Birju Maharaj: An artist of rare caliber

Throughout his career, legendary dancer Birju Maharaj, who passed away in New Delhi on January 17, mesmerized people with speed, grace, skill, fluidity and technique of his steps. Born in Lucknow on February 4, 1938, he was the son of prominent Kathak master Jagannath Maharaj and became a leading exponent of the Lucknow Kalka Bindadin gharana. The young Birju was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps who trained him in his early years after recognizing the boy’s potential.

However, his father died when the boy was just nine years old. He was then trained by his uncles, the legendary dance masters Shambhu Maharaj and Lacchu Maharaj. At age 13 he became a dance master at the Sangeet Bharati in New Delhi.

He eventually became the Head of Faculty and director at the Kathak Kendra (a unit of Sangeet Natak Akademi) from where he retired in 1998. He then opened his own dance school, Kalashram.

At the school he used the traditional parameters to choreograph new presentations to convey to the audience that even classical style can be very appealing, interesting and dignified. Well versed in Hindustani Classical, he was also a trained singer in Thumri and Dadra. In addition, he knew how to play the tabla, naal and violin.

A master of his craft, each step he took to the sound of a musical note and varying rhythms was nothing short of precise and complex mathematical calculations.

Known for his precision, grace, perfect rhythm/taal and expressive abhinayas, Birju Maharaj had the rare ability to create a whirlwind of emotions through his footwork and movements whether it be raw of simplicity of the human desire or the sheer complexity of the expression that is human society.

His style was a blend of elements from different schools, inheriting the stylized fluidity from his uncles, and the precision of footwork and play of face from his father.

He made his first foray into the world of cinema with Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film “Shatranj Ke Khilari” where he was asked to choreograph the dances in the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh who was a lover of arts.

Ray did not want any ‘filmi kathak’ rather ‘pure kathak’ was his ask from Birju Maharaj, who fulfilled his demand by being as meticulous as he could looking up to the body movements, eye glances, angles, expressions, footwork, twirls and head turns in order to capture the real life essence of the raw classical kathak so as to instill a sense of serenity in the nawab.

The dance was done by Saswati Sen, one of his long time associates who was also one of his senior most disciples.

He also choreographed other dances pieces in Bollywood such as the song ‘Kahe Chhede Mohe…’ from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film ‘Devdas’. In this song, Madhuri Dixit danced wearing a heavy lehenga. Birju Maharaj believed that Madhuri is also a great dancer like Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman.

He choreographed the song ‘Mohe Rang Do Lal’ for another of Bhansali’s blockbusters “Bajirao Mastani” featuring Deepika Padukone. He taught Kathak to Deepika.

One of his most celebrated choreographed performances was of the Roopmati-Baz Bahadur love affair of 16th century which he performed in both India and abroad. With only a few dancers, he orchestrated movement and pace and filled the stage creating a powerful and enthralling presence.

Birju Maharj won several awards. He was honored with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1964, Padma Vibhusan in 1986, the Kalidas Samman in 1987, Soviet Land Nehru Award, the Lata Mangeshakar Puraskar in 2002, Honorary Doctorate from Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyayla and from Banaras Hindu University.

He won the 2012 National Film Award for Best Choreography for Unnai Kaanaathu (Vishwaroopam) and the 2016 Filmfare Award for Best Choreography for “Mohe Rang Do Laal” (Bajirao Mastani).

Tributes pour in

Tributes poured in from across the country on the dance veteran’s demise.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Birju Maharaj’s death an “irreparable loss to the entire art world” and expressed his condolences to his family and fans.

President Ram Nath Kovind said the dancer’s death leaves “a deep void in the Indian music and cultural space”. In a tweet, Kovind said that Birju Maharaj was an an icon who made “unparalleled contribution to popularize Kathak globally”.

Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu said he was “deeply saddened” by the death of the Kathak dancer. “The world renowned Kathak exponent with his unique style was an institution and an inspiration across the globe,” Naidu tweeted. “His death is a huge loss to the world of performing arts.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offered his condolences to the dancer’s family and friends. “His contribution to the field of Indian classical dance is unparalleled and he will be remembered for it,” Gandhi tweeted.

Actor Hema Malini tweeted: “The nation mourns the passing of a true legend, Shri Birju Maharaj,Kathak exponent par excellence. His ghungroos were on his ankles till he breathed his last.I always admired and respected him as a giant of the medium of Kathak & will miss his presence on the firmament of dance.”

Sarod player Amjad Ali Khan said Birju Maharaj’s death was a personal loss to him. “He was loved immensely by my family and his memories live in our hearts forever,” Khan tweeted. “The heavens will dance for him today and everyday.”


  1. Thumri is the most important “light classical” genre of North Indian Classical music. It is performed in many contexts, from the sphere of dance, to the vocal concert stage, to performance on instruments. The reason behind calling Thumri light classical are many and varied. One of the prime reasons is that the melodies are not always composed in a Raaga and the may break the rules in singing those that are. It has also been suggested that simpler talas and less weighty raagas are used for thumri.

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