Beyond Pt. Birju Maharaj's Granddaughter: Shinjini Kulkarni Forges Her Own Path

In an exclusive conversation with SheThePeople, Shinjini Kulkarni invites us into her world, sharing memories of her grandfather, Pt. Birju Maharaj, the challenges she faced as a custodian of his legacy and the evolving landscape of Kathak in the 21st century.

Oshi Saxena
Updated On
New Update
Shinjini Kulkarni

Image Credit: Shinjini Kulkarni Instagram

India, a land steeped in diverse cultures, has given birth to myriad forms of artistic expression, none perhaps as captivating as Kathak. Originating in the northern regions of the country, the name of the classical dance form is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Katha,' meaning story. Kathak weaves together dance, music, and poetry to narrate stories as old as time itself, and with this emotion was established Kalashram, the legendary dance school founded by the late Pandit Birju Maharaj.


Stepping into this revered institution is like stepping into a time capsule, where the echoes of centuries-old rhythms mingle with the vibrant energy of modernity. Here, under the tutelage of the esteemed Kathak dancer Shinjini Kulkarni, the ancient art form of Kathak finds new life, resonating with the pulse of today’s generation.

As I entered this hallowed space, I anticipated a deep conversation on the technical nuances of Kathak, but what unfolded was a revelation of the transformative power of storytelling through movement. Here, amidst the echo of sitar, sarangi, and tabla, Kulkarni, the torchbearer of the Kalka Bindadin lineage and granddaughter of the illustrious Pandit Birju Maharaj, welcomed me into her world.

In this exclusive conversation, Shinjini Kulkarni reflects on her journey of carrying forward her grandfather's unparalleled legacy, navigating the weight of expectation and the shadow of nepotism with grace. From cherished memories with Maharaj Ji to the evolution of storytelling in Kathak, Kulkarni talks about the complex relationship between dance and musical instruments, revealing how each note and gesture becomes a vessel for expression. She also shares insights into the burgeoning embrace of Kathak by Gen Z, its potential to address mental health issues and the evolving dynamics of gender roles within the dance form.

Embracing Kathak, Embracing Life

Kulkarni's journey in Kathak has been as unexpected as it has been rewarding. Initially hesitant to pursue dance as a profession, she had doubts about its economic viability. "I felt that this was not sustainable economically," she confesses. "But soon I came to realize that if you do this properly and if you do this for the right reasons, you will have enough to have a decent lifestyle and at the same time do something that you cherish."

Despite hailing from a family of artists—her parents are painters and sculptors— Kulkarni initially harboured ambitions of a career in civil services. However, her passion for Kathak proved too compelling to ignore. "I realized that I can't be stuck up," she recalls. "And now I'm here, I have been able to, in the 10 years of my professional career, I've been able to do a lot of things much earlier than what would be considered normal."


I am representing the 9th generation consecutively to be doing Kathak for a profession. There is a great responsibility on us to take it forward in the same shape that we received it and yet make it our own. So, we are always treading on a very fine line and a fine balance."

While  Kulkarni, acknowledges the advantages of being Pandit Birju Maharaj's granddaughter, she is quick to assert her own identity as an artist. "It helps that I am Maharaj Ji's granddaughter, but I also have put in the effort to make a name for myself," she asserts. "I am not introduced everywhere as his granddaughter. It is a later introduction."

Indeed, Kulkarni's achievements speak for themselves, from teaching over 900 students to creating full-scale dance ballets and performing at prestigious festivals. 

Fond Memories of Pt. Birju Maharaj

For  Kulkarni, dance wasn't just a passion—it was a way of life from the tender age of three. "I started learning at the age of 3," she shares, dispelling the notion that such an early start is unfathomable. "Our family has a rule that if you are born in this family, you have to learn," she explains. "It's not forced upon anyone to take it as a profession, but you have to learn."

Describing Pt. Birju Maharaj, she recalls that he was an effortless guru and his teaching methodology was as unique as his personality.  Kulkarni reminisces, "I would struggle with rhythm compositions, and he would make it easy by adding names to things. Chutney tihaayi, halwa phooli, sabzi tihaayi. So he replaced the bowls of Kathak with things that I'd love to eat and made tihaayis out of them. And he's done it for so many of us, within the family, outside for students."

Image Credit - Shinjini Kulkarni

As the granddaughter of the legendary Maharaj ji, Kulkarni's journey was intertwined with the wisdom and guidance of a master. Reflecting on her memories with him, she fondly recalls moments that continue to guide her even after his passing. "After he passed away, there are so many things that he must have said to me in passing," she reminisces. "It has come back to guide me at such important crossroads in life. It's almost as if, prophetically, he was telling me because he knew that I'd need it later in life," she reflects.

