I am indebted to Gina Lalli for guiding me back to Birju Maharj, whose dance style and even his name I had forgotten during the years intervening between my first glimpse of him in 1963 and the beginning of my studies with him in 1967. Luckily a professor of Indian studies at the University of Pennsylvania suggested I contact Lalli, the only Indian dancer he knew. As soon as I entered her New York City studio, I saw the picture of Maharaji on the wall. It was taken at a party Lalli hosted in her loft studio after Maharaji’s 1963 New York City performance. Maharaji is playing the tabla as Lalli (reflected in the mirror) performs for him. Lalli studied Kathak in Lucknow in the early 1960’s. Her Guru Vikram Singh was a disciple of Maharaji’s father, Aachan Maharaji. During her 1967 trip to India, she studied with Sunder Prasadji and Birju Maharaji.
When I indentified the man in the picture as the dancer with whom I wanted to study, Lalli gave me the address of the Kathak Kendra. I wrote, requesting to study with Birju Maharaj. A reply to my letter stated that I could come to New Delhi for an audition with Maharaji if I wished. During the summer and fall of 1966 I studied the rudiments of Kathak with Lalli and devoured the books in her library about Indian dance, music, history and art. A generous guru, Lalli gave me two of her practice costumes and even arranged that I stay with the Garga family at Bal Bhavan/ The National Children’s School founded by Pandit Nehru in New Delhi. Lalli returned to India in spring 1967. I followed in July, fearlessly throwing caution to the winds and trusting that Maharaji would accept me as his student. Of course my safety net was Lalli, whom I trusted and still revere as my first guide to Kathak and to India.