For me, dance is like connecting with the almighty,” Pandit Birju Maharaj, said in countless interviews, he had given during his lifetime. That’s why despite creating the some of the most iconic dance sequences in Bollywood, he never craved to be a part of the industry. Whatever films, he was a part of, were driven by his desire to create a timeless sequence.
Pandit Birju Maharaj left an indelible mark in the film industry with some timeless dance-sequences over the course of decades, who refused to be part of “raunchy” numbers, or where actresses were asked to do “skin show”.
"I miss the golden days of Hindi cinema when you had eternally graceful actresses like Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman, etc. I am very selective about the films that I do. I want to know the lyrics of the songs as I want to make sure that they are clean,” he had once said in an interview.
He composed the music, and sang, for two dance sequences in Satyajit Ray's ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’, choreographed Kamal Haasan’s dance in ‘Unnai Kodu Naan’, in the film ‘Vishwaroopam', he only collaborated with directors who appreciated his aesthetics, and worked film stars, who were more than eager to learn from him.
His most recent student has been actress Alia Bhatt who trained under him for the song ‘Ghar More Pardesiya’ for ‘Kalank’.
Madhuri Dixit Nene was his favourite Bollywood student to work with. “Well! there are many wonderful dancers in Bollywood. My favourite has been Madhuri Dixit. She is a trained Kathak dancer and has natural grace,” he had once said in an interview.
The first ever set he choregraphed with Dixit, was in the 1997 film ‘Dil Toh Pagal Hai’, during a sequence, Dixit under the spotlight is dancing to beats played by Shah Rukh Khan on the drums.
“Maharaj ji interpreted all the drum beats as various expressions of a peacock dancing with abandon,” Dixit had said in an interview. His influence on dancing was not limited to only Kathak, as Dixit also discovered.
“I had watched many of his performances but met him for the first time in the USA, when I attended his workshop. I was expecting a straight dance practice but was surprised when the first thing he asked me was to show him the ' Ek, Do, Teen' move,” Dixit had once, recalled in an interview.
“He has done jugalbandis with flamenco dancers and tap dancers, who deceive Bharatnatyam. After seeing him, I really believe that once you learn a classical dance form like Kathak, you can pick up any dance form in the world,” she said.
Be it 'Kaahe Chede' from ‘Devdas’ or ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ from 'Baji Rao Mastani', Sanjay Leela Bhansali, was probably the only filmmaker he worked with the most in the 21st century.
“Sanjay bhai has a brilliant aesthetic sense. He knows what suits better. He is a trained Odissi dancer. We share a strong bond since ‘Devdas’. Our viewpoints match and that helps to bring out the best in both of us,” he had once said in an interview.
He went on to win his first Filmfare award for the song ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ from ‘Baji Rao Mastani’, an award, he had than jokingly admitted, he’d never win.
“Main toh hairaan ho gaya (laughs), kyunki aajkal ke zamane mein toh yeh hai hi nahin, but taqdir aur ishwar ki kripa hai. (I am so surprised, because in today’s day and age, this is not possible, but I am grateful for my destiny and God),” he had said right after he won the Best Choreography award.
Maharaj’s love for aesthetics, which allowed him to choreograph beautiful dance sequences for films was not over, and nor were his collaborations with Bhansali.
“I am very comfortable working with him. He understands and respects my idea of creation, art, and dance. It is extremely important for me that the actress I choreograph is dressed in a respectable outfit," he had said.
As per reports, he was working with the filmmaker for intricate dance sequences for his upcoming webseries ‘Heeramandi’. The Netflix series means that another set of audience, who consume content on OTT platforms are going to be exposed to Birju Maharaj’s beautifully shot dance sequences. In many ways, that’s his legacy, of being able to introduce Kathak to a completely different generation and audience, through time.