A June Afternoon with Birju Maharaj

5 Jul

Anuradha Nag, disciple of Birju Maharaj and artistic director of Tarangini School of Kathak Dance, asked me to arrive at Lawrence train station after four because “Maharaji takes a nap.” He also was scheduled for an interview with Indian television, a station hooked up with Sony which she said reaches 150 countries.  Nag has been responsible for Birju’s appearances  in the San Francisco area 1995, 1997, 1999,  2001, 2005 plus three times in San Francisco, 2003, 2008 and 2012; this year she doubtless was instrumental in assisting World Arts West inviting him for the 35th season of the Ethnic Dance Festival.

Train travel down the San Francisco Peninsula hasn’t changed that much from the days when the seats were upholstered in fuzzy wool and the exterior of the railroad cars was painted a Marine corps color of khaki green.  The cars are silvered now and sport a second tier of seats to accommodate commuters. With the advent of Clipper Cards, pressing your card before and after you leave eliminated the need for ticket sellers so the windows at Fourth and Townsend are shuttered. Lacking a Clipper Card, there are machines and directions telling which zone costs what, accepting cash or credit cards.  The train deliberations remain; the rhythms of the start up, the brief speed spurts between stops before the gradual diminution of speed, a station is announced, the brakes’ wheezing as the train stops.  The steel doors roll back and soon the flutey female voice announces over the sound system “The doors are about to close.”

Lawrence as a station has changed markedly since I was a child and even since I was an adult making sporadic visits to relatives living in Los Gatos.  Thanks to Silicon Valley the stop is now paved, there are shelters and electronic signs announcing the arrival of  train number … and whether it’s on time or so many minutes late.  Most of all, there is an underpass, steps and a ramp for maximum safety.

Mahika, a recent U.C., Berkeley graduate majoring in Spanish literature, drove me with two other Tarangini students to Anuradha’s home, where Birju and Saswati Sen were staying; it was arrived at by way of two or three highways and an overpass.  Leaving shoes at the door step of the one-story house, I was led into the living room where American comfort and Indian style blended effortlessly, enhanced by handsome images of Anuradha in Kathak postures.

Saswati Sen, Birju’s senior-most disciple and clearly one he relies on for arrangements, emerged to greet me and to inquire about my interest in Indian dance.  I mentioned having visited the Kathak Kendra in New Delhi during my 1966 visit, under Indian Council for Cultural Relations’ auspices, and she said, “Oh, I was just starting then.”  The Kathak Kendra, a national institute under the supervision of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, subsequently moved from its small, cramped quarters where I first saw Birju, then in his twenties, into a building more befitting the principal school for this north Indian classical style.

Since Birju formally retired from Kathak Kendra, he has organized Kalashram where he is assisted by Saswati Sen.  From the looks of the video on the Web, he also enjoys some enthusiastic collaborators.

Saswati and Anuradha Nag both mentioned Birju’s desire not to repeat his statistics. Physically a small man, perhaps five feet four inches at most, eyes large, at 75, Birju’s oblong face is thoughtful, appraising. When he strolled into the living room and sat down, I asked him about his vision of seeing everything in terms of rhythm; this he had mentioned in his last concert at the Palace of Fine Arts.  Sitting on the sofa next to my chair,  Birju smiled in his enigmatic way and his hands immediately began to trace the flight of small, chirping birds.  Saswati Sen remarked that young students had complained about the difficulty of remembering bols, equivalent of counts, the cornerstone of Indian classical dancing.  She said they had suggested words to the students and what the word sounded when accomplished as a beat. This application of word/sound/beat struck a chord with students.  Birju and  Saswati expanded on it with the students “getting it.”  Birju then demonstrated how word/sound could be repeated. the sequence alternated to approximate the traditional bols. Just as in his stage presence, one does not really interview but rather enters into a state of being with Birju.  It’s likely others with big media connections are less enthralled.

Anuradha stepped in to say that the television crew had arrived and Birju excused himself to change his kurta. I remarked to Saswati this demonstrated development reflected the generational change in attitude and methods of learning; she nodded her head vigorously.  Such devices would have been unheard of just a decade or two earlier.  The fact that the device works and learning occurs is a blessing, though the information impressed me with the evolution of youthful assumptions.

Saswati excused herself briefly, returning with the biography she has written on Birju, published in New Delhi by Niyogi Publishing Company. “It has been delayed many years,” she said, “Until the publishers said ‘Now or never.’” I remarked  about the Hubert Stowitts painting of Birju’s father, Aachan, which had never quite made it to India, and she showed me a colored snapshot of Birju in the book, paying homage to the painted image resting against a chain fence in the sunlight.

Following the television interview, a workshop ensued in what originally was the garage.  The floor was overlaid with hardwood, pictures of performances, cushions a chair and a tabla on one side, the family washer and dryer on the other. When the workshop started, virtually all of Anuradha’s students were in attendance, filling the space, Indian style pajamas and a sash over kurtas and cameez..

Kathak as a vertical style that can be executed in little room so the dancers remained in place, though moving forward and back rather than side to side,  the arms executing circular and figure eight patterns, the bells sounding the speed and complexity of the rhythms.  Birju was seated center front playing the tablas, Saswati giving the exercise.  Every so often Birju would gesture the stylistic finesse for a finish, the students responding with alacrity. This was the third session during Birju’s visit; the rapport was palpable, the being with Birju, taking  time to dance properly; even though I glanced at the clock intermittently so that I could make the San Francisco bound train at Lawrence, the evening  passed with a pace uniquely its own, a slice of India I remembered from 1966, an experience redolent with special awareness.

When the workshop was finished, a chocolate sheet cake and ice cream were produced to honor Saswati Sen, who, delighted, exclaimed she was turning 60 in August.  No one could be more girlishly excited at the remembrance.

After retrieving my shoes once more, Mahika drove me to the train station, chatting about her Kathak studies which have stretched over a decade.  Recently graduated from U.C., Berkeley, she is looking forward to the summer before starting the inevitable job search.  The train arrived shortly thereafter, and I spent the hour plus knitting and remembering this special interlude; at Fourth and Townsend, I took taxi home.

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