The Doyen of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj

The choreographer and teacher left a mark on everything from Bollywood to classical dancing, but his legacy also faces controversy after his death.

Kavya Srikanth

January 21, 2022

The Doyen of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj
Pandit Birju Maharaj

The soothing beat of a tabla, the melodious twang of a tambura, and the soft jingle of a pair of ghungroo — these are the sounds of the world of Pandit Birju Maharaj, and the sounds that surrounded him when he passed away on Monday, January 17 at age 84. The choreographer and dance instructor, the doyen of the Indian classical dance form Kathak, was playing a song game with his granddaughter Ragini when he went into cardiac arrest. “He had his dinner, and we were playing antakshari because he loved old music. Suddenly his breathing became uneven,” said Ragini in an interview. “He was laughing and smiling in his last moments.”

Born Brijmohan Mishra, Maharaj knew dance all his life. His father was a dancer for royal courts, and his uncles trained him in the art form starting at age 4. He described the day of his birth poetically: “It was Friday. A hot day…in that home where I was born, there were only girls. I was the only boy…like Krishna and gopis, they used to say. So my name became Brijmohan. Brij is the name of the city where Krishna was born, and Mohan means attraction. Brijmohan is a way of saying Krishna, the god of love and dance.” For Maharaj, dance was destiny.

Maharaj was a descendant of Sri Ishwari Prasadji, the first known Kathak dancer. Maharaj was also an accomplished Hindustani vocalist and instrumentalist; he admitted that he got part of his love for instruments and singing from his uncles from a young age. Known as “The Man Whose Eyes Spoke,” Maharaj quickly became a renowned dancer who could convey a thousand words with one expression. He regularly performed for over three hours, holding difficult positions, as still as a statue, for 10 minutes.