Meet Pt. Birju Maharaj, the poet

The Kathak maestro comes up with ‘Brij Shyam Kahe’, a compilation of poetry for dance

“My dance is my mirror,” said Pt. Birju Maharaj, when asked about his vast repertoire of skills. Through the lockdown last year, he was busy writing Brij Shyam Kahe (So says Brij Shyam), a collection of poetic compositions arranged into 15 types of musical and literary genres. The poetic format offers ideas for imagery that can be used in dance.

Published by the Emami Foundation, the compilation is more a reflection of the journey undertaken by the dancer, teacher and guru, who communicates here the aesthetics of dance through poetry. Pt. Birju Maharaj, who uses the pen name Brij Shyam, expands on some of his philosophy in this interview. Edited excerpts:

How did you take to writing poetry and what do you want to convey through it?

Kathak is the basis of my poetic journey. There are different levels to the process — from dance to poetry and back to dance — Shruti (the heard word), Smriti (the remembered word), and Srijan (creativity). From my mother, Mahadai, and several other elders, I listened to the poetry written by my grandfather, Pt. Bindadin Maharaj, for dance.

In the beginning, I did not write my name with my compositions and used the name ‘Binda Shyam’; even now, when I use my name ‘Brij Shyam,’ it is as an offering to my gurus.

These poems have been penned to help dancers think before creating a piece. They are also about the cultural ecology that has nurtured Kathak. For instance, the idea of Krishna (Natwar); Kathak is ‘Natwar Nritya,’ the dance of Krishna. While some poems are on festivals, such as Hori of Braj, others are on the leelas (plays) of gods. In these poems, I seek to capture the world from which Kathak derives its content. The dominance of the emotions of shringar (love) and bhakti in the verses are illustrative of conditioning the mind for dance. “Do nayan ke madhya mein, base Radhika Shyam, palak band kari dhyan mein, sada rahat ‘Brij Shyam’.” (Brij Shyam’s eyes remain closed in meditation, and always hold dear the vision of Radhika and Shyam.)

The poem titled ‘Bichaaraa Shabd’ (helpless spoken word) shows your use of simple language. How does the spoken/ written word connect with dance?

Indian classical dancers work with two kinds of languages. The first is the usual Hindi, English, Tamil, etc. Then there is the language of dance expressed in the grammar of movement, rhythm, or bhava; or through mnemonic syllables (bols). Using simple language, I hope, will boost their imagination to churn, create, and compose.

In your poems, you often mention guru, dhyaan and jap. How do they relate to dance?

These terms provide direction to a journey. The true meaning of ‘guru,’ as I have understood, is the one who provides light and the technique to remove ignorance through a knowledge system. From my lived experience, the idea of ‘dhyaan’ is focused reflection, and ‘jap’ is reflective meditation. These are the ways I prepare myself to enter the world of dance. Different artistes have their means to engage with the creative world. For instance, my grandfather, a dancer, writer and composer, when asked to perform in the Awadh or Bhopal court, would place a salagram in front of the tabla before beginning his performance. Salagram is a fossilised shell that represents the omniscient energy of Vishnu. For Maharaj Bindadin, the performance was always a ritual exploring truth and understanding the self. Once the performance was over, my grandfather would first bow and retrieve the salagram and then turn to salute his patron king.

When you say dhyaan and jap dictate your creative consciousness, how do you relate that to the chakkars that dominate Kathak performances?

The chakkars (pirouettes) are one of the many elements that make a composition. However, chakkars and acrobatic stunts such as jumps are disruptive to the poetry of the pieces. In fact, in my view, used them excessively reflect a wavering mind caught in a world of maya (illusion). The performer is more concerned about arriving at the climax with a bang and revelling in the thunder of audience applause.

Your engagement with the concept of ‘line’ is evident in your poetry and dance. For instance, there are poems written as couplets (dohas) or as quatrains (chaupai). Can you tell us about the importance of ‘line’?

Lines are the basis for my experiential journey in creativity. They provide a specific direction, chronology, continuity and clarity of thought. In Kathak, the movement and line connection is essential. As in poetry, there should be continuity in the dance movement. Thus, any dance movement has a line that marks the three parts — beginning, body and end. Unfortunately, today, many Kathak dancers merely focus on the beginning and the end of movements without engaging with the body, making the dance soul-less.

You have expressed your creativity through dance, singing, playing instruments, painting, and now writing. What is it you search for?

In a poem, I write, ‘Ek anek roop mein dekhiyo.’ I travel to see and seek the unity of being in different forms and different routes, a pilgrimage towards one goal — to find myself.

So, who are you?

My dance is my mirror. I am without a form and merely a vichaar dhara (thought process).

The writer is a Kathak artiste and cultural critic.

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