Birju Maharaj’s Heritage programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday evening was as much about education as it was about entertainment. Pandit Birju Maharaj, described in the programme as legendary, is also a very warm and charming man and is as much an educator as he is a dancer. His mission is clearly to spread the word about the beauties of Kathak dance, a dance form with as much emphasis on mime as there is on movement.
The evening began with Invocation to Lord Shiva, Shiva being the Indian God of the dance and therefore an especially apt opening. Among the dancers was Birju Maharaj’s son Deepak, representing the eighth generation of dancers in his family. This was followed by Nritta in which Birju Maharaj first danced a solo dedicated to Lord Krishna followed by a brilliant series of improvisations in which he emphasises the importance of rhythm, explaining that all of nature has a rhythm from the beating of a birds wing to the rhythm we create when writing – handwriting can be fast or slow and Kathak latches onto these rhythms, recreating them in dance forms. This man can dance to anything, even the engaged tone of a telephone (much laughter from the audience). A brilliant mime, he becomes a mother bird feeding her chicks and then becomes a strutting peacock (my favourite) before returning to some of the more familiar Hindu themes such as Lord Krishna and the milkmaids, with the young God first the pursuer and then the pursued.
In a very lengthy programme I was especially struck by Anamya (Pliable) a work concerning the fate of a piece of iron that lies disregarded by the side of the road, the iron dreams of becoming a temple bell but is instead smelted into a sword and condemned to an existence of killing and violence. The iron was brilliantly danced by Deepak Maharaj, first as a clumsy inanimate object and then as a flashing sword dealing injury and death. This piece very clearly illustrated the eastern idea of destiny, somewhat at odds with our western notions of free will.
All dancers are communicators, but Birju Maharaj is an exceptionally fine one, communicating to his audience his unique approach to Indian dance and drawing us into his magical world.