I am at a loss to write few words about my revered guru, an artiste par excellence who breathed new life and dimensions into the art form! Not only was he mesmerising in his performances, captivating hearts with his dazzling technical virtuosity and his abhinaya, especially that of naughty little Krishna but also with his unparalleled sense of aesthetics, finesse and grace that filled each and every movement and stance. I am indebted to him for a number of reasons -- not only was he my guru but also in this process, I learnt so much. I learnt the art of appreciating a talent in a disciple and giving one’s best. I learnt the detailed chiselling of the disciple to turn her into a dancer – one that he could be proud of. I imbibed the ethos and spirit of dance -- of Kathak -- all that he stood for.
After my initiation as a disciple in 1964, for over eight years, Maharaj ji came to my residence to impart lessons without ever charging a single penny! It was unheard of! How does one repay such “giving”? His stock reply, accompanied with a smile, was: “I want to see her emerge as a great dancer”!
I could just fall at his feet. These sentiments and trust egged me on to do better and better; to understand every nuance of his; to try and dive into the depth and aesthetics of each movement. My parents, on their part, would shower their gratitude by placing before him his favourite “rabadi” and a plateful of “paan”.
I vividly recollect as he painstakingly corrected every movement and stance of mine. My mother, who would be sitting there throughout watching the entire teaching process, would later explain to me as to where I had gone wrong. The holidays saw him come at 10 am and the practice would go on till late evening till my back almost gave way! After strenuous dance lessons, Maharaj-ji would love to sit with Ma and listen to her reminiscences of dance and dancers of bygone days. He would finally end the evening by singing ghazals, thumris and a “kajari” (“biraha mat tarap raat din”) that he loved so much.
Soon after I had come under his tutelage, he asked me not to perform on stage for a few years – for till then, I was often on stage and being feted as a young child. This period was another experience for I learnt the significance of intensive training. Then the day arrived -- sometime in 1968-69 at a performance at Sapru House in New Delhi -- when he himself launched me on stage as a young professional dancer! For the first half hour, he presented me proudly before he came on to the stage himself. Could I have asked for a better launching pad?
Humour and interest in little details were indelible part of Maharaj ji’s character. For the 1968 performance, the two persons who had gone shopping to buy the material and “gota” for my costume with my mother were the legendary singer Naina Devi and Birju Maharaj ji. Maharaj ji was particular as to what type of “gota” should be put on the costume. Then, before the performance, he sat and did my makeup. Members of the organising team of that particular festival were surprised and amused to see the guru dressing up his disciple. And, of course, at a founder’s day performance at my college, Delhi University’s Miranda House, I had to ask for special permission so that my guru could enter a female hostel in order to do my makeup!
Having lost his father at a very young age, his mother played a crucial role in his development as an artiste. But it was his innate hunger to learn and the related osmosis process which made him imbibe the essence of Kathak and all allied art forms. It was the sheer struggle and single-minded devotion to his art that stood him in good stead and which led him to becoming the stalwart that he was.
I consider myself fortunate to have been able to be part of his effort and vision of adding new dimensions, imbuing fresh air to Kathak. I observed him teach, listened carefully to his beautifully crafted sentences, trying to understand how an idea germinated within him, his thought process, and how it found expression through his unusual approach to a movement, to a composition, to an idea. I learnt to appreciate the essence of Kathak, much beyond the technical aspects of the dance form and unconsciously imbibe the ethos and spirit of dance.
Today, whatever I am, I owe it to him. I am grateful to the Almighty who gave me the chance not only to learn the skill and technical brilliance but also the spirit and ethos of Kathak and to have spent several carefree moments filled with fun and laughter with him. He may have left us physically but this unique legend lives with us through his art, through his vast body of work, and through the multitude of human institutions he has built and nurtured all his life, spread across the world. He lives with us in our memories!
“In the infinite canvas of life, he sculpted and painted with his emotions and movements for he was art himself”!