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Devi in 2009
Kolkata, British Raj
Sitara Devi (born 1920) is an eminent Indian dancer of the classical Kathak style of dancing. Rabindranath Tagore described her as Nritya Samragini, meaning the empress of dance, after watching her performance when she was just 16 years old. The epithet continues, and she is still described as the Kathak queen.
Early life and background
Sitara Devi was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) on the Dhanteras, the eve of the Indian festival of Dipavali in 1920 Being born around Dipavali, she was named Dhanalakshmi (nicknamed Dhanno), an epithet of goddess Lakshmi who is worshiped especially during Dipawali. She could return to live with her parents’ only when she was eight. She was born in a Brahmin family, originally from Varanasi, and later settled in Kolkata. Her father, Sukhadev Maharaj, a Vaishanavite scholar of Sanskrit, earned his livelihood by teaching and performing kathak dances in different parts of India. Her mother was Matsya Kumari, who held a relationship with the royal family of Nepal. Sukhadev Maharaj, while serving in the royal court of Nepal had studied Sanskrit and had done an in-depth study of the Bharatanatyashastra; he also practiced and performed kathak dancing in which he excelled. Kathak became a source of his living, as also a passion, which he passed on to his daughters, Alaknanda, Tara, and Dhanno; and his sons, Chaube and Pande.
He had met Rabindranath Tagore, and was encouraged by him to revive the lost forms of Indian performing arts (like kathak), and ensure elevation of them to a dignified status. Sukhadev Maharaj decided to realize this goal by contributing to reforming the kathak style of dancing. At that time, kathak was being performed by nautch girls or boys, and girls of decent families were not expected to learn this style of dancing. He decided to give religious inputs to the content, which was quite different from the content used by the nautch girls. Moreover, he decided to teach this form of dancing to his daughters and sons. Elders of his community were scandalized, and Sukhadev Maharaj was virtually ex-communicated.
Sukhadev Maharaj’s and his family members had to face the ire of the community members, and his daughters were called prostitutes. This did not deter him in his determination. Sitara, recalling those moments, reminisces: “My father used to say that when Radha could have danced for Krishna why not our girls? Why should men appropriate the right to dance?” Sukhadev changed his residence, and came to another area of Varanasi. He established a school to teach children including his own daughters and sons dancing. He even admitted children of prostitutes who came to the school to learn dancing. Once, the law enforcement authorities came to enquire about the affairs of the school, and Sukhadev Maharaj presented a performance based on the tales of the Mahabharata. They appreciated his efforts. Little Sitara had been watching her sister, twenty years senior to her, learning dance, and she had managed to learn dancing quite well just by observing and self-practice.
Like the tradition of the time, Sitara was to be married when she was a small girl of eight, and her child bridegroom’s family wanted to solemnize the marriage. However, she resisted, and wanted to be in a school. At her insistence, the marriage did not take place, and she was admitted into the Kamachhagarh High School. While at this school, a dance drama based on the mythological story of Savitri and Satyavan was to be enacted in a cultural program to be conducted by the students of the school. The school was searching amongst the students for someone to do a dance sequence embedded in the dance drama. Dhanno prevailed upon her teacher by showing her an impromptu dance performance. The impressive performance clinched the role for her and she was also assigned the task to teach the dance to her co-performers in the sequence. After the dance drama, a local newspaper named the Aaj reported about the cultural program emphasizing that a little girl name Dhanno had enchanted the audience by her dance performance. Her father saw the news, and this changed his perception about his girl with the “twisted mouth”. Dhanno was re-christened as Sitara, the star, and she was entrusted into the charge of her elder sister, Tara for imparting her dancing lessons. Incidentally, Tara is the mother of famous kathak dancer, Gopi Krishna.
By the time Sitara had turned ten, she was giving solo performances, mostly during the fifteen-minute recess during movies in a movie theatre of her father’s friend. Her commitment to learning and perfecting dancing left her with very little time, and she did not continue her schooling. By the time she was eleven, her family shifted to Bombay (now called Mumbai). Soon after reaching Bombay, Sitara gave a kathak performance in Atiya Begum Palace before a select audience, which included Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Sir Cowasji Jehangir. She immensely impressed Tagore who wanted her to give a special performance in Tata Palace of the Tata Group. There the eleven-year-old dancing damsel performed kathak, with all its nuances, for three hours. Tagore called her to felicitate her in the traditional Indian style of giving her a shawl and a gift of Rs. 50 as a token of her appreciation. Recalling those moments, Sitara once reminisced: “But as I thrust out my hand to receive gifts, I remember my father nudged me and whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t take only the gifts! He is a great man: ask for his blessings, girl!’ Obediently, I asked Gurudev to bless me that I would become a great dancer some day.”
Her debut was at Jehangir Hall (Mumbai), then the nerve center of metro’s cultural life. This was the beginning of a dancing career spanning more than six decades.
