‘Birju Maharaj, Khuda Hafiz!’: A Lucknow Neighbour’s Tribute
For the Golaganj locality of Lucknow city, the passing of the Kathak legend is a personal loss.
His family, since the days his ancestors shifted from Allahabad to the Awadh court in Faizabad, and then to Lucknow, had their "deorhi" (mansion) on Gwyne Road, now named after them as Mishra Bandhu Marg. A stone’s throw away from our ancestral home, late Shambhu Maharaj, Achchan Maharaj and Lachchu Maharaj were close neighbours and household names. They were active participants in the customs of their Muslim neighbours, especially the observances during Muharram.
Birju Maharaj did not live long at his ancestral home, as his father, Achchan Maharaj, shifted to the Darbar of Nawab Rampur, and finally to Delhi. Yet, he was proud of his family roots in Lucknow and their "deorhi", which has now been developed into a museum as a "deorhi” of Kalka-Bindadin.
Many untold anecdotes of Shambhu Maharaj, Achchan Maharaj, Lachchu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj run afresh in mind. Some are first-hand experiences as a child and a young lad, while others were heard from elders.
Paan and 'Paran'
When Lachchu Maharaj took the final off from the film industry and returned to Lucknow, he was a regular at the ‘Bhagauti paan wale ki dukaan’ (roadside shop of a paan seller Bhagauti) near his home. There, he was often seen holding his paan ki gilauri in his hand for a long time, but he would not eat it, as if he were lost in some thought. He would suddenly say aloud, “Bhagauti jaldi kaghaz do" (Bhagauti, give me a piece of paper). In a huff, the paan seller would shuffle through his wares and take out a panni, the single-side silver inner wrapping of a cigarette pack.
Maharaj would write something on the white side and say, “Arey Bhagauti, Paran yaad aa gayi thi. Bhool jaate." (Bhagauti, I remembered a Paran. It would have been lost if not jotted down). Paran is a vocal composition on which dance steps and bhao are set.
Another striking feature about Lachchu Maharaj's demeanour was the poise of his face. Broad forehand, a chiselled long nose, and well-set, deep, big eyes made him look like a Gandhara sculpture. Whenever he attended to some noise or call, he would raise his gaze and head in a typical bhao (expression). To see him just looking at something was a treat.
Jaipur is famous for footwork in Kathak, and Lucknow is distinguished for the bhao part (facial expressions and eye movements).
Hidayat Hussain Sahab, the owner of Lucknow's famous Rocket Laundry on Gwyne Road, was a close neighbour of the family and they grew up together. Hidayat Sahab would cajolingly ask, "Ama Lachchu kuch Bombay ki baatein bataao" (Dear Lachchu, tell me some stories about Bombay). Maharaj would smile and share a few anecdotes about K Asif, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar.
The zamindari abolition of 1952 affected this family, too. Sources of royal patronage dried up. That was the time when moneylenders fleeced them and the treasures of the deorhi were sold off at throwaway prices. Not only family jewellery, but also the ornaments of horses and their carts and artefacts were undervalued.
Like Birju Maharaj, his uncle, Lachchu Maharaj, was also very soft-spoken, but with a difference. Birju Maharaj had a baritone voice, whereas Lachchu Maharaj used to speak in the soft, fumbled voice of a paan-eater, till he spat the peek (paan juice).
The family of Late Pappu Polyester, a Bollywood comedian, were also next-door neighbours of the family.
How Shambhu Maharaj Was a Master of 'Bhao'
Shambhu Maharaj, another uncle of Birju Maharaj, was also a known kathak maestro of his time. Broad-built and a handsome man, he devoted his time to dance and the beloved city of Lucknow. During Muharram Majlis, he was a regular attendee at the Manjhle Sahab ka Imambara. He, too, saw off the Muharram procession till quite a distance.
It is said that once their ancestors, Kalka-Bindadin, displayed a unique presentation to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and the royal priest. Since music is forbidden in Islam, the high priest begged the leave of the King before the item was to commence. But the two dancers submitted to the King and the priest that their item would be without music and dance.
To everybody's surprise, the duo used the bhao part of their art to create a scene where they entered an imaginary place and kissed the imaginary Quran kept in an imaginary niche. They then took out the holy book, recited it and placed it again in its place, all as an act of imagination.
They were, in fact, performing the Quran recitation etiquettes perfectly. The King and the priest were thus impressed. However, the priest found a mistake – they had read the imaginary book from left to right, whereas Arabic is read from right to left.
In close vicinity of their deorhi was one "maniharin" (a lady bangle-seller), whose daughter, Gutti, was deeply attached to dance and music. She used to stand outside the deorhi and watch Shambhu Maharaj practising his art. Once, Shambhuji noticed this uninvited onlooker. He called her inside and asked if she would like to learn the art. Gutti was thrilled. Shambhu Maharaj taught her dance – and not just the darbari form, but also a style that suited street culture.
Later, Gutti had opened a tea shop and we all knew her as a tea-seller. In the early 1980s, our uncle, late Dr Virasat Shikoh Kashmiri, had come to India from the US. He asked Gutti if she could still dance over a 'kuaan' (well). We then got to know that Shambhu Maharaj had taught her such a fine balance of steps that even as the mouth of the well was covered with a stretched bedsheet, Gutti danced over it beautifully, unconcerned about the dangers involving such a feat.
The Lucknow Birju Maharaj Carried Within Him
All the male members of the deorhi wore typical Lucknowi-style clothing – long chikankari collarless kurtas and broad, flared Lucknowi pyjamas. They spoke pure Lucknowi. The prefix "Ama", which roughly means ‘oh dear’, completed their persona of a pure Lucknow wala.
Though Birju Maharaj was not seen often in the locality, he carried Lucknow within him. The way he did adab and replied to the adab of juniors with "jeete rahiye" (live long) shadowed the fact that he, in fact, had spent all his working years in Delhi.
In the words of Azhar Inayati:
Raasto kya huye wo log ki aate-jaate
Mere Aadab pe kehte the jeete rahiye
(Alas, where have those people disappeared,
who used say live long to my every salutation)
A Son Distanced Due to Circumstances
Munni didi, Birju Maharaj’s cousin sister, daughter of Shambhu Maharaj, still lives in the deorhi. Her brothers Ram Mohan and Krishan Mohan are based in Delhi.
A few years ago, as a tribute to Lachchu Maharaj, Kum Kum Adarsh, his disciple, got his bust installed near the Lucknow Christian College. Today, Lucknow owes something extra-special to the memory of its son who got physically distanced due to circumstances.
I’m one of the few of the generation that has seen the legends and has heard first-hand tales about the legendary family. Thus, I venture to record the oral history of my time.
(The author is a Mumbai-based lawyer and a short story writer. He runs a weekly show on Youtube, titled "Culture Bazaar". This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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