Doyen of Kathak dance, Sitara Devi, lost her battle to a failing kidney in Mumbai on 25 November 2014. She had turned 94 on Nov 08 and was battling various abdominal and pancreatic related illnesses.
Born in 1920, on the eve of Deepawali in Kolkata, Dhanalakshmi, as she was named by her parents, Sukhadev Maharaj and Matsya Devi, was one of five siblings. Sukhadev Maharaj, a Sanskrit scholar and a Vaishnavite from Varanasi, was an exponent of Kathak and taught dance as well as gave performances all over India. He introduced Sitara Devi, as she came to be known subsequently, to the nuances of Kathak, at an early age.
On her part, Sitara Devi was a natural disciple and began to give early performances. It was after one such performance that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore saw her for the first time and gave the 16-year-old the epithet, Nritya Samragini, the Empress of Dance.
Her early years were spent under the mentorship of her elder sister, Tara, who was 20 years her senior, while her father oversaw her training. By 10, she was giving solo performances and by the time she turned 11, her family shifted to Bombay or Mumbai, as it is now known.
Sitara Devi used to fondly recount her solo Kathak performance at Atiya Begum Palace in Mumbai when she was just 11 years. The select audience included Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Sir Cowasji Jehangir. Such was her mastery over Kathak, that by the time she turned 12 years, she was spotted and picked by Niranjan Sharma, a dance director and filmmaker.
That was her introduction to the world of cinema and she gave some terrific performances in Usha Haran (1940), Nagina (1951), Roti, Vatan (1954), Anjali (1957), and Mother India (1957), which happened to be her last movie.
Thereafter, Sitara Devi focused on researching and refining Kathak in all its forms. Her passion for dancing saw her perform for an entire 24 hour cycle, such was her physical fitness and commitment to the cause of dance. She would credit her father’s military regime for fitness in her early years and who pushed her to go in for wrestling, to build her strength and stamina. She would proudly claim to exercise on the horizontal bar, even in her senior years.
As she progressed through the years experimenting with various interpretations of Kathak, she also experienced many other forms of dance in India like Bharatanatyam and even learnt Russian Ballet.
Known for her vivacity and passion that she brought to each performance, Sitara Devi was much admired by her fans for her skill and no less a person than the other master of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj, acknowledged her contribution to the art.
He would recall how his ‘Didi’, as he fondly addressed her, would do ‘riyaz’ for hours on end and how she once performed with him on stage despite having high fever. Once she stepped onto the stage, the danseuse was known to enter her own world of creative expression and that’s what made her the ultimate master of her art form. Many would not know that she has also trained under Achchan Maharaj, Pandit Birju Maharaj’s father. Birju Maharaj did try to meet her at hospital just before she passed away but she was too ill to meet anyone.
Her personal life wasn’t a very happy one. She was married to Nazir Ahmed Khan but the union didn’t last long. She then married K. Asif, known for his film Mughal-e-Azam and subsequently, she married Pratap Barot, from whom she had a son Ranjit Barot, the noted music composer.
In a career spanning over six decades, the legend mesmerised audiences with her performances at various prestigious venues like the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert and Victoria Hall in London.
She passed on her art form to many enthusiastic students, which included Bollywood celebrities like Madhubala, Mala Sinha, Rekha and even Kajol.
Recognising her contribution to the cause of Kathak, the Indian government conferred her with the Sangeet Natak Academi Award in 1969, Padma Shree in 1973, Kalidas Samman in 1995 and Nritya Nipuna. However, she did court controversy when she refused the Padma Bhushan from the government and was quoted to have said that she expected to be conferred the ‘Bharat Ratna’.
The eminent Kathak danseuse, Sitara Devi leaves behind an army of admirers and a nation who will never forget her contribution to Kathak.