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Legendary Kathak Dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj Passes Away; PM Modi, Celebs Pay Tribute

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Legendary Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj, who took the traditional Indian dance form to the world, died at his home in New Delhi in the early hours of Monday, Janaury 17, his granddaughter said. He would have been 84 next month. Maharaj-ji, as he was popularly known, died surrounded by his family and disciples. They were playing 'antakshari’ after dinner when he suddenly took ill, Ragini Maharaj told PTI.

Birju Maharaj, one of India’s best known and most loved artistes, was from Lucknow's Kalka-Bindadin Gharana. He is survived by five children, three daughters and two sons, and five grandchildren.

He had been suffering from a kidney ailment and was under dialysis treatment for the last month due to high diabetes. He probably died of a cardiac arrest, his granddaughter said. "He was with us when this happened. He had his dinner and we were playing 'antakshari’ because he loved old music. He was lying down…and suddenly his breathing became uneven. We think it was cardiac arrest, as he was also a heart patient. This happened between 12.15 and 12.30 am. It must have been just a minute or so. We rushed him to the hospital but unfortunately, we could not save him. He died before reaching the hospital," Ragini said.

Ragini, a Kathak dancer herself, said the only solace for the family is that he did not suffer too much in his last moments. "Two of his disciples and his two granddaughters, my younger sister Yasyashashwini and me, were with him when this happened. He was laughing and smiling in his last moments," she said.

Condolences poured in as news of the death of the Kathak maestro, who would have been 84 on February 4, came in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his death is an "irreparable loss" to the entire art world. "Deeply saddened by the demise of Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, who gave Indian dance a special recognition world over. His passing is an irreparable loss to the entire art world. My condolences to his family and fans in this hour of grief," the prime minister said.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman described the artiste as a "legend of performing arts".

Fondly called Pandit-ji or Maharaj-ji by his disciples and legions of followers, he had said the younger generation has many more opportunities to learn than in his time. In his last interview with PTI in December, Birju Maharaj had said the future of Kathak, one of the most graceful classical dance forms, was bright in India with the new generation taking the tradition forward.

"Artistes who passionately work towards carrying the tradition forward are the right torchbearers of an art form and its legacy. It takes a lot of work and dedication to stay true to a mighty tradition such as classical dance," the Padma Vibhushan awardee had said.

Brajmohan Maharaj or Birju Maharaj was a descendant of the Maharaj family of Kathak dancers. He trained under his father and guru Acchan Maharaj and uncles Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj.

Singer Durga Jasraj, daughter of the late Pandit Jasraj, called Birju Maharaj's death "a monumental loss to Indian performing arts". "Legendary Pt Birju Mahraj ji's departure has left us poorer, shattered. Pray Maharaj ji's soul rests in rhythmic peace. Deepest condolences to his family, disciples and fans across the world. Om Shanti," she wrote on Twitter.

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

Photo courtesy: Swaransh Mishra