It is not been too long that the Kathak legend Padma Vibhushan Birju Maharaj turned 79, but the celebration is endless. I met this wonderful man a few times and each time he left me speechless with his humility and down to earth nature.
Once while shooting when his sugar was getting low due to diabetes he told me,“Sandip give me two pieces of your glucose biscuit that is all I need.” This is how I will always remember the maestro, extremely humble, soft spoken and down to earth.
I called Maharajji to wish him for this big day and asked him few questions which he replied in a humorous manner.
What is your most cherished gift this birthday?
All my dear ones came home and we all sang and danced together and this jashan went on non-stop with students dancing, friends singing what more can I ask for. That is the best gift ever I feel.
It was your birthday and how did you spend it?
I was in Lucknow during my birthday and all the dance lovers came together and danced for me. I felt completely overwhelmed, what better way can it be that everyone was celebrating my birthday dancing with happiness. I sat and looked back at all the old memories, my old clothes, instruments, books etc of my Guru and uncles. My ancestral house has become a museum now so everything is well preserved. It was a nostalgic moment for me.
Let us talk about Bollywood, who is your favourite dancer?
For me, it is Madhuri Dixit all the way. I taught Kamal Haasan too and he is a very eager learner and I enjoyed teaching him. I am happy that I received Filmfare award for ‘Mohe Rang do laal’ so I guess Maine Deepika Padukone ko Bajirao Mastani mein thee kthak nachwa diya (I made Deepika dance well in Bajirao Mastani).
How would you rate today’s actresses?
I was watching Katrina Kaif on television, “Uss ko naachna nahi, hilna bolte hai” (It is not called dancing, it is called shaking). I miss the olden days of cinema. There was a time when Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini and Meena Kumari danced, that was captivating. I liked Helen too and she never looked vulgar while performing all those cabaret songs.
What is that you first talk to your director when you sign a film?
I do receive offers to choreograph Bollywood films, but before I say yes or before I start choreographing a song I ask my director, ‘Heroine kapde pehnegi na?” (Will the heroine wear cloth?).I don’t want my song to look cheap or vulgar so it is important for them to know what clothes are being planned for the song.
Your advice to filmmakers of new generation?
A film should have all types of songs to suit all tastes. I am not against international style of dances like Hip hop and jazz getting popular in films. I request directors, please go ahead and include commercially successful songs, item numbers and love making songs but, please include one song promoting Bhartiya Sanskriti and Sabyahta (Indian culture and tradition) do promote our roots a little too.
Maharajji’s closest disciple, the very elegant Saswati Sen or Saswati didi as she is popularly known as said some wonderful words about her Guru on his special day. She told me, ‘Maharajji is a true Maestro, a real genius, is a dancer, singer, composer, poet, writer, musician, painter, percussionist and most importantly an inspiration. I thank Natraj for blessing me with a guru and a mentor like him.’
My dearest friend, the gorgeous Vijayshree Choudhary, who is also the Hirkani Awardee and has learnt Kathak under the guidance of Maharajji for many years conveyed her wishes to him too. She said, ‘Charan Sparsh Guruji, to me you are the ultimate mentor, because you have taught me not just dance but even things about life. I owe everything I know to you and only you. With folded hands, I bow to you and wish you a Happy Birthday.”
The love that the dance community has for Maharajji is rare to see, he is one of the finest gentlemen who is loved by one and all. Once I visited him at his dance class in Delhi, he made me sit next to him and said, “Sandip, dancer may be of any style Indian or international, a dancer is a dancer. I never differentiate between them because to me a dancer means, a one who has dedicated his or her entire life to dance.”
Today with my article, I would like to wish the King of Kathak, plenty of Love and a life journey overflowing with music and dance. Maharajji may you spread the joy of dance in the life of everyone who crosses your path. Happy Birthday, tight hugs.
(Sandip Soparrkar is a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with National Achievement and National Excellence Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)