The Master and Mustaphi

The King of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj, and Saswati Sen

Not many people can say their guru is coming to town, but Rita Mustaphi, artistic director of the locally based Nritya Jyoti Dance Theater, will soon receive a visit from hers. Pandit Birju Maharaj, popularly known as the "King of Kathak" in his native India, is teaching around the Twin Cities this week, leading up to a performance by his acclaimed company Saturday night at the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium.

Kathak is an ancient form of popular entertainment developed over centuries in northern India by a caste of storytellers who used mime and gestures to tell their tales. The vibrant dance form was later seen in temples and palace courts, its rhythms and styles influenced by Hindu and Muslim traditions. According to Mustaphi, "This fusion of cultures seems to have blessed [Kathak] with a balance that makes it the most natural of the classical dance forms in India. It expresses abandon and yet it has a reticence that offsets this flamboyance and lends it a charm that is irresistible."

Maharaj, who is often characterized as the Rudolf Nureyev of his dance form, is the product of several generations of Kathak masters from the Kalka-Bindadin gharana (family) of Lucknow: He trained with his father and uncles and was further influenced by his grandfather, the author of more than 5,000 of the "poetries" used in Kathak dances. Today the Lucknow gharana is known for its graceful movements and sophisticated use of abhinaya (expressive dance). Mustaphi enthuses that Maharaj's inspiration "comes from nature. It's very obvious in his dancing--how he walks like an elephant or crawls like a snake." Another key component of Kathak is the way dancers use their feet to improvise, stamping out "tat" sounds with speed and skill, a challenge Maharaj, now in his 60s, continues to meet. "He was nurtured by masters," observes Mustaphi. "Ravi Shankar, the maestro of sitar, has said, 'These kinds of people are not born often.'"

Mustaphi first saw Maharaj perform in India, and when she heard he was touring to the United States during the early 1980s, she planned to attend his Chicago show. "My husband said to me 'Why not bring him here?'" recalls Mustaphi, "and I replied, 'But I'm just a dancer!'" Despite her humble status, she soon had Maharaj in her home. "He stayed for seven days," she explains. "He asked me to show him a dance, and I was so scared. Then he said, 'How would you like to change your teacher and come to me?'" Mustaphi received permission to make the switch from her guru at the time, and now, some 20 years later, she regularly organizes national tours for Maharaj, visits him in India, and passes his teachings along to her own students. She recently appeared with Maharaj's troupe in San Francisco, and she will share the stage with him this weekend.

Saswati Sen, Maharaj's company manager and lead dancer, reached by telephone during a recent tour stop in Tampa, paints a vivid picture of the upcoming performance. Various stages from the life of Krishna will unfold across the stage, including scenes of "his childhood pranks, adolescent mischief, and finally his role as a savior when he kills the serpent king," she says, adding that Maharaj will also perform two major solo dances, neither of which are determined until he steps onstage with the musicians.

Aside from the show, Mustaphi has planned a week's worth of activities designed to expose the public to Maharaj's expertise. A dance camp modeled on "guru-sishya parampara" (discipleship) will give children the opportunity to replicate a bygone tradition. "In olden times students didn't give money to their teachers," says Mustaphi. "They would live in the teacher's home and do all the work. We wanted to recreate that environment, and so the company members will teach, and the students will cook for them and eat with them." Mustaphi's young followers will also have an opportunity to offer homage to Maharaj during the opening minutes of Saturday's show. "That's what we always do behind closed doors," she explains. "Why not demonstrate it onstage?"


Master classes with Pandit Birju Maharaj, which are open to the public, will be offered at Macalester College's Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center Wednesday and Thursday, June 23-24 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Maharaj and his company perform at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, June 26 at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, College of St. Catherine, St. Paul; (651) 690-6700.

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