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Legendary Kathak dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj passes away at age 83

By Priyanka Verma 
Updated Date

MUMBAI: India’s leading Kathak exponent and Padma Vibhushan awardee, Pt Birju Maharaj, passed away early Monday after suffering a heart attack.The 83-year-old doyen, who was the torchbearer of the Kalka-Bindadin gharana of the Lucknow style of Kathak, breathed his last at New Delhi’s Saket Hospital.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his Condolences 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. His passing is an irreparable loss to the entire art world. 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.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman described the artiste as a “legend of performing arts”.

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“Extremely saddened by the news about the passing away of Legendary Kathak Dancer- Pandit Birju Maharaj ji. We have lost an unparalleled institution in the field of the performing arts. He has influenced many generations through his genius. May he rest in peace,” singer Adnan Sami tweeted.

“Sad to know about the demise of kathak legend & vocalist Padma Vibhushan Pandit #birjumaharaj ji after suffering a heart attack in Delhi.
Its an end of an era .My heartfelt condolences to his family & near ones,” tweeted filmmaker Ashoke Pandit.

A recipient of the country’s second-highest civilian award, Padma Vibhushan, he was fondly called Pandit-ji or Maharaj-ji by his disciples and legions of followers, and was one of India’s best known artistes.

According to reports, Birju Maharaj was playing with his grandsons late on Sunday night when his health deteriorated and he became unconscious. He was taken to hospital where he was declared dead.

“He was under treatment for the past month. He had sudden breathlessness at around 12:15-12:30 am last night; we brought him to the hospital within 10 mins, but he passed away,” Ragini Maharaj, Birju Maharaj’s granddaughter, told ANI.

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The Kathak exponent had been suffering from a kidney ailment and was under dialysis treatment.

Birju Maharaj was a descendant of the Maharaj family of Kathak dancers, which includes his two uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, and his father and guru, Acchan Maharaj.

The Kathak legend was also a superb drummer, playing nearly all drums with ease and precision; he was especially fond of playing the Tabla and Naal, according to his official website.

Birju Maharaj was also a singer par excellence, having command over Thumri, Dadra, Bhajan and Ghazal.

A master storyteller, he interlaced his performances with incidents from his life, narrated to captivate the audience. Also being keenly observant, he always had something to say about day-to-day incidents, keeping people around him entertained with realistic imitations and vivid descriptions.

“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 cardiac arrest as he was also a heart patient.

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“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,” Birju Maharaj’s granddaughter Ragini, a Kathak dancer herself, said.

“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.

It is no small measure of his talent that Pt Birju Maharaj was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award at the young age of 28. He has variously received the Kalidas Samman, Nritya Choodamani, Andhra Ratna, Nritya Vilas, Adharshila Shikhar Samman, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Shiromani Samman, and Rajiv Gandhi Peace Award apart from an honorary doctorate from Benaras Hindu University.

The world of cinema turned to this genius whenever it required authentic Kathak dance to carry forward its storyline. Pt Birju Maharaj choreographed both exquisite sequences in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ — one featuring Amjad Khan as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah surrounded by his queens, the other featuring a solo by Saswati Sen.

He also choreographed Madhuri Dixit twice, once in ‘Dil Toh Paagal Hai’ and again in ‘Devdas’ (Kaahe chhed). A song sequence in Gadar had the fortune of his guidance too.

Pt Birju Maharaj is father to five children, three daughters and two sons.

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