Perhaps, it isn't a coincidence that the directors who actively courted Birju Maharaj to choreograph Kathak for their movies — Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Devdas, Bajirao Mastani), Satyajit Ray (Shatranj Ke Khiladi), Abhishek Chaubey (Dedh Ishqiya), Muzaffar Ali (Jaanisaar), Kamal Haasan (Vishwaroopam) — were ones who were comfortable with pauses and silence.
Dance in their movies is not frenetic or restless. One way of gauging this is the length of a shot. At a time when we are used to 3-5 second shots, these directors allow a frame to linger. Another way of gauging this is the lacking repetition of movements — these are not choreographies that can be easily copied, repeated, and performed, in school dances and marriage ceremonies, as riyaz or reels.
It might be why a 'Maar Dala' choreographed by Saroj Khan is more popular than 'Kaahe Chhed Mohe' choreographed by Birju Maharaj, both from Devdas (2002). It might be why a 'Deewani Mastani' choreographed by Remo D'Souza is more popular than a 'Mohe Rang Do Laal' choreographed by Birju Maharaj, both from Bajirao Mastani (2015). Both 'Mohe Rang Do Laal' and 'Kaahe Chhed Mohe' are exercises in grace, the body stretching out languorously towards beauty and eroticism without announcing its intentions so blithely. They don't have 'signature steps', only sparingly using the lower body — which he considers a sign of vulgarity. The mujra he composed for Madhuri Dixit in both Devdas and Dedh Ishqiya are examples of this. "Jab hamare guruji riyaaz karaate thhe toh agar dance karte waqt kamar ke neeche movement ho jaye to bahut naraaz ho jate thhe. Par aaj jo Bollywood aur reality shows main dance ho raha hai woh dance na ho ke stunt zyada hai," he told Times Of India.
He also refused to use the chakkar, the dramatic repeated pirouette, frequently in his dance, finding them "disruptive to the poetry of the pieces…The performer is more concerned about arriving at the climax with a bang and reveling in the thunder of audience applause." There is, instead, a gentle sway, a meditativeness, that perfumes his dance that is captured best in 'Unnai Kaanadhu' in Vishwaroopam for which he won the National Film Award for Best Choreography in 2012.
Birju Maharaj's choreography demands attention to not just the limbs, but the eyes and the wrists. Shovana Narayan, who had switched Kathak gharanas to study under Birju Maharaj had noted that in her initial days of training she spent hours internalizing the intense focus on the fluidity and circularity of the wrists, "It was always hansa paksha, never pitaka."
His craft is intensely grounded in the rasas of the song — his angika abhinaya, the movements and gestures that mimic the lyrics with such sincerity, the expressions on the face, the length of a breath to denote a sigh or rage, the glacial swirl of the wrist. Notice the way he insists on lightness in the way the dancer's fingers touch the ghunghat or pinch the fabric of their lehenga in 'Mohe Rang Do Laal' or the anarkali in 'Kanha Main Tose Haari' from Shatranj Ke Khiladi. For him dance wasn't beauty, but dance created beauty. "Dance aap ko sundar banata hai. Jo bhi kudrat ne aapko banaya, woh theek hai. Jaise hi dance ke aanchal mein usko sajate hai, dance aapke sundarta ko badhaata hai," he said in an interview with Doordarshan.
In pursuit of this craft it was the directors who had to reach out to him. Sanjay Leela Bhansali said, "It wasn't easy to get him to do the choreography of 'Kaahe Chhed Mohe' in Devdas. I was adamant. It had to be Panditji. He had scores of offers before Devdas, and he had turned them all down. I insisted. He finally agreed. He loved me like a son. Couldn't say no to me. Finally, he not only choreographed 'Kaahe Chhed', he also wrote the lyrics, and sang the number with Kavita Krishnamurthy. I don't think Madhuri Dixit has ever danced better."
Besides, he insisted on only choreographing actresses who show a predisposition to Kathak, which explains his rather slim work in films. He needed actresses who would express with their eyes and not their bodies, a reflection of the legacy of such Hindi film heroines as Meena Kumari, Madhubala, and Waheeda Rehman.
Rajinder Dudrah, co-author of The Evolution of Song and Dance in Hindi Cinema and Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University says, "Even though Pt. Birju Maharaj's direct involvement in Hindi cinema has been a few numerically, by choreographing leading actors like Madhuri Dixit, Kamal Haasan, and Deepika Padukone his legacy has been far more impactful. His Kathak was serious, classic and sought after and hence the A-list directors, producers, and stars wanted to work with him. Madhuri Dixit's dances in Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Deepika Padukone's classic renditions in Bajirao Mastani are cases in point."
Born in Lucknow in 1937, Birju Maharaj was the only boy among the babies in the hospital, which led to a man commenting that he is like 'Brij Ke Mohan' (Krishna), surrounded by the gopis. The name — Brijmohan — stuck. Growing up he was told stories of how his forefather, Durga Prasad, would be taken in palanquins to the darbar of Wajid Ali Shah to perform. His uncle Lachhu Maharaj swayed Bombay-wards, choreographing songs in Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam. Birju Maharaj, himself, is the seventh generation in the silsila of kathak from the Kalka-Bindadin gharana — his son the eighth, his grand-daughter belonging to the ninth generation.
Aditi Mangaldas, a Kathak dancer and a disciple of Birju Maharaj, wrote, "He transformed not only Kathak's repertoire but its presentation, pedagogy, life-span, and yet kept its essence intact." He formalized the vandana, the worship at the beginning of the Kathak performance, giving names for the various pauses of the body parts. Intensely alive to the world, he would find rhythm in the everyday, codifying it into a tihai — from the sounds of heels clicking, birds chirping, the stroke and dribble of hockey sticks, the typewriter of an office, and even protest slogans. "Rhythm hi maalik hai," he would say. In interviews he has given you can see the agitation in his fingers, throbbing for movement, desperate for rhythm.
A consummate artist, he sang, played percussion, painted, and wrote poetry. He was a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honor, in 1986. He used to write his earlier compositions under the name 'Binda Shyam' and 'Brij Shyam'. Through the lockdown last year, he was busy writing 'Brij Shyam Kahe' (So Says Brij Shyam). He was going to celebrate his 84th birthday, when he was tugged away, leaving behind his indelible traces that we will spend generations trying to cast our art in the reflection of.