Birju Maharaj Dancing Kathak in Khayal Gatha (1988, Hindi)...Yes, I'm Back, Hiatus Ended!

Sunday, September 15, 2019
I'm back, my excitement has spontaneously returned, and the blog has had a facelift that's still under some construction.  More on all that soon, but for now, on to the content!

Every once in a while I search the interwebs to see if any cinematic/archival dances from my wishlist have surfaced. On a recent search jaunt, I was delighted to find that footage has been posted online of the great Kathak doyen, Pandit Birju Maharaj, dancing in the 1988 Hindi film Khayal Gatha ("The Khayal Saga," sometimes listed as being released in 1989).  I knew Birju Maharaj had choreographed for some Kathak dances in films, but Khayal Gatha was the only instance I'd read of where he was in front of the camera, rather than behind it.  Kathak hasn't made that many appearances on this blog in the past, but like those few times, this is a real treat.

Pandit Birju Maharaj, for those who aren't aware of his stature, is probably the name most synonymous with Kathak dance in the last half-century, a 1930s-born acclaimed carrier of his family's now-predominant Lucknow gharana of Kathak, a critical part of the standardization and institutionalization of Kathak in the Indian post-independence dance revival and reckoning that took place in his most formative years, a beloved and very charismatic and likable performer, and an innovator within traditional boundaries.  He was instrumental in popularizing the dance form in India and the world, and is still doing so today, traveling around the globe in his 80s.

It quickly became apparent in watching Khayal Gatha that Birju chose an "art film" far from the world of commercial cinema for his cinematic dance debut.  (Note, I will leave out honorifics and refer to him simply as "Birju" for brevity and clarity.)  Kumar Shahani, a significant name in Indian parallel/new wave cinema, was by all accounts a radical, experimental, and avant-garde filmmaker.  Khayal Gatha is no exception—when I first browsed through the film I could not make any sense of it, so I found what some wiser people than I had written about the film and Shahani which helped quite a bit, but much interpretation is left for the educated viewer to decide.

Writings on the film [1,2,3,4] describe Khayal Gatha as an experimental and sensory exploration of real and invented Indian legends, traditions, and performing arts from the past five centuries to the contemporary period, many related to the vocal tradition of Khayal, a genre of North Indian/Hindustani classical/semi-classical music that is heard throughout the film and as a style features improvisation, microtones and gliding between notes, and a varied range of classical, folk, and popular sources that the film is greatly inspired by.  The lead character, portrayed by actor Rajat Kapoor in his debut (whom I can never unsee as anything but the creepy pedophile in Monsoon Wedding!), is a wanderer and seeker who is at times an observer and other times takes on the personas of the various legendary figures being depicted.  Plenty of allegory, abstraction, metaphor, repeated scenes, and a lack of chronological storytelling tick the experimental boxes, and the dialogues are often philosophical and meant to inspire thought.  Ultimately, the film can be interpreted in very complex ways in relation to the wounds of historical loss, the human sensory experience, cyclical movements and the nature of time, and much more that's beyond the scope of this post...and beyond my comprehension.

Director Kumar Shahani used dance and music in many of his films.  His work has been featured on the blog before when I posted about excitedly finding dances from Shahani’s later films Bhavantarana (1991), featuring the late Odissi Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and other famous Odissi dancers, and Bamboo Flute (2000), featuring dances by Mohapatra as well as Alarmel Valli.

I was heartened to read that Khayal Gatha features key musical contributions (and I assume on-screen appearances) "by some of the foremost musicians from the Gwalior gharana" of Indian classical music [5].  But of course, of most interest to this blog is that the great Birju Maharaj dances in a feature film!  We get to see him three times totaling about seven minutes of footage spread out over two primarily pure dance pieces and one expressive piece.  There's also a Kathak dance practice scene by two women, and you know how I love a good practice dance!

