By Quaid Najmi
In an era when men wore women’s costumes in theatre, dramas, songs and even the fledgling film industry, one young Indian dancer shattered stereotypes. She was Sitara Devi.
Born in Kolkata as Dhanalakshmi, and called Dhanno, as she was born on Diwali in 1920, Sitara Devi later became a living legend — a renowned exponent of the classical Kathak style of Indian dance.
A school dropout, Sitara Devi struggled against all odds to excel in her chosen field and brought Kathak from the domain of nautch girls to the global arena.
Her performance at the age of 16 before India’s first Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in Mumbai left him so impressed that he bestowed on her the title ‘Nritya Samragini’ (Empress of Dance).
Sitara Devi came from an ordinary but talented Brahmin family of Varanasi which lived in Kolkata and later in Mumbai.
Her father Sukhadev Maharaj was a Sanskrit scholar, researched in Bharat Natyashastra and was a Kathak dancer-teacher, a member of the Royal Court of Nepal, and mother Matsya Kumari was related to Nepal royal family.
In the 1920s, Sukhadev Maharaj met Tagore who encouraged him to revive the lost Indian dance form Kathak and elevate it to a dignified status.
Sukhadev Maharaj introduced reforms to revive Kathak by including religious elements — unlike what the nautch girls did — and it slowly became popular.
He also taught Kathak to his daughters Alakananda, Tara, Dhanno (later Sitara Devi) and sons Chaube and Pande.
They returned to Varanasi and set up a dancing school where the daughters of local prostitutes were also admitted, and Sukhadev Maharaj battled social ostracism to popularise Kathak.
When her marriage was fixed up at the age of eight, Dhanno fought against it, demanding school education. The family finally relented and admitted her to Kamachhagarh High School.
There, Dhanno blossomed as a dancer, and her impressed teachers asked her to teach other children for a performance.
Finally, Dhanno’s immense talent dawned on Sukhadev Maharaj. He re-named her as ‘Sitara Devi’ and put her under the tutelage of his elder daughter Tara. Tara is the mother of Gopi Krishna, the famous Kathak exponent, and nephew of Sitara Devi.
At the age of 10, Sitara Devi started short solo performances during movie intervals in a local theatre in Varanasi for a year and in 1931, the family shifted to Mumbai.
Recognising her huge energy reserves, her father designed a stringent regimen for physical fitness, enabling her to somersault, swirl, wrestle and swing around a tall horizontal pole 100 times with agility till she was 75!
Her dancing was full of vibrant energy. She developed her own niche style drawing from a treasury of themes, poems and choreography collected by her father, creatively analysing and combining the environment to suit each and every step she gracefully performed.
Soon after reaching Mumbai, she made a public debut at Sir C.J. Hall.
Later, Sitara Devi gave a Kathak recital before a select audience comprising Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Sir Cowasji Jehangir in a private royal palace, when she was just 11.
At one such performance, Tagore publicly felicitated her with a shawl and Rs.50 gift, which she considered as her life’s greatest honour.
“At that time my father whispered – ‘Don’t take only the gifts, he is a great man, seek his blessings’ – I sought Gurudev Tagore’s blessings to become a great dancer some day,” Sitara Devi had said.
Five years later, Tagore described her as ‘Nritya Samragini’, an honour which remained dear to her till death.
Around 1932, Dhanno was hired by a filmmaker and choreographer Niranjan Sharma and she performed dance sequences in “Usha Haran” (1940), “Nagina” (1951), “Roti” and “Vatan” (both 1954), “Anjali” (1957) and the epic “Mother India” (1957), her final role in which she danced to a Holi song dressed as a boy.
Her high-energy, heavy rhythmic movements based on music could continue effortlessly for hours and occasionally included renditions of ‘thumris’ and ‘bhajans’ during the performances.
She blended the elements of two schools of Kathak — one which was developed in Banares (east Uttar Pradesh) and one from Lucknow, (Oudh, or north Uttar Pradesh), and represented a forgotten era when Kathak used to be performed the whole night.
Over the years, Sitara Devi performed all over India and abroad, including prestigious venues like Royal Albert Hall, London (1967) and the Carnegie Hall, New York (1976).
The success in her professional life did not reflect in her personal life. She was married twice and both marriages ended bitterly, leaving her wedded to her first passion, dance.
Some of her famous students were Madhubala, Rekha, Mala Sinha and even Kajol among many more. She desired to set up a Kathak dance academy in Mumbai, but got no land from the government.
Honours came from all over, including Padma Shri. But Sitara Devi declined the Padma Bhushan, contending that she deserved a Bharat Ratna given her immense contribution to Kathak.
Alas, that was not to be. And the brightest star of Kathak finally faded away Tuesday morning.