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According to reports, the Kathak maestro was playing with his grandsons on Sunday (16 January) at his home in Delhi when his health deteriorated.
After being taken to the hospital, he was declared dead.
“He had his dinner and we were playing antakshari (a sing-along game) because he loved old music,” Birju Maharaj’s granddaughter Ragini told the Press Trust of India.
“He was lying down... and suddenly his breathing became uneven. We think it was cardiac arrest as he was also a heart patient.”
“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,” Ragini added.
Birju Maharaj had been suffering from a kidney ailment and was under dialysis treatment.
The classical dancer was born in 1938 to a family of Kathak devotees and performers.
Kathak is a type of northern Indian classical dance, with alternating passages of mime and dancing.
His uncles — Lachchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj — were also committed to Kathak, and were part of many Bollywood films of that era.
Birju Maraj himself contributed greatly to Indian cinema and introduced Kathak as a dance form to the world.
He choreographed some of the most famous dance numbers in hit Bollywood films such as Dedh Ishqiya, and Devdas.
Actor Deepika Padukone took Kathak dance lessons from Birju Maharaj for her song “Mohe Rang Do Laal” in the award-winning film Bajirao Mastani. The late dancer won a Filmfare Award for Best Choreography for this song.
Many people, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, paid tribute to him.
“Deeply saddened by the demise of Pandit Birju Maharaj, who gave Indian dance art form a special recognition across the world,” PM Modi wrote in Hindi. “His passing is an irreparable loss to the entire art world. My condolences to his family and fans in this hour of grief.”
Famous Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar added: “Pandit Birju Maharaj took Kathak from India to the world and inspired several people to take up the art.”
“I am saddened to hear about his demise. He will continue to live through his art & artists inspired by him. Deepest condolences to his family & Kathak lovers across the world.”
The demise of legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj marks the end of an era. It leaves a deep void in the Indian music and cultural space. He became an icon, making unparalleled contribution to popularise Kathak globally. Condolences to his family and admirers.
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) January 17, 2022
The passing away of the great Kathak Maestro Pt. Birju Maharaj is an end of an era. His unparalleled contribution to Indian cinema, art and culture and his rich legacy will live on in our hearts forever.
A great loss for the nation.
My humble tributes. pic.twitter.com/hXEw621Obm
— Mukul Wasnik (@MukulWasnik) January 17, 2022
India loses a legend of performing arts. Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj is no more.
Born into a family of kathak masters, belonging to the Lucknow gharana, Pandit #birjumaharaj took kathak to wider audience. Took forward traditions,held through generations,with great elan. https://t.co/vimvG0EXzh
— Nirmala Sitharaman (@nsitharaman) January 17, 2022
Received the sad news of the demise of Kathak maestro Shri Birju Maharaj.
My condolences to his family, friends and fans.
His contribution to the field of Indian classical dance is unparalleled and he will be remembered for it. pic.twitter.com/Em7S3RFre6
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) January 17, 2022
Kathak has lost one it’s tallest exponents Pandit Birju Maharaj ji.
Watching Kathak will always tingle a fond memory of the Padma Vibhushan Maestro.
My sincere condolences and prayers for the departed soul.
May Nataraja bless his family
Om Shanti 🙏 pic.twitter.com/sCQ0T2a4Ap
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) January 17, 2022
Indian actor Kajol wrote: “Pandit Birju Maharaj was a legend and an absolute wonder to watch... The world lost something priceless today. Rest In Peace, my deepest condolences to his family.”
Indian film director Anil Sharma added: “Saddened to hear the passing away of one of India’s supreme talents Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj ji… I was fortunate to work with the Kathak maestro in Gadar… we will all miss the legend.”