Birju Maharaj, legend of India’s kathak dance form, dies

NEW DELHI – Birju Maharaj, a legend of classical Indian dance and among the country’s most well-known performing artists, died Monday. He was 83.

Maharaj was suffering from a kidney ailment and was undergoing dialysis and likely died of a cardiac arrest, his granddaughter Ragini Maharaj told the Press Trust of India news agency.

Known as Maharaj-ji by his many fans, he was considered an icon of the kathak form of Indian classical dance and was a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award.

He was born into a family of renowned kathak dancers and trained under his uncles and father, Acchan Maharaj, before giving his first performance at the age of 7.

Kathak uses dance and facial expressions to help tell a story, with many dance pieces inspired by ancient Indian epics.

Maharaj was known for his animated facial expressions and light-footed movements, accompanied by the sound of bells he wore around his ankles. He would often draw inspiration from his own life in his performances and was a skillful storyteller.

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He was also an acclaimed teacher of kathak and taught students at some of the country’s most premier dance institutions. In the late 1990s, Maharaj opened his own dance school, Kalashram, in the capital New Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply saddened” and that his death was an “irreparable loss to the entire art world,” in a tweet.

“Very few artists have been equally good as performers and as teachers. Maharaj ji certainly scaled new heights in both roles,” Indian classical dancer Geeta Chandran posted on Facebook. “His contribution to the world of dance is indeed historic, and will certainly be carried forward by his absolutely amazing tribe of disciples and students.”

“We have lost an unparalleled institution in the field of performing arts. He has influenced many generations through his genius,” singer Adnan Sami said.

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