Master’s love for Indian kathak dance is in his eyes

Boston Globe, October 5, 2006

NEW YORK—After a long day teaching workshops in the ancient dance form of which he is considered the greatest living master, Birju Maharaj emerges into the glare of the lobby of the Alvin Ailey studios here, amid a cluster of students and musicians. A small man, and at 68 advancing in years, he appears tired from the hectic schedule of his US tour. People touch his feet in respect as they take their leave. He gives a thin smile, and stares into space.

To many, the Delhi-based Maharaj, who performs at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, embodies kathak, the main classical dance of North India. Having evolved from Hindu temple to Muslim court to the modern stage, kathak is a dance equivalent of Indo-Persian miniature paintings, with which it shares elegance and extreme precision. Performing solo to a tabla drum, the dancer uses heavy ankle bells to echo and refine the beat. The arms and face tell a story, traditionally based on myth. A minute eyebrow gesture endows a character with personality and intent.

“The eye movement is the color of the dance,” Maharaj explains later at his hotel. “Without that, nothing. The footwork and the hands is not enough. We use the big brush to paint the sound: that’s the jingles. The hand for [smaller] things. And the color the last. The structure is OK, but the color comes from your eyes.”

As he explains, his own eyes brighten. He speaks with precise, elegant head turns. His body is lodged in a heavy hotel sofa yet brims with awareness and life. Explaining how he constructs stories, he calls out syllable patterns that identify a peacock, a lion, a child at play, even a seemingly inert slab of iron.

In performance, these syllables are the notes that the tabla and bells sound out and the dancer and percussionist vocalize as they improvise within a given time cycle, whether 16 beats or something more complex. As Maharaj speaks and taps out examples, the mathematical purity behind kathak grows clear, and also its claim to universality.

“I see the rhythm everywhere,” Maharaj says. “The rhythm of the ocean, how the waves are coming. And the air also is dancing. If the tree is moving, all the branches and leaves, it’s dancing. As my fingers are dancing, the leaf is also moving. So in my view, the whole universe is dance.”

Gretchen Hayden, the founder and artistic director of the Boston kathak school Chhandika, calls Maharaj a masterful storyteller with a playful streak.

“He’s very creative in taking a traditional composition and weaving a story out of it,” she says. “He’ll observe things around him, from nature like bees flying around, or even a telephone call. He creates vignettes from daily life.”

Maharaj’s life story blends guardianship of tradition with inventive adaptation to modern realities. He was born into kathak, the son and grandson of major dancers in the Lucknow school, which flourished in that city’s colonial era, at the court of the Nawab of Oudh. To not be a kathak dancer was barely an option.

“I was born in 1938; everyone was performing at that time,” he says. “My father, my uncles. I could see them, and sometimes I played tabla for them when I was very young. Twenty-four hours, the jingle sound was coming in my ear. The tabla, the singing. And the sound was a very attractive thing.”

But Maharaj has also seen the dance’s transition from an intimate form played before small audiences to the modern stage, at once less personal and more amenable to innovation.

“Before, there was the mehfil a close gathering with no mike, no lights,” he says. “The movement was very subtle and small. Now it is spread, naturally, because of the stage. So there is stretching of the body and walking back and forth. We cover the stage.”

Contemporary staging has brought lights, the addition of new musical instruments to give the accompaniment a more orchestral feel, and the possibility of choreographed works for multiple dancers. Maharaj has embraced these changes but stops short of more aggressive cross-genre fusions, hotly debated in the kathak community.

That community has changed a great deal, as well. Although kathak remains popular in India and has always attracted Western students, the growth of the Indian diaspora has stimulated interest in the United States, where schools are multiplying and top artists like Maharaj tour yearly.

Workshops like Maharaj’s sessions at the Ailey school, or at a major kathak conference that was held last weekend in San Francisco, cannot replace the traditional mode of teaching, in which a student lived with a guru, or teacher, for months or years. Maharaj views this change with pragmatism, not nostalgia.

“In old times the student was living in the home, cleaning the home, washing the clothes of the guru. Nowadays everybody is busy with earning money to live and eat. In old days teachers said, if you want to learn, come to Lucknow. Now I put my things in my mind- box, in my heart, and take it everywhere. And as you can, you take from me.”

Even a brief and busy workshop affords Maharaj satisfaction that his teaching is taking hold, and that kathak continues to grow.

“The students are very keen, and they are doing their best,” he says. “If there is a student who is taking something from me, I feel very good. If I can see my dance movement in another person’s body, I feel good. I am there.”