Watching other performance and demonstration footage of Birju dancing online, he is among the great performers who have so imbibed and internalized a dance form and all its associated complexities that his performances look effortless and a part of his very being.  For those who don't know who he is, Birju at first glance isn't the most handsome male dancer, doesn't have that "ideal" body shape, and wears simple clothing, but on watching him perform, these things quickly become irrelevant.

Dances in Khayal Gatha

Introductory Dance - Birju Maharaj's first dance in the film, and the film itself, are said to be visually inspired by Mughal miniature paintings, which often feature the "framing of a figure against a window" or vacant space [2] From behind an empty door frame, rhythmic sounds precede Birju's movements into view. He depicts a horse and horse riding, a common sight and method of transport throughout the film as the wanderer makes his journey, and soon "gallops" off screen to a cut of his truncated dancing body framed by a window, the lighting inverted.

Birju's assuredness and style of movement is commanding!  Regrettably, his dance lasts less than a minute, soon interrupted by the wandering protagonist (Rajat Kapoor) slowly walking by and gazing at the dancer in the window. The wanderer knocks on the door, and a woman answers—she (actress Alaknanda Samarth) is an oracle-type seen throughout the film in different avatars, provoking philosophical/critical thought and learning in the wanderer.  The oracle leads the wanderer to her guru, and unties cloth that had been wrapped around his feet.  What does that mean, I wonder?  When the wanderer responds to the oracle's question "to what are you bound," her reply is, intriguingly, interpreted by cinema studies scholar Laleen Jayamanne [2] to refer to the notion of "the mere exact repetition of the form without an internalization of its spirit [being] rejected as unworthy of the tradition," a sentiment applicable to the dance tradition shown the film as well as the film's philosophical yearnings.

Video starts 56:08

"Mohe Chedo Na Nand Ke" Scene - Near the beginning of the film when the wanderer as a child first sets off on his journey, the Sufi's sole advice to him is to "stay close to the river to quench your thirst," which according to Jayamanne is the "river of knowledge." The river motif is seen repeatedly in the film as a "vital energy, a goddess, a primordial mother without whom life is unlivable spiritually or erotically" [2].  

In the scene below, Birju's only seated dance in the film, he demonstrates expressive abhinaya with only the upper body in multiple interpretations of the same phrase from the thumri "Mohe Chedo Na Nand Ke," a well known piece from the Lucknow gharana detailing a nayika begging Lord Krisha to stop bothering her as she tries to make her way down to the river.  The river motif!  Birju is as splendid as expected.  A grander meaning is implied when the nayika asks for her senses to be appeased and see only the divine.  The wanderer accompanies the dance guru on the Tanpura drone, presumably as his student.  All the audio sounds dubbed in the film, and in this scene in particular it seems out of sync which detracts from the overall affect.  The English subtitles are spotty, and greatly needed for us non-Hindi speakers!

Video starts 1:06:45

There are obvious similarities between the above thumri and the seated portion of Madhuri Dixit's "Kahe Chhed Mohe" dance in Devdas (2002, Hindi) that Birju Maharaj choreographed 14 years later, not only in the similar raga and lyrics but also the movement parallels.  Comparing the two side-by-side below, I can't think of a better example of how authentic Kathak becomes altered and edited on screen in commercial film dances, and how different the environs and pace of music and overall effect is.  The lyrics sung at the start of the Devdas song below, which is derived from a thumri composed by Birju's grandfather granduncle Bindadin Maharaj, mean "why do you tease me, and then embrace me?" ("kaahe chhed chhed mohe, garva lagai") [6].  To be fair, "Kahe Chhed Mohe" is still in a different league from the other mujra in the film, "Maar Dala," which was not choreographed by Birju and replaces the exacting expressions and movements in its seated portion with generalizations far from Kathak and very Bollywood-dance-esque.  A better version of "Kahe Chhed Mohe" is at the Eros YouTube channel (but no embeds allowed).  More on the dances in Devdas later on the blog soon...

