Birju Maharaj presented by the Tarangini School September 29

22 Oct

For the second time in San Francisco, Birju Maharaj, Padmavibushan-awarded master of Kathak dance, was presented at the Palace of Fine Arts September 29 by The Tarangini School of Kathak Dance .  Three years ago, Anuradha Nag, Tarangini’s artistic director, undertook the monumental task of bringing Birju to San Francisco for the first time.  This year, partly to celebrate Tarangini’s twentieth anniversary as well as honoring Birju’s seventy-fifth birthday, Anuradha brought Birju back for our intense enjoyment.

Sadly, no Bay Area newspaper now reviews single night performances of visiting artists unless  belonging to a concert series.  This wasn’t always true, but, given the condensation characterizing the printed media, it figures. Rita Felciano, however,  was present; considering Felciano’s inclusive regard of dance, that was sufficient.

Young students greeted ticket holders walking past the entrance with a slight spray of rose water, a wrist dab of perfume and a miniature candy, signaling  the auspicious nature of the event.  The occasion was inaugurated  by the opening moments on stage as a chair was placed stage center for Birju emerged from mid-stage left to  receive flowers with the traditional honorific circle of flowers lowered  over his head to his shoulders while his hands were clasped in namaste. The performing  participants touched his feet in reverence,  an act  of devotional gravity devoid of the ponderous.

Indian concerts like this are long on artist credits, almost devoid of program notes.  Frankly, why should they explain something to their audience, most of whom have some acquaintance with the medium, the tradition, the story telling subject matter?  The  concession was the explanation regarding the participation of fourteen Tarangini students dancing in classical Kathak style to Bollywood music from “Bhool Bhulalya” as a display of Kathak’s rhythmic demands. The second presentation explored the nayika or heroine’s moods while waiting for the hero or nayak. After his arrival, the dancers displayed amply the emotions of a woman besotted with love and unwilling to see her lover leave.  The students were joined in the second number by Anuradha Nag’s prior to her own impressive abhinaya with its purity of expression, and delicate precision in abhinaya.

In addition Anuradha Nag devoted four pages in the program to her experience with Birju Maharaj, reinforcing what was witnessed in the pranam  observed at the beginning of the program.

The evening’s  supporting musicians included Chandrachur Bhattacharjee, sitar; Utpa Ghoshal, tabla; Manoj Tamhankar, harmonium.  Rashmi Rustagi announced the program. Crowning Birju’s appearance was Zakir Hussein on tabla; he learned how to accompany Kathak dance when sent by the late Alla Rakha, his father, to New Delhi to work with Birju Maharaj.

Before Maharaj appeared, his son Deepak Maharaj and Luna Poddar appeared together. Deepak separately executed a series of complex rhythms and turns.  Deepak is tallish, slightly heavy set and one sees little physical resemblance to Birju, if much in his style of  dance delivery.

Birju appeared in white with silk cummerbund of orange with touches of green, a small man, white haired with fathomless dark eyes, and an easy rapport with Hussein, flipping forward and back between Hindi and English.  This first half was largely given over to rhythmic displays, Birju clearly relating it to virtually everything he observes; leaves falling , a skate boarder, the famous train sequence from station arrival, cross country speed to journey’s ending.  Birju’s immersion in rhythm is phenomenal to behold – like a shawl, sometimes a pool for bathing.  Within this time and culture a perspective, a permission given rarely in which he dwells, but rich as Birju  manifested the vision it provides.  With Zakir Hussein a collaboration beyond competition was shared and the audience was supplied a vista special between the two practitioners.

Following the intermission Saswati Sen brought her magic to us, still swift and articulate; if her silhouette is now more matronly it has not dimmed skill or complexity. Later, following another variation by Deepak Maharaj with abhinaya, Saswati Sen joined Luna Poddar and Deepak in a brief trio.

When Birju returned he had changed to a lime-hued silk kurta and gave us one of his special portraits of Krishna.  His Yashoda was the essence of the energetic village matron, preparing butter, tidying the house and setting forth on morning errands.  Birju’s Krishna was extremely cautious, checking the door, looking out the window before gauging how to access the pot
slung from the rafter.  This time he did not climb to get the butter, but tried to maneuver the pot by yanking, only to succeed in spilling its contents on the floor.  What to do, but to scoop with his hands and slather the contents over  chin, cheeks and into the mouth.  This was an astonished Yashoda, and a very sober Krishna, fully contrite, pulling on Yashoda’s sari for forgiveness,  until, of course, reconciliation was achieved.

Following the final ensemble and the audience cheers, bouquets were distributed to dancers and musicians.

We had arrived for a 6:30 curtain, and started for our cars after nine.  If we had our choice and Birju and Zakir the energy, I think many of us would have stayed on into the night.  As it was, the evening was a  music room, a Jalsagar long to be remembered, a banquet whose flavors lingered like perfume.


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