When she was just a twelve-year-old girl, Sitara Devi was recruited by Niranjan Sharma, a filmmaker and a dance director, and she gave dance sequences in some Hindi movies including her debut in Usha Haran 1940, Nagina 1951, Roti, Vatan 1954, Anjali 1957 (directed by Chetan Anand, brother of Dev Anand). In Mother India 1957, she performed a Holi dance dressed as a boy, and this was her last dance in any movie. She stopped performing dances in movies, as the same were adversely affecting her passion for excelling in the classical dance, kathak.
Sitara was married to K. Asif, a Muslim, and then to Pratap Barot, with whom she had a son, Ranjit Barot. Her married life was not smooth, and both the marriages had come to an end. This left her finding succor in her passion, dancing.
Her dancing is very energetic and well researched. She has developed her own niche style of dancing drawing from the treasure trove of themes, poetry, and choreography collected by her father, as also creatively analyzing and assimilating the environment around her: each and every gait and step of a village belle or a veiled peasant woman. She has many times emphasized the tandava aspect, displaying graceful movements with vigor and vitality. She had great energy, which her father had recognized, and had set a strict regimen for physical fitness. Decades later she recalled: “My wrestling master made me somersault, swirl, and wrestle with agility and dexterity. Until I was 75, I continued my physical exercise by swinging round a high-hanging horizontal beam about a hundred times”.
Her family had devoted their life for four generations to development of Kathak and discovering and collating the nuances of the lost and missing links, and ultimately during the lifetime of her father kathak re-attained its lost glory and emerged as an important pillar of Indian dancing. Sitara continued the tradition, and contributed immensely to the development and popularity of this art form during her career spanning more than six decades.
Her dancing, characterized by its energy and rhythmic movements based on the musical notes, continued for hours, and sometimes also included renditions of thumaris and bhajans. She combined the elements of two schools of kathak, which had developed in Banaras (in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh) and Lucknow, the northern part of the state, then called Oudh. She represented a lost age when kathak used to be performed for whole night.
For decades, She has performed at many concerts and festivals in India and abroad, including her performances in the royal Albert and Victoria Hall, London; and the Carnegie Hall, New York. Over the years, she has been conferred a number of awards, including Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1969) and the Padma Shree (1973), Kalidas Samman (1995) and Nritya Nipuna. However, to her, her greatest award is the recognition she received from Tagore. After observing one of her performances, when Sitara Devi was only sixteen years old, she was described Nritya Samragini (that is, the queen empress of dancing) by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate.
However, she refused to accept the Padma Bhushan award, declaring, "it is an insult, not an honor," and as a report from the Press Trust of India quoted her saying: "is this government not aware of my contribution to Kathak? I will not accept any award less than Bharat Ratna."
Although her forte is kathak, she is also an accomplished dancer in many other styles of dancing including Bharatanatyam and many forms of folk dances of India. She also learnt the Russian ballet, and some more dances of the western world. With advancing age, her dancing activities have diminished, and she is working on a compiling a book encapsulating the researches done by her father and her in the field of dancing, especially in kathak style of dancing. All through her dancing career she had been teaching kathak dancing to many persons, including Bollywood celebrities such as Madhubala, Rekha, Mala Sinha, and Kajol. She envisions formalizing her teaching, and plans to set up a Kathak training academy.
To many the octogenarian Sitara Devi is a living legend and she has been popularly known as "kathak queen." Over the years, she set her own style, and has inspired many generations of artists and audience.
“There is a reverse prejudice working in our society now. Male dancers are today seen as effeminate and not treated with respect. In fact, many families to day discourage their sons from taking up dance when they show any interest in it. It is frightening but true – the male dancer is becoming a near extinct species in India.”
80th,birth day of Guru Kalyana sundaram pillai
Sri. Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir,' celbrates Guru Kalyana sundaram pillai's birth day, at Sri. Shanmukhananda Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Auditorium, Mumbai on Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 6-30 pm. Programme : A Tribute to our Master : A dance presentation by Viji prakash, Artistic Director Shakti School of Bharathanatyam, Los Angeles. and performed by her daughter and disciple, MYTHILI PRAKASH
- A film
'The Legacy of the Thanjavur Parampara' -a saga of eight generations spread over 300 years. Falicitations to Guru Kalyanasundaram by eminent personalities :
- Sangeet Martand Pt. Jasraj, * Dr. Padma subrahmanyam, * Sri B.M.Sundaram, * distinguished artists of International repute, dance schools, arts organizations and students. Sitara devi was the student and as well as one of the eminent personalities felicitated on the occasion.
- "Kathak queen Sitara Devi still youthful at 91". Hindustan Times. September 2, 2011. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
- "Empress of Kathak". Indian Express. 3 Sep 2011. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
- Mishra, Susheela (1972). Illustrated Weekly of India, Volume 99, Issue 3. p. 43.
- "Sitara Devi - The Kathak Legend". India Travel Times. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
- "Interview : State of the art". The Hindu. July 31, 2009. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
- "My mother's responsible for my musical inclination: Ranjit Barot". The Times of India. Mar 17, 2013. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
- India’s 50 Most Illustrious Women (ISBN 81-88086-19-3) by Indra Gupta