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Evoking the flavours of Banaras

LEELA VENKATARAMAN

The genius of Birju Maharaj revealed itself in more ways than one this past week.

Photo: Anu Pushkarna

COORDINATED ENERGY Kolkatas's Partho Das and Shubhra Patra in action at Triveni.

Meant to foster India's cultural relations worldwide, the ICCR as the cultural diplomacy arm of the Foreign Services is now mounting festivals featuring Indian artistes within India. Its latest three-day event, The Spirit of Banaras, at Kamani auditorium, was launched with Juhi Sinha's sensitive film "Bana-Ras", the city whose hoary traditions of spirituality revel in the aesthetics of classical music. Camera work was not always the slickest. But with the romantic backdrop of the flowing Ganga, were telling glimpses of its artistes - Chunnu Lal, Aanant Misra, Bismillah Khan and Gauri Shankar, Vilayat Khan performing in the Banaras Durbar, Kishan Maharaj, Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Maharaj Kashi Ram's home, old havelis now sadly silent, and the ancient Chitra Talkies, the Mala Bazar, Baithaks - all orchestrating the Banaras spirit. Nothing could beat baby-faced Bismillah Khan with his cherubic smile talk with such passion of the mandirs, where the Gods wake up to the mesmeric notes of raga Shankara on the shehnai, and his nostalgic reminiscing on the Holi that was.

Naresh Kapuria's elaborately designed stage installations, with water effects, tall reeds, boats and inverted basket lanterns should have rightly been in the foyer to introduce the feel of Banaras. On the stage the solo dancer's movement lines painted in space, got blurred in so ornate a backdrop.

Instead of a Banarasi gharana specialist like Sunaina Hazarilal, the festival featured Pandit Birju Maharaj the Lucknow gharana doyen whose forefathers hailed from Banaras, even though the Lucknow Nawab's court was where their Kathak genius was nurtured.

Kathak wizard

To say that Birju Maharaj, accompanied by Akram Khan on the tabla, was in crying form would be an understatement. This Kathak wizard dances with a clarity, balance and bodily grace that can put a youngster to shame. Even for those treated often to the sparkle of his ginti tihais and footwork with shifting bol accents, the magic of how he linked rhythm to everyday activities in life and mood to laya, dazzled. The upaj, the grace and musicality of his thaat and the Na Dhin Dhin Na sequence and the movement electricity and freeze in the paran were hallmarks of genius. Instead of abhinaya based on a kajri or chaiti in a Banaras festival, the Maharaj preferred interpreting the Bindadin Thumri "Tori main na manoongi jhooti batiyan karat".

Disciple Saswati fitting vandana to "Devi Sureshwari Bhagavati Gange" was followed by a tight Teen tala presentation.

Sadhana

Extending its scope, Sadhana, a three-day event at the Triveni featuring disciples from Birju Maharaj's institution, Kalashram, also presented duets in non-Kathak dances, with Geeta Chandran's Bharatanatyam students judged as the best by Birju Maharaj himself. Fine technique with well-defined chauka characterised the Odissi by Nitin Shirale and Ajay Shendge, students of Parvati Dutta. The interpretative side was barren. Amongst the Kathak pairs, the festival's best were Kolkatas's Partho Das and Shubhra Patra, whose coordinated dancing, excellent technique (particularly the latter's fluid grace) and Dhamar tala rhythm impressed. Kolkata Padatik's Anasua Chowdhury and Aaheli Chakraborty, notwithstanding laya finish and padhant clarity, were self-conscious dancers with mechanistic glance and neck movements. "Boojhat Shyam" the Surdas pad was abhinaya-wise dull.

Blood will tell, and dancing glimpses of six-year old Ragini, daughter of Deepak Maharaj (Birju Maharaj's younger son), revealed a chip off the old block and a clear future star. Equally impressive was the recital of Birju Maharaj's daughter Mamta Maharaj, who from thaat to amad and paran amad and anchal gat in the delicate torso genuflections and rhythmic grip showed commendable maturity. The abhinaya segment visualised the khandita nayika in "Kaheko mere ghar aye ho". Vocal support and tabla were by the two brothers Deepak and Jaikishan Maharaj. In true traditions of a good host, Kalashram students were kept out of the reckoning for awards.

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