Maharaj ji’s name evokes within me myriad emotions – of love and gratitude for a guru who wears his genius streak so lightly on his shoulders, interest to see him at work, creating and composing, a friend always ready to joke, an interesting story-teller, the list is endless! Since neither my parents nor I were in favour of Guru hopping (as is the norm today), my parents took their time to find me a guru for dance. This search was natural as my father had been transferred to Delhi from Bombay (now Mumbai). Since I could not live without dance, my parents spoke to my Guru in Bombay, Guru Kundanlal Sisodia, who sent his son-in-law, Hazarilal ji to see that my practice remained unhindered.
It was sometime in mid-1964 that my parents took me to the residence of Birju Maharaj, a young rising star in the Kathak firmament. I think he was not impressed with my extremely serious countenance and demeanour but something made him ask me to perform a piece for him. Soon after my extremely short display, he seemed to be visibly change his mind, for he smiled and told my parents to come on a particular date to do the guru puja, initiating me as his student.
I will always remember my initiation as his student. It was a more elaborate affair than I had ever had before. It was special because he explained the significance of each aspect of the ceremony. I was also now at an age when I could appreciate the nuances. Till then I had always been dressed in a frock or skirt and blouse, churidar-kurta or salwar kameez. Now I was directed only to wear saris! With reluctance, churidar-kurta! Hence dressed in the latter, I was initiated as his disciple. Seated in front of him before a huge silver tray laden with sweets, fruits, my revered ghunghuroos, oil lamp, incense and incense sticks, small katories of curd, roli, mauli thread, rice, few betel leaves few nuts of supari, jaggery and chana (roasted gram) and below an array of photographs of his ancestors, the puja was performed. Maharaj-ji explained the significance of every act of puja as we went along. As regards the chana-gur, he explained that as it is difficult process to chew on the hard gram so is it with learning of dance. But thereafter joy and ecstasy are experiences when dance becomes internalized and therefore the jaggery!
To begin with, Maharaj-ji would send one of his senior-most students, Pradeep Shankar to teach me. But later seeing my involvement and devotion to Kathak, he himself started to teach me. He would come to my house every day to teach me in addition to the mandatory classes at the Kendra. Painstakingly he would correct every movement and stance of mine. My mother who would be sitting there throughout watching the entire teaching process would later explain to me as to where I had gone wrong. Holidays saw him come at 10 am and practices would go on till late evening till my back almost gave way! For over a year, I got stuck on just a few toras and parans for Maharaj-ji felt that I had not got them correct. Only when he was satisfied did he teach me something new. For quite a few years Maharaji-ji banned my performance for he felt that I should perform only after I had achieved something. My parents agreed with this decision. They, Maharaj-ji and my parents were unanimous in their view that I should emerge once suitably ‘ready’. When he felt that it was time to introduce me to the serious ‘rasikas’ he himself launched me at one of his programmes in Sapru House where I performed for about 30 minutes before he came on to the stage. How can I ever forget this! I will always be indebted to him. In the initial stages, he himself would do my make-up.
Shovana Narayan with Pt Birju Maharaj in her younger days
As Maharaj-ji never charged us a single penny my parents did not know how to show their gratitude. Since Maharaj-ji had great fondness for paan (betel leaf) and rabari (sweet dish made of thick milk), these would be served to him every day. After dance lessons, Maharaj-ji would love to sit with Ma and listen to her reminiscences of dance and dancers of bygone days.
The six months holidays between school and college gave me an insight into the real meaning of the guru-shishya parampara, a term that is much bandied about. As I had done my ISC that meant that I had six months of holidays between school finishing and commencement of college in mid-July. This period was utilized to the hilt in pursuit of dance. My father would drop me at my guru’s residence early in the morning and pick me up late in the evening. The whole day was thus spent in the atmosphere of dance. It certainly did not mean that I was dancing with my ghughuroos on all the 10-12 hours that I was there. The actual learning of dance technicalities was perhaps two to three hours but the rest of the time was spent in observing my guru teach others and choreograph various items and ballets for the Kendra, besides helping his family in odd assortment of jobs. During this time, while observing him teach others, listening carefully to what he said while choreographing various items for the ballet unit of the Kendra that he was heading, it gave an idea about his thought process and approach to a movement, to a composition, to an idea and so on. In between whenever he was in the mood, he would ask me to learn. I learnt to appreciate the essence of Kathak, much beyond the technical aspects of the dance form. Being in this atmosphere helped me to unconsciously imbibe the ethos and spirit of dance as well as soak the thought process of my guru. These six months will always be the most precious moments of my learning career. In today’s age and life style, this was the closest to the guru-shishya padhhati that we keep talking about for this padhhati is an osmosis process that allows soaking up of ‘dance’ in the veins of a person. What one makes of this is left entirely to the will, determination and ‘sadhana’ of the student concerned. The guru cannot be expected to do handholding all the time.
I am always beholden to Maharaji-ji for not only did he teach me the intricacies of Kathak but also for his contribution in seeing that I emerge as a dancer. Realising that studies meant a lot to me and my family and that my pre-occupation with Physics which led me to do my Masters in the subject, left me with little time during the day to pursue dance, he went out of his way to come to my house every evening for about two hours in order to teach me. In this manner, studies at the University and dance could be pursued simultaneously with greatest of devotion.
I remember so vividly his first AIR programme of thumri and dadra. Two days before the programme, he contracted a severe cold that affected his throat. Every remedy possible was tried so as to enable him to sing for AIR. On the great day, his voice miraculously seemed better and much to everyone’s delight, his first vocal music programme on All India Radio was a great success. How we all cheered with joy!
Narayan always kept in touch with her guru
There are so many memories that cannot be contained in a brief article. Before ending, I can only say that I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from him, to observe and learn not only the technicalities but also the finer nuances and spirit of Kathak, to have him personally launch my professional career, to spend so many carefree moments filled with fun and laughter with him and his family and to have had the benefit of his wife, bhabhiji’s love and affection.
To me, Birju Maharaj ji stands for excellence, for freshness of imagination, with an unusual gift for learning and growing, widening the sphere of human sensibility with thought and spirit. He may not be here physically but he is always with us in our memories, in our hearts, in his art, in our works.
Padma Shri Shovana Narayan is a well-known Kathak dancer.
Trained under Pt Birju Maharah, she has performed around the globe