Facing Nepotism & Stereotypes

From the outset, she found herself confronted with stereotypes and misconceptions. In an exclusive interview, she shared, "I had a lot of stereotypes placed upon me when I started. People thought I wasn't serious about it." Coming from St. Stephen's College, Kulkarni's decision to pursue Kathak professionally raised eyebrows. "When I first entered the field as a professional, people wrote me off," she recounted. The weight of nepotism hung over her like a shadow, as others assumed her success was merely a result of her lineage.

Shinjini Kulkarni Instagram
Credit: Shinjini Kulkarni Instagram

To prove herself, Kulkarni faced an uphill battle. "To learn what was rightfully mine took me a lot of time," she admitted. "There was this challenge that, from day one, people were expecting that I was going to be as good as him," she explained, referring to her esteemed grandfather. Yet, Kulkarni understood the impossibility of such comparisons.


"Even when I started doing well, the challenge was that the credit would not come to me," she revealed. Her hard work and dedication often went unnoticed, overshadowed by preconceived notions of privilege. "Eventually, people started to see that there is only so much that your family can support you with," she reflected. 

Evolution of Storytelling in Kathak

Kathak initially has always been about storytelling," Kulkarni claims, her voice carrying the weight of centuries-old tradition. "From the word 'Katha', Kathak was originated. And in temples, you only told stories about gods and goddesses." But as society has evolved, so too have the stories told through Kathak. Shinjini sheds light on the shift towards more contemporary themes, themes that resonate with the issues facing society today.

"Whether it is about female infanticide or it is about cleanliness, about such things, domestic abuse against women," she says, "there have been beautiful compositions and choreographies exploring these topics."

As shares her experiences embodying characters such as Mirabai, I am reminded of the power of storytelling to awaken the dormant embers of our agency and autonomy. "One character which I hold very dear to me is Mirabai," Shinjini confides, her voice suffused with reverence for the legendary saint-poetess. "There is something about her struggle which resonates with every woman. Just to be able to do what I want to do and have the agency over my own life is so strong."

"Bhakti is what I want," Kulkarni said, drawing parallels between Mirabai's journey and the aspirations of women today. "In my spirituality, Krishna is my lover and this is my only reality. Now, if it requires me to break five different barriers, I will do it. Something so simple, something so pure, holds truth today as well. A girl sitting in Bhopal today says she wants to be a journalist. No one can stop. There is a Mirabai in me; you also, possibly in every woman."

Gen Z and the Resurgence of Kathak

Kulkarni reflects on the resurgence of interest among the younger generation, particularly Gen Z, in embracing their cultural heritage. "It is a great thing that Gen Z is coming back to understanding and valuing Kathak in whatever watered-down version that they get their hands on because this generation is on social media from the word go," she remarks.


The influence of Bollywood on popular culture cannot be understated, and Kathak has often found itself relegated to cinematic spectacle, a mere adornment in lavish song-and-dance sequences. However, Kulkarni notes that this resurgence marks a departure from the commodification of Kathak as a decorative element. "There are many young actresses who are learning Kathak again, which was not the trend in the past 15-20 years," Kulkarni observes. "Now we are back there, where actors like Janhvi Kapoor, etc. are truly learning the art form and hoping to sort of make sense of the art form in itself."

From Tradition to Trend

However, Kulkarni acknowledges the inherent challenges posed by the digital age. With social media platforms awash with bite-sized content and fleeting distractions, the depth and complexity of Kathak risk being reduced to mere snippets of performance.

"Kathak is not a dance form that you can see in its entirety in 30 seconds," Kulkarni cautions. "What you see in those 30 seconds might be one element in it. A beautiful element, but one element. It does not define the whole dance form." 

Initially, Kathak was all about storytelling, with performances blending song and dance. Nowadays, Kathak has adapted to modern times, with social media influencers putting their own spin on this classical art form. "Today we have social media influencers who are all right to do Bollywood songs in Kathak style and call it Kathak," she observes. While she acknowledges the creative freedom of artists, she urges them to uphold the authenticity of the art form and not dilute its essence for the sake of trends. 

Preserving Tradition in the Digital Age

Despite the obstacles posed by the digital age, Kulkarni remains optimistic about the opportunities it presents for learning and growth. "Today, there are more gurus and teachers available online who are willing to teach you," she notes. With the proliferation of online resources, aspiring Kathak dancers have access to a wealth of knowledge and instruction like never before.