Left: Khayal Gatha, starts 1:07                                          Right: Devdas, starts 1:57

Pavilion Dance Scene - After a tragic sequence depicting the Heer-Ranja legend set across desolate sand dunes and Khayal vocals, the oracle woman appears again, sweeping thick sand and dirt from a walkway as she recites poetic dialogue.   Her words of surrender finish while Birju's fastest footwork and movement in the film is seen amidst pavilion columns, the oracle now watching him transported into the new space.  Isn't he wonderful!  We see some chakkar spins and those tihai endings repeating in triplicate that are so satisfying to anticipate.  While the slaps of his feet are audible, the ghungroo bells are not dubbed in and are strangely silent.

His dance then transitions to the slow, delicate movements Kathak is known for.  Suddenly, a quick edit focuses us on the only experimental dance in the film, the oracle gesturing between two pillars as if pressing against a window.  According to Ashish Rajadhyaksha, this scene depicts "the only myth that the film formally constructs, between a dance teacher (played by Birju Maharaj) and the woman who cared for him - trapped as he took over her femininity" [4].  Birju closes his performance with some brief, slow-paced grace, now lit against a backdrop of the darkness of night.

Video starts 1:22:26 with the poetic intro (dance at 1:22:59)

This is the last we see of him in the film.  Looking at all of his dances together, what an impact, and what a rare record of Birju in cinema!  According to Kumar Shahani, Birju only had a few hours to shoot his scenes (which according to the looks of the film were shot starting in an afternoon and stretched into the evening darkness), but it posed no problem since Shahani could "realise within hours with [Birju] what would normally take a few days to condense into significance" [4].  

Practice Dance Scene - Birju Maharj is not the only dancer seen in the film.  Kathak dancers Suchitra Harmalkar and Vijaya Sharma perform some short dance practice scenes, my favorite!  I discovered their identities from a couple webpages about them from dance/music schools they are associated with.  The young women dance as an older woman recites the rhythmic bols/spoken syllables.  In the second half at 39:45 that starts after a short scene of a woman walking, a bird can be heard loudly in a rhythm at odds with the dance—avian calls and sounds are frequent in the film, surely an intentional inclusion by Shahani, maybe to throw some dissonant sensory input in the mix, but I'm unsure what the intended purpose is.  At 42:33, one of the dancers is seen in a solo, final practice dance.

Video starts 38:41

Coming Up Next

Hindi films have been a minority on this blog in the past because the way Kathak is represented in their dances, courtesan mujras, and court performances rarely excites or engages me.  Inspired by the discovery of Birju Maharaj's dance in Khayal Gatha, I am working on two follow up posts to be published soon.  One will look at all of Birju's dance direction and choreographic work in cinema, from his best (and first) in Shatranj Ke Khilari to the current year, and the other will pull together the film dance choreographies of Birju's family, namely uncle Lacchu Maharaj, plus a surprise discovery.  I've never sat down and watched all of their creations in cinema, so it's been fun to finally get around to it!

I also have some exciting news to share, after discovering completely by chance that my blog has been cited in an excellent book about Bharatanatyam and dance in early Tamil cinema that was published last month.  More and more research and information related to the topics of this blog is slowly coming to light.  It's an exciting time folks.  See you soon...

Cited Sources:
  1. Ghosh, Sankhayan. "The filmmaker who refused to fit in."  The Hindu. March 24, 2016.
  2. Jayamanne, Laleen. The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani.  2014.
  3. Pinto, Elroy.  "Towards a micro-tonal aesthetic of sound and colour in Kumar Shahani's Khayal Gatha."
  4. Rajadhyaksha, Ashish.  "Kumar Shahani Now." In Rajadhyaksha, Ashish (Editor), Kumar Shahani: The Shock of Desire and Other Essays.  2015.
  5. Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Willeman, Paul.  Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. 1999.
  6. Muni, Anisha.  American Kathaks: Embodying Memory and Tradition in New ContextsMay 2018.  CUNY Academic Works.  Master's thesis.

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