Birju Maharaj, the legendary Kathak exponent who introduced the traditional Indian dance form to the world, died in the early hours of Monday at his home here, according to his granddaughter.
The dancer would have been 84 years old next month. Maharaj-ji, as he was affectionately known, passed away surrounded by his family and disciples.
Ragini Maharaj told PTI that they were playing ‘antakshari’ after dinner when he became ill.
Birju Maharaj, from Lucknow’s Kalka-Bindadin Gharana, was one of India’s best-known and most-loved artists.
He leaves behind five children, three daughters, two sons, as well as five grandchildren. Maharaj had a kidney problem and had been on dialysis for the last month due to high diabetes.
His granddaughter believes he died as a result of a cardiac arrest, she 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.”
She added, “This happened between 12.15 and 12.30 am. It must have been just a minute or so. We rushed to the hospital but unfortunately, we could not save him. He died before reaching the hospital,” Ragini said.
The 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.”
As word of the Kathak maestro’s death spread, condolences poured in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called his death an “irreparable loss” to the art world.
“We are deeply saddened by the death of Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, who gave Indian dance worldwide recognition. His death is an irreparable loss to the art world as a whole. In this time of sorrow, please accept my condolences to his family and fans” said the prime minister.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman referred to the performer as a “legend of the performing arts.”
Pandit-ji or Maharaj-ji to his disciples and legions of followers, he had stated that the younger generation has far more opportunities to learn than he did.
Birju Maharaj told PTI in December that the future of Kathak, one of the most graceful classical dance forms, was bright in India, with a new generation carrying on the tradition.
“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,” he said.