However, Kulkarni emphasizes the irreplaceable role of the guru in the journey of mastering Kathak. "Influencers can influence you to learn it. But to learn the art, you have to go to a guru," she asserts.

Instead, she sees social media as a tool to extend the reach of Kathak beyond the confines of traditional live performances. "Not because live shows will stop, but you will not get a chance to watch live shows constantly," Kulkarni explains. "You can perform once or twice in a city or in a season. It's only humanly possible. But you can post 10 videos of yourself every day on social media and allow people to see your work more."

The Healing Power of Kathak

The mental health crisis is upon us now. Everyone is facing it,"  Kulkarni asserts, her voice resonating with conviction. "And I will tell you the many ways in which Kathak and dance in general can help." With a keen understanding of the myriad struggles faced by today's youth, Kulkarni digs into the therapeutic aspects of Kathak, highlighting its potential in addressing attention deficit disorders (ADHD) and anger management.

"One of the biggest problems with the next generation is ADHD," she explains. "Kathak helps with that if you put the child in at a young age. Simply because the child is engrossed in trying to do something meaningful and it is something that they enjoy." Through the disciplined practice of Kathak, children gradually cultivate focus and concentration, honing their ability to channel their energies productively. Shinjini elucidates, "So, slowly by, step by step, they are able to find themselves focusing for a longer duration. You start short, then you go longer and then once you are into it, once you are hooked on to it, there is no going back.

A Shift in Gender Dynamics

From its roots as a male-dominated art form to its current status as a bastion of female empowerment, Kathak has undergone a remarkable transformation.  Kulkarni reflects, "From a male-dominated art form, it has become a female-dominated art form."

Kulkarni critiques the influence of mass media, particularly Bollywood, on perpetuating rigid gender roles. "Parents generally would not want their children to explore their sexuality," she observes, pointing out the misconceptions surrounding male dancers, who are often expected to adhere to masculine ideals. She questions why male dancers are subjected to scrutiny about their sexuality, while actors portraying female characters on television face no such interrogation. 


She challenges these stereotypes, emphasizing that dance is a form of expression, not a reflection of one's identity. "If I were to stand and make a Shiva pose, that doesn't mean that I am a masculine woman or that my sexual orientation has changed because I am playing a male character on stage, Similarly, if a male dancer has to present Parvati, he will have to change his body posture, his mannerisms etc. that doesn't make him like Parvati in real life. This distinction has to be made." she asserts.

"Kathak is a Shringar Ras-based art form," Kulkarni explains, emphasizing the celebration of femininity on stage. Yet, she is quick to point out that embodying feminine qualities doesn't necessitate conformity to traditional gender norms. Instead, Kathak provides a platform for individuals to explore and express their identities freely. Shinjini highlights the liberating power of dance, especially for members of the LGBTQ+ community, who find acceptance and support within the Kathak fraternity.

What sets Kathak apart, according to Kulkarni, is its inherent inclusivity. "Dance has been a very level playing field," she remarks. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, Kathak welcomes all who seek to express themselves through movement and rhythm. "Men who were not getting that space to explore their sexuality elsewhere in society definitely found that space in Kathak," she says. 

The Power of Performance

For Kulkarni, Kathak isn't just a passion; it's an addiction—an insatiable craving for the limelight that fuels her every step. In her own words, "It's my complete addiction to the limelight." The thrill of commanding the attention of a thousand eyes and sculpting emotions with a mere movement of her hand is a power beyond measure.

As she shares, "When you're on stage and you're looking towards the audience, it's such a different perspective because there are a thousand people, all of them glued to you.  To hold someone's attention like that, that they will do what, see, hear, believe whatever you want them to believe during that time, that power is unbelievable."

It's this intoxicating rush that draws her back to the stage time and again, even amidst life's most significant moments. "To the point where I got married and two days later I was back on stage," she happily reveals.

As she continues to break barriers and defy conventions, Shinjini Kulkarni reminds us that the true essence of Kathak lies not in its form but in its ability to transcend boundaries and touch the soul of every individual, regardless of language or geography. "A lot of people ask me, How do you define what is Kathak and what is not?" she shares. "As per Natya Shastra, whenever you tell a story about propagating Dharma, spirituality, or faith, you are doing Kathak. It's not about the character; it's about the message."

pandit birju maharaj Kathak Dancers Shinjini Kulkarni