Pandit Birju Maharaj: A master storyteller

 Pandit Birju Maharaj: A master storyteller

One of the greatest dance doyens the world of Indian Classical dance has ever seen is Late Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj, he has his disciples all over the world and after his death (two years back) his devoted students came together and announced his birthday February 4 as the World Kathak Day, the Government of India supported this emotional initiative too and since then the life of the legend is celebrated with great aplomb. Shivani Varma on of his beloved and dedicated student and the curator of Dastaan-e-Kathak festival on World Kathak Day recently spoke with me about Dastaan-e-Kathak, Excerpts from the interview:

What made you start Dastaan-e-Kathak?
The idea of a flagship festival was the corollary to the dream of a World Kathak Day to commemorate my Guru Pandit Birju Maharaj ji’s birth anniversary. The movement of World Kathak Day is based at its core on the literal translation of the word Kathak as a Storyteller as opposed to just one particular Indian dance form. It is so because all Indian arts and knowledge systems are interconnected, interdisciplinary and inclusive and that is what a real storyteller is! And Maharaj ji embodied the completeness of the term in his life. The festival then emerged, to lead by example and put that thought into action in a tangible way and put thoughts out there that I hope will be picked up!

Kathak Dancer Shivani Varma

What was the first year like?
Year one was all about nostalgia and the theme was ‘The Story of a Storyteller’. It was the first year after Maharajji’s passing and I wanted his presence which I feel all the time and still miss, to be felt all around. It was over 2 days and we had 3 venues.
The first thing we did was to set up the Kathak Day trust and commission a modern monument to him in the shape of a street art mural at the Lodi Art District at Delhi. This was inaugurated by living legend and maestro Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia who also did a boutique performance for us and launched the movement.
The curation began with the choice of Sunder Nursery’s Heritage monument as the venue and we did an audio visual retrospective walkway by celebrated photographer Innee Singh right upto the stage. Then we had a pre opening spiritual meditation by Yogini Mini Shastri which then led to the main performance art segment. We began with a piece called Tat Tvamasi (you are that) inspired by Maharajji’s love for and mastery over Rhythm. This piece conceptualised and directed by me was based around the percussion instruments of 5 classical dance forms – Tabla (Yogesh Gangani), Pakhawaj (Mahaveer Gangani), Mardala (Namrata Dave), Khol (Hariprasad Saikia), Mridangam (Mahesh Balatchandrane and Sannidhi Vaidyanathan). The dancers were Kuchipudi (Yamini Reddy), Sattriya (Anwesa Mahanta), Bharatnatyam (Himanshu Srivastava), Odissi (Madhur Gupta) and Kathak (Shubhi Johri). The piece had no vocal singing, but was threaded together by Swaransh Mishra’s poetry.
The second performance was inspired by Maharaj ji’s everlasting love for the city of his birth, Lucknow. And we had Muzaffar Ali Sahab’s composition and poetry reading of Wajid Ali Shah’s poetry to which I danced. The last piece was performed by Khayal maestro Pt. Sajan Mishra and his son Swaransh Mishra and was interspersed with anecdotes from his son-in-law and grandson. A huge team of artists came together under the banner for this and we were helped on lights by Nitin Jain.

How was this year different from the last year?
After the success of first year, my thought was to turn the idea completely on its head and take the movement to totally different arenas. The idea is to be edgy, cool and fun, almost inviting. So we took the theme of “The Storytellers’ Party” and did exactly that!
It was and still is, because the intention is for it to be year-long till 2025 and is a bit of an experiment, although part 1 of it, if I may say so myself, has been very well received. This year we had a Digital Edition of Dastaan-e-Kathak as a run-up to World Kathak Day. It was a 7 days festival and the first of its kind because we invited 12 wonderful artists, carefully curated by us, for successfully having been able to transfer their training and aesthetic from the stage onto screen, and without diluting their training.
The line up began with Dance Influencer Vanya Bahl, who is not trained in any traditional dance helped us create a shout out for them. The classical artists were Aamrapali Bhandari, Avenav Mukherji, Vrinda Chadha, Shalakha Rai, Ravi Yadav, Gaurav Bhatti, Shary Gairola, Barkha Patel, Vinay Tiwari, Nidhi Prabhu and we ended with Kunal Om, a Flemenco dancer.
The brief given to these cerebral artists was to represent within reel-length ie. 90 seconds a concept, and directly or indirectly the concept must convey something to do with Maharajji and these were presented LIVE on Instagram and YouTube. We were very fortunate to get the support of Aadyam Handlooms, an Aditya Birla Group initiative.
The eve of the World Kathak Day had the coolest hippest Indian brands, Raw Mango. Sanjay Garg, its founder, and us created an ensemble of 16 Tabla Artists and made them jam together in what became an unforgettable event. The performers were led very ably by a hugely talented young Tabla player, Nishit Gangani, the son of Shri Yogesh Gangani.

Funds for a show of such a large scale is always an issue. How do you manage it?
Funds are a concern, yes, but, I was fortunate to receive the support of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, as well as the Good Earth Foundation and Aadyam. The patrons were all very kind and it is because of them that we managed, I wanted no compromises on the content or on the artist’s fees.

Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore from Pacific University USA, an honorary doctorate in performing arts from the National American University, He is a World Book Record holder,
a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honored with three
National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award
by the Government of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]


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