Spectacle of Universal Love Conceived by a Master of Kathak Dance


Photos: Amitava

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The opening scene was grand, but simple. A man walks to the posts, lighting street lamps and the plaza in front of the two-story house with the large steps and the balcony with the balustrade starts to come alive with people, first in ones and two and then in groups. Soon it is a bustling bazar scene with vendors and women haggling over wares. The colors of their dresses are brilliant, as are the short tunics and Peshawari salwars of the men.

With meaningful short steps, stylized dance movements take shape and then burst out all over the stage. Three men begin a routine, more join in; a couple comes down the steps and mingles in. A menacing figure emerges and a street brawl begins between sworn enemies with stout bamboo sticks, broken up by the Prince himself.


This was the imagination of Padamavibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen on display in their version of Shakespeare’s classic tale of love, Romeo and Juliet, set to the music and steps of the Kathak classical Indian dance style, with a fusion of other western influences of Flamenco and vintage ballroom steps. The results were brilliant both in the exquisite choreography and the attention paid to the style and rich colors of the garments of the actors.

And among the actors were 45 students from area dance schools who had trained for three-days in intensive workshops to perform on the stage of Brown Theatre at The Wortham Center. These dance students of several Houston Gurus- Uma Nagarsheth, Rathna Kumar, Shiva Mathur, Lavanya Rajagopalan, Supradipta Dutta- had the rare opportunity to learn Kathak from a Master who is considered the living God of Kathak, Birju Maharaj, as well as some of his disciples Guru Saswati Sen, Mamta Maharaj, and others.


The workshops were offered by the Indo American Association as part of its educational outreach program and there was such a tremendous response that many aspirants had to be disappointed. Of the 76 students enrolled, 45 advanced students trained under the watchful eyes of the Master and then danced with all their hearts with the touring Romeo & Juliet ballet in Kathak performance group on Friday, July 22.

Birju Maharaj is a leading exponent and legend in Lucknow gharana of Kathak dance and comes from seven generations of dancers. His father, Jagannath Maharaj, served as the court dancer in the princely Rajgarh state and Birju was trained by him and his uncles Lachhu Maharaja and Shambhu Maharaj, giving his first recital at the age of seven. Birju was head of his uncle’s Kathak Kendra school in New Delhi and later opened his own dance school, Kalashram, also in Delhi.


Saswati Sen, also a leading exponent of Kathak and a senior disciple of Pt. Birju, achieved early fame by dancing in legendary Indian film director Satyajit Ray’s film Shatranj ke Khilari (1971). Born to a family of legal and medical professionals, Saswati took to dance at an early age and brought all her skills to the set of Romeo and Juliet, playing out the role of the young forlorn Juliet with grace and agility against the much younger Deepak Maharaj (Birju’s son) who played the role of Romeo.  Six other dancers from India, including Mamta Maharaj (Birju’s daughter), filled out the rest of the cast of the 90-minute long ballet.

The music and unique choreography were a testimony to the imagination and vision of Birju and Saswati as they took 70 performers on stage through to tell the story of lost love. Birju Maharaj collaborated with the Indian film composer, jazz musician and singer Louis Banks to set the unique musical score that wound through the production. The result was a stunningly appealing production of Romeo and Juliet in the unexpected style of Kathak.

To set off the mood for the ballet that was to follow, the audience got a special treat in witnessing a 40-minute solo by the 78 year-old Master Pandit Birju Maharaj himself, as he explained the idioms of Kathak. He was accompanied by Chitrachur Bhattacharjee on sitar, Deepak Maharaj on harmonium and vocals, and on tabla by Gauri Sankar. Birju Maharaj mesmerized the audience with his command of the art. It was inspiring to see that even in his advanced age he can still do vigorous routines including hops and jumps while explaining the taals; even breaking into a jugalbandi with the tabla.

The Indo-American Association has brought quality performances to mainstream venues in Houston for 23 years in its mission to promote the cultural arts of India and raise awareness and appreciation among Texans. The IAA has sought educational outreach by incorporating local talent into the performances of internationally renowned artists on a grand stage.