Pandit Birju Maharaj is an undisputed master of Indian classical dance, and he is among the many talented international performers coming to Duke for the first time through Duke Performances this season. Maharaj, who comes from a long and celebrated lineage of Kathak dancers, is world-renowned not only for his accomplishments in the dance form, but as a singer and percussionist as well. At 75, he is the foremost living figure in Kathak dance, performing and teaching the classical dance around the world.
Kathak dance is one of eight classical North Indian dance forms. Since its origins in the sixteenth century, it has developed from a sacred ritual dance to a secular performance that tells a story; one of Maharaj’s most popular renditions is “Romeo and Juliet: An Immortal Love Legend of Shakespeare.” Kathak is almost always accompanied by live music, which provides a dynamic, organic relationship between the performers and musicians. The music in a Kathak dance relies mostly on various percussion instruments and usually features one string instrument that provides the overarching melody. In addition to singing and dancing, Maharaj plays several types of drums throughout, almost always juggling two out of his three performance skills at any given moment.
Duke Performances has made a commitment to presenting Indian classical artists, as evidenced by Maharaj’s upcoming concert and the spring season’s inclusion of Indian instrumentalists Amjad Ali Khan and his sons. Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald said that part of their increased focus on Indian classical music and dance is because “there is a community at Duke and in the Triangle that is familiar with the form.” Artists like Maharaj in particular promote a connection with the culture because of the rich history and tradition associated with his form.
International performances usually attract an audience already somewhat connected with the material, and their enthusiasm can, as Greenwald said, “enhance the experience for someone not familiar with the form.” He recalled a gospel performance at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, where audience members unfamiliar with gospel music could experience it not only through the performance itself but also through the reactions and moods of the audience.
Hasita Oza, director of the Kathak Dance Academy in Raleigh, lauds Maharaj as a master of his technique, both in precision of form and emotive expression.
“The well-used hand gestures and facial expressions and the drama he creates with his body language during story goes beyond the cultural boundaries,” Oza wrote in an email.
Oza expects Maharaj, whom she calls “spontaneous” in his approach, to be captivating in his performance.
“This makes the performance [come] alive and goes beyond just a well-rehearsed show,” she said.
Pandit Birju Maharaj’s extensive touring has made Kathak dance more accessible to audiences beyond India. He has modified the style and brought it into a new era without losing the spiritual connection the classical tradition.
“We have an opportunity to present artists who are real masters,” said Greenwald of the Duke Performances season.
Duke Performances presents Pandit Birju Maharaj & Company in Reynolds Industries Theater this Thursday, October 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for Duke students.