Many of these memories have been making their way through the musical halls of Kolkata since news of the legend’s passing broke. Pt Kumar Bose, who has accompanied him to countless concerts in India and abroad since 1980, recalls a concert in Kolkata in the mid-1990s organized by Rajan-Sajan Mishra’s band Swar Ganga. In the front row were 51 eminent musicians, who were congratulated. The atmosphere was charged and there was magic on stage. “The program was organized by Rajan-Sajan Mishra. It was an important incentive. The presence of many prominent musicians in the front row was also inspiring,” he said. Obviously, this concert stands out as one of Bose’s memorable programs in Kolkata with the maestro. Describing their chemistry, Bose said: “He liked my playing style and liked my guru, Pt Kishan Maharaj. Knowing the dance steps didn’t make him a legend. He was a complete musician, singing, composing, choreographing, playing the tabla and writing poetry.
An image from “Birju Maharaj” by Chidananda Dasgupta. Courtesy of National Film Archive of India (NFAI)
Many also remember that Chidananda Dasgupta made a black and white documentary about him in 1972 which contains priceless footage of the maestro as a guru and in performance. That aside, it reminds him of his growing up years when he danced at the court of the Nawab of Rampur. Rare footage shows him showing a cannonball that was launched by the British in 1857 at his ancestral residence which was gifted to the family by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.
The rare footage of him telling the story of the documentary’s cannonball
Fortunately, NFAI scanned the original camera negative (OCN) of the film in 2K resolution to achieve the highest quality results. “We have also done a basic level grading for its exclusive screening on November 20 in Kolkata by the Chidananda Dasgupta Memorial Trust. We will resume restoration work soon,” said NFAI Director Prakash Magdum.
Another photo of the maestro performing from the documentary titled “Birju Maharaj”
One of the stories going around is how Satyajit Ray had invited him to sing ‘Kanha main tose haari’ for his ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ in 1977. A young Saswati Sen had danced to this Bhairavi composition which he had sung. “My father loved both his style of dancing and singing. We had met in Hyderabad. Birju Maharaj had come to Kolkata with his troupe and recorded the song at a studio in Dumdum. It was photographed on an actor from his troupe,” director Sandip Ray said. Ray’s host Anil Ghosh, who met the maestro while filming the song at Indrapuri studio, said, “Manik-da (Ray) wanted a quirky voice. Having Birju Maharaj on film sets helped since the kathak had reached greater heights under Nawab Wajid Ali Shah – the character played by Amjad Khan in the film.
While seniors like Pt Anindo Chatterjee, Pt Samar Saha and Pt Subhen Chatterjee have fond memories of accompanying the maestro to Kolkata, the youngsters have touched him too. When young sarod player Indrayudh Majumder wrote, composed and produced a song for peace named ‘Om Shanti’ during the first lockdown, he ‘blessed’ the project with his world famous ‘Bhaav’. “We had 24 of the most prominent faces of Indian classical music and dance across India recording and touring from their homes for this project. Pandit Birju Maharaj-ji was not in the best of health at that time. So he sat on a chair in his room and blessed us with his famous “Bhaav” (dance expressions) for the lines, Om Shanti. He also appeared on our music video for just a few seconds. It made the whole project immortal in our hearts,” Majumder said. When Pt Subhankar Banerjee was critical, he called regularly to find out about the progress of the tabla player who had accompanied him many times.
Last November, Pt Tejendra Narayan Majumdar met him at Saswati’s residence in Delhi. “He had learned the sarod and wanted me to play,” he said. But that ultimately didn’t happen since the two were absorbed by an adda. With Pt Bickram Ghosh, he had engaged in a percussion duet on stage. “I had gone to play a tabla solo on his birthday in Delhi. He was so excited to hear my solo that he asked his students to bring his naal on stage. It was an exhilarating experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” he said.