The name Pandit Birju Maharaj is unknown to most Minnesotans. But in the professional dance world, Maharaj is on par with legends such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.
And Maharaj, 80, is coming to Minnesota this week for a whirlwind evening of kathak, the classical dance tradition of northern India. Maharaj was invited here by Katha Dance Theatre, which has studios in Hopkins and Edina.
Kathak is the only dance form influenced by both Hindu and Muslim cultures. When it started in temples hundreds of years ago, it arose as a form of storytelling, moral instruction and a prayer offering to the Lord.
"For the Hindu's mind, we believe in reincarnation," said Katha artistic director Rita Mustaphi. "We want to be united with the supreme soul. By telling these stories, teaching people how to live morally, the goal is: You will be one step closer to God."
In the 16th century, when Muslim rulers arrived in India, they patronized kathak dance performances and brought the art form to the royal courts. The dance still taught morality but became infused with a new flamboyancy for the kings and emperors.
"Even though it is not restricted to temples and it is not totally devotional in its content now, when we dance, we do not compromise for the common people," said renowned kathak soloist Saswati Sen. "As classical dancers, most of us do have the divine power in the back of our mind, and we offer our dance as a prayer to the Lord, as well as to entertain the audiences through that prayer."
Kathak combines the grace of ballet, the precision of tap and the improvisation of modern dance. "It is very suggestive, sometimes very erotic," Mustaphi said. "Lots of spins, lots of footwork."
Facial expressions and hand gestures are paramount, as are the body's visual lines. Themes can range from mythology to Shakespeare. And performances are unfailingly emotional. "We always say that music, rhythm and the feelings of anger, hatred, joy and sorrow are universal," said Sen, speaking by phone from Delhi.
Kathak's improvisational elements promise to engage artists and audiences alike. "It's so exciting," Mustaphi added. "This was not made in a rehearsal room and brought in front of the eyes; it's made right in front of the audience at that moment. You see how the artists enjoy challenging each other in a very complementary way."
Maharaj is the seventh generation of kathak masters in his Delhi family.
"It was not really a decision on his part," said Sen of Maharaj's dance career. "It was like a fish swimming in water. Who knows who taught the fish? From the womb, it was decided that he had to continue the tradition forward."
Since around age 4, Maharaj remembers watching kathak dance students and trying to play the tabla. His father "could see the rhythm in my mind," Maharaj said by phone last week, speaking from Delhi. So Maharaj's father and uncle began to instruct him in the art of kathak dance.
Maharaj's father passed away when the boy was just 9 years old, but his mother encouraged him to continue learning. "I liked it so much and my mother was so happy to see the dance in my body," Maharaj said.
Joining him onstage this Sunday is Sen, one of Maharaj's closest disciples, as well as Grammy-winning classical tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain. Also performing are tabla player Utpal Ghosal, sitar player Chandrachur Bhattacharjee and vocalist Anirban Bhattacharyya as well as Maharaj's children and grandchildren, accomplished dancers in their own right.
The show, called "Parampara — The Tradition," was the brainchild of Mustaphi. She wanted to illuminate "guru-shishya parampara," or the lineage of teaching in which a student masters a guru's knowledge.
"In our culture, 'guru' is next to parents," Mustaphi explained. "Parents teach knowledge to us. Guru does a similar thing."
Mustaphi settled in Minnesota in 1971 and opened Katha Dance Theatre in 1987 — it remains the only professional kathak dance studio of its kind in the Midwest. Mustaphi met Maharaj in the 1980s, traveling to Delhi 12 times to study with him. "He is like a vast ocean of knowledge. Even today, when I stand in front of him, I feel like I know nothing," she said.
Kathak dance has undergone an evolution over the years as audiences change. Four decades ago, Maharaj focused on showcasing the nuances, details and skill of the dance. But today's audiences often lack a background understanding of kathak, so Maharaj has adapted his live show to incorporate more familiar movements, like mimicking the motions of birds in flight, deer jumping — or even the motion patterns of airplanes and motorcars. "The uninitiated audiences enjoy it a lot because they do not need a training of kathak to appreciate it," Sen said.
The future of kathak remains uncertain, though. While younger generations do flock to classes both in India and at Katha's Twin Cities studios, fewer dancers are taking kathak on as a serious profession. If Sunday's performance inspires audience members to try this storied form of dance, Mustaphi said, she will welcome them with open arms at Katha Dance School.
She sees dance not just as an art form or cultural tradition, but as a unifier. "I am here to promote kathak dance, but also to tell that we all are very similar to each other. Everybody has red-colored blood in their body, everybody's eyelids are moving, everybody's hearts are pounding," she said. "I like to show that we are all alike. What better way to teach that than through art?"
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.