad by the Indian government. When full-length mythological and historical dance dramas became standard in the 1970s, he choreographed a number of them, some with Mughal themes. In the 1980s, he focused on abstract, entirely rhythmic compositions. Both humor and sensitivity became part of his storytelling, along with mathematics and numerology.

He choreographed a number of dances for Indian films, starting with Satyajit Ray’s classic “The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi)” (1977). He also made some famous dance numbers in hit Bollywood films like “Devdas” (2002) and “Dedh Ishqiya” (2014).

Mr. Maharaj gave Kathak dance lessons to the movie star Deepika Padukone for the film “Bajirao Mastani” (2015). He won a Filmfare Award, a major Indian movie industry accolade, for best choreography for the number “Mohe Rang Do Laal” in that movie.

Widely known as Pandit Birju Maharaj — Pandit refers to skill, scholarship, and authority — he danced in Europe and the United States, visiting Washington in 2014 and New York in 2019.

Into at least his late 70s, Mr. Maharaj showed how Kathak could display brilliant, jazzlike interplay with its musical accompaniment while remaining an art of both communication and playfulness. He was devoted to his musicians, always traveling with them. They would often tease him in performance with skeins of rhythmic complexity to which he would gleefully rise.

He also showed that dance was part of something larger: a response to nature and to divinity.

Circassia News

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