“Brijshyam” – The Magical Krishna By Anirban Bhattacharyya
It was past midnight on the 17th of December, 2022 when Pandit Birju Maharaj Ji was playing antakshari with his granddaughters Ragini and Yashaswini. Suddenly something felt wrong. Maharaj Ji dozed off and decided to move to a better place . . . and, never woke up again. While the world mourned about the passing away of a legend, Maharaj Ji left us with a musical legacy that he carefully crafted during his lifetime – an illustrious legacy of the Kalka-Bindadin Gharana of Kathak and a musical gift of hundreds of bhajan, thumri, dadra, tarana and his poems.
My musical association with Maharaj Ji during the last decade has been the most enriching musical experience of my life – both as a student and a professional musician. Now, as I reflect on the memories and the talim of Maharaj Ji, I wonder how much I got to learn from him, knowingly and unknowingly. It was in May 2012, when I got a call from Maharaj Ji to sing for him at the prestigious Mudra Festival at NCPA, Mumbai. That evening Maharaj Ji was in the mood to present his “iconic” items which included Sheesh Mukuta, Udhav, and Mori Gagariya kahe ko phodi re shyam . . . God willing, it turned out to be the most memorable concert of my life and my decade-long journey with Maharaj ji as a singer, musician, companion, student and moreover, as a sathi began!
Maharaj Ji took me under his wings as we trotted around the globe for his performances. Every tour meant new places, new people and new music. Our mornings would be filled with stories of Maharaj Ji’s life and endless musical adda. Other than his regular dance concerts, Maharaj Ji loved to present Baithi Bhaav for his fans which included a line-up of his favourites like Mohey Chhero Na, Saavra Giridhar, or Sapne Soye. Every time, he would choose to present his abhinaya for a new set of songs, which meant an endless journey of learning new songs from the Master and presenting them afresh in the concerts. I keenly waited for these baithaks so that I could imbibe more of his inimitable gayaki, his upaj, while Maharaj Ji would take us to a different plane of storytelling through his favourites Uthi Haye Ghanghor, Jane De Maika, Dhaye Gaho or Jhulata Raadhe Naval Kishor. No matter how many hundreds of times I performed these songs together on stage, every time they came anew, with fresh interpretations of Maharaj Ji’s Baithi Bhav – and that kept it all going.
During the daylong kathak workshops, Maharaj Ji would suddenly get hooked to a refrain and we would anticipate that a new song is cooking! The tours have always been an opportunity for me to spend real quality time with the Genius. The three of us, fondly named by Maharaj ji as the “Teen-Murti”– Utpal Ghoshal on Tabla, Chandrachur Bhattacharjee on Sitar and me, would spend hours with Maharaj Ji, discussing music and bols. Sometimes he would urgently summon his “Teen-Murti” in his room; we would rush to see him with the joy of learning something new that has just been composed. His endless creativity and quest for newness were what kept him so young from the inside. We never felt “away” from home – we were always “at home” with Maharaj Ji.
Maharaj Ji’s world revolved around his quest for the beauty of sound. Be it the ghungroo, or a raga refrain, or the tabla – Maharaj Ji would always bind them into beautiful poetry. To him, dance was the anga-kavya, poetry through the body, and dancing was the chhanda-kavya, the poetry of rhythm. His philosophy of dance was an endless search for Krishna, as he would arrive at the sam to be one with the Brijshyam. Every time he entered the stage in his iconic golden attire, I saw him as the embodiment of Krishna himself – every single thing seemed perfect, every bit of it, as he would take us together through an eternal journey of music and storytelling. Maharaj Ji believed in the “completeness” of music – for him sangeet was indeed a total presentation of gita, vadya and nritya.
17th January 2022, seemed to be a day that was unexpected and too early. A lot remained yet to be taught by the Master himself. Last February, on the day of Saraswati Puja, Maharaj Ji published a complete collection of his poetry and songs on the eve of his birthday, “Brijshyam Kahe,” which would remain a treasure-trove for the future generations of musicians. At his funeral, when all the present generation of the Maharaj family joined in a series of bol parhant before the pyre was set to fire, the only thought that came to my mind was what better mantra could one chant to say a musical goodbye to Maharaj Ji! Being the youngest member of Maharaj Ji’s musical entourage for the last one decade, I will dearly miss his charming presence, his musicality, his teaching, and the wide smile with which he always welcomed me: “Nayan Mein Aan-Baan . . . Anirbaan”. . .
* Anirban Bhattacharyya is a Hindustani classical vocalist of the Patiala tradition and a social anthropologist from Kolkata. A senior disciple of Padmabhushan Ajoy Chakraborty, Anirban is a President of India Gold and Silver Medalist from All India Radio in Khayal and Thumri, and Champion in Thumri from State Music Academy in 2010, Anirban is also a National Scholar in Rabindra Sangeet and had the opportunity of learning from and performing with the legendary Kathak maestro Padma Vibhushan Birju Maharaj all over India and abroad for more than the last decade. Anirban is presently a PhD Scholar from Shiv Nadar University and his academic research on music focuses on the Musicological works of Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore from Calcutta and Bandish Thumri of Lucknow.