Kathak doyen Birju Maharaj, who took the classical Indian dance form to the world and helped make it accessible for generations of students and audiences, died at his home here in the early hours of Monday. He would have been 84 next month. Maharaj-ji, as he was popularly known, died surrounded by his family and disciples, laughing and smiling till the very end. They were playing antakshari' after dinner when he suddenly took ill, his granddaughter Ragini Maharaj told PTI.
Birju Maharaj, one of India's best known artistes who was also a thumri exponent and even voiced a song for Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khiladi , was from Lucknow's Kalka-Bindadin Gharana. He is survived by five children, three daughters and two sons, and five grandchildren. He had been suffering from a kidney ailment and was under dialysis treatment for the last month due to high diabetes. He probably died of a cardiac arrest, his granddaughter said.
"He was with us when this happened. He had his dinner and we were playing antakshari' because he loved old music. He was lying down and suddenly his breathing became uneven. We think it was a cardiac arrest as he was also a heart patient.
"This happened between 12.15 and 12.30 am. It must have been just a minute or so. We rushed to the hospital but unfortunately, we could not save him. He died before reaching the hospital," Ragini said
Ragini, a Kathak dancer herself, said the only solace for the family is that he did not suffer too much. "Two of his disciples and his two granddaughters, my younger sister Yasyashashwini and me, were with him when this happened. He was laughing and smiling in his last moments," she said.
Condolences poured in as news came in of the death of the Kathak maestro, who would have been 84 on February 4.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his death is an "irreparable loss" to the entire art world. "Deeply saddened by the demise of Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, who gave Indian dance a special recognition world over My condolences to his family and fans in this hour of grief," the prime minister said.
The demise of legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj marks the end of an era. It leaves a deep void in the Indian music and cultural space. He became an icon, making unparalleled contribution to popularise Kathak globally. Condolences to his family and admirers, President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said his contribution to the field of Indian classical dance is unparalleled and he will be remembered for it. Fondly called Pandit-ji or Maharaj-ji by his disciples and legions of followers, he had said the younger generation has many more opportunities to learn than in his time.
In his last interview with PTI in December, Birju Maharaj had said the future of Kathak was bright in India with the new generation taking the tradition forward. "Artistes who passionately work towards carrying the tradition forward are the right torchbearers of an art form and its legacy. It takes a lot of work and dedication to stay true to a mighty tradition such as classical dance," the Padma Vibhushan awardee had said.
Brajmohan Maharaj or Birju Maharaj was a descendant of the Maharaj family of Kathak dancers. He trained under his father and guru Acchan Maharaj and uncles Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj.
Singer Durga Jasraj, daughter of the late Pandit Jasraj, called Birju Maharaj's death "a monumental loss to Indian performing arts". "Legendary Pt Birju Mahraj ji's departure has left us poorer, shattered. Pray Maharaj ji's soul rests in rhythmic peace. Deepest condolences to his family, disciples and fans across the world. Om Shanti," she wrote on Twitter.
Dancer Geeta Chandran also mourned Birju Maharaj's death and described his contribution to the world of dance as historic and one that will be carried forward by his absolutely amazing tribe of disciples and students. Loss yes. But also hope in the fact that he has lit many lamps that will continue to spread the light," she said in a statement.
Birju Maharaj, whose joie de vivre cut through the aura of fame and legend to make him an instant favourite, was also was much admired in the film industry with directors and actors turning to the Kathak exponent for their performances.
His talent was first sought by the great Satyajit Ray for his only Hindi film Shatranj Ke Khiladi in 1977. While a disciple performed the dance, Birju Maharaj, also a talented vocalist, sang "Kanha main tose haari". The song has its own history. It was written by Bindadin Maharaj, Birju Maharaj's grandfather Kalka Prasad's brother, who was a dancer in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The two brothers went on to establish the Kakla-Bindadin Lucknow Gharana later with Birju Maharaj taking it to new heights in his lifetime.
Birju Maharaj also trained several Bollywood actors, including Madhuri Dixit, a trained dancer herself, in the Devdas song, 'Kaahe chhede mohe', and Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani dance number 'Mohe rang do laal'. Both films were by directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. His other film credits include Vishwaroopam, Gadar, Janisar and Dedh Ishqiya.
Ranked among India's best classical dancers ever, he received several awards in his career, including the Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Akedami Award, Kalidas Samman, a National award as the best choreographer in Vishwaroopam and a Filmfare award for Bajirao Mastani.