Step by step

Sree Sen | Updated on November 16, 2018

Firm footing: Mamta Maharaj says classical art forms are more relevant today than ever before

The women in Pandit Birju Maharaj’s family never performed in public. But his daughter Mamta decided she would — and she did

A group of young dancers is practising in front of a mirror. A small girl watches them intently. Too small to see her full reflection in the glass, she pulls up a chair and stands on it. And then she follows the older dancers’ steps, one intricate movement after another.

Now she is observing her elder sister play the tabla. But she is facing her didi, so her left hand follows the sister’s right. “I learnt the tabla by watching my older sister practise. In doing so, our left and right switched like in a mirror reflection. So, I play daya with the left hand and bayan with the right one — it should be the other way round,” laughs Mamta Maharaj.

The 50-year-old dancer, daughter of kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj of the Lucknow gharana, is the first woman in her family to take up dance as a profession. But dance, she says, has always been her passion — and is a form of worship. “Dance is my connection to God — it is my sadhana (discipline), my havan (ritual burning of offerings) and my worship of divinity,” she tells BLink.

Nritya was an integral part of her upbringing. Instead of toys and dolls, Mamta says, she played with musical instruments.

She and her four siblings grew up in a culturally vibrant atmosphere, exposed to various forms of music and dance. Their days were spent among artistes and performances at New Delhi’s Bharatiya Kala Kendra, where her father taught dance.

“I remember watching everything very closely — performances, routines and even their corrections. I could remember all of it, taking the place of any performer at short notice. I even watched my siblings practise in front of the mirror. I used to be very young, so I would drag a chair, get on top of it and try to mimic their movements before the same mirror,” she recalls.

Her late mother, Annapurna Devi, who belonged to the family of vocalist Pandit Shri Chand Mishra, had an equally rich heritage. She was known for her musical expertise, especially as a dholak player. But in a household where women performed only in family functions, she shied away from performing even before her husband. “Once father asked her to sing some verses in a local UP style for a ballet and, after much convincing, she only did so after a purdah (veil) was held up with her behind it,” Mamta recalls.

In a family where women were deeply entrenched in traditions that did not allow them to take up dance as more than just a hobby, it was an uphill task for Mamta to convince her father to allow her to perform. Birju Maharaj’s two sons, Jaikishan and Deepak, performed with him, but the three daughters — Kavita, Anita and Mamta — had stayed away from the stage.

“The prevailing idea was that when a girl married and left for another family, she would not be able to pursue Kathak any further. To take away the art from an artiste is absolutely heart-wrenching, the pain of which only another dancer can understand. Hence, it was believed that women should only learn enough as a hobby, lest she becomes too attached to it,” Mamta says.

By the time she was 18, she realised she had to decide which way she wanted her life to turn. “I realised that dance was going to be my life and livelihood. Initially, father would avoid a serious discussion, bringing up the topic of marriage as a diversion, yet I stuck to my convictions. Eventually, he decided that I had proved my dedication, and tied the ganda(a symbol of the bond between the guru and shishya) in 2008.”

And so she became the first woman to break the family tradition and take up dance. She teaches scores of students and has public performances. Mamta believes that classical art forms are more relevant today than ever.

“The old never dies; one must have patience until it makes a comeback,” she says, pointing that every major choreographer and dancer has had some training in classical forms. “It still plays a vital role, whether in Bollywood or stage performances. And across gender, too. (Actor-director) Kamal Haasan is an exceptional Bharatanatyam dancer,” Mamta adds.

The Delhi-based dancer, who was taught by her father, travels with him on his tours in India and abroad. While she follows her father’s style, her dance incorporates minor innovations of her own. But her focus, she adds, is on her father’s inimitable style.

Dance and music play an all-important role in these stressful times, she believes. “People must understand that in today’s high-stress lifestyles, it is important to relax, and what better way than to indulge in creative arts? Even gym or exercising, for that matter, is a way of enjoying the music and letting your body move,” she points out.

Mamta’s next show is in Aurangabad on December 16. “I carry my temple within me; I pray and remember the divine through dance every day,” she says.

Sree Sen is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on November 16, 2018

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