It has been exactly 2 weeks since this great artist left this world and has been one with the paramatma. His passing is a huge loss to the Kathak community and to the world of arts. It is a loss to many of his disciples and students who have been developing their work through the path that was shown to them by this celebrated Guru.
It is not easy to describe this quiet and extremely reserved man whose talent was not only noted by his students but also by his own Guru, none other than, Pandit Birju Maharaj, who said: "He left us too soon. He was one of my very few disciples who was actually able to embody my style. He called me Bhaiya and took part in many of my productions as a lead character. He was a multitalented artist and I am deeply saddened by this news. My blessings to the family, hoping that God gives them strength to go through this difficult time."
At the request from his Guru, Vijai Shankarji moved to Kolkata in 1981 and created huge excitement amongst the dancers there, established and new, from different schools and styles who started taking talim from him. Dr Malabika Mitra, one of the top Kathak dancers in India who also learned from him for a few years, said: "He was an excellent performer, teacher and choreographer. I feel that teaching was best of all." With his guidance, many musicians, who accompanied Kathak artists, also learnt a new approach to creating music for dance.
I have had the fortune of learning from him since 1992, when I invited him to London to spend two months here so that I could continue my professional development and learn his specific style of Kathak, which I absolutely loved but never had the chance to pursue. He was a generous, courteous and easy-going artist who happily taught me and my students (at the time) his style, which was full of interesting layakari and beautiful movements. I was already established in London with a school and touring career but was prepared to work hard to embody a new style. It was his patience and dedication to the form which made it possible for me to grasp the complex subtleties of the style. Some of his distinct and signature pieces of compositions are classics and form the basis for many of my pieces. I remember his small eyes used to light up while creating and reciting layakari compositions. Besides teaching, he also enjoyed cooking, especially the famous ‘nutrela pulau’ (soya chunks and rice) and also watching Hindi films, which was a regular evening activity with students in London.
Pandit Vijai Shankar passed away on 17th March 2019 in Varanasi leaving a son and daughter, both married. His wife said: "Although, towards the end, he was quite poorly in leg strength but counting of matra never stopped" and that "he went peacefully."
I offer my sincere pranam to this great artist who I am hugely indebted to. He will always be remembered for generations through the beautiful parampara (tradition) of ‘passing the wealth of education'.
As Vedant says death is not something that has to be always dreaded. Death is only a transition from one state of existence to another. Through death one gets a freedom that is impossible while one is in the body.
Sujata Banerjee MBE – April 2019
Photo credit: Simon Richardson