Sitara Devi was a prominent classical Kathak dancer of India, born on the auspicious day of Diwali 1920 at Kolkata. She was also known as Dhanalakshmi as she was born on Diwali and therefore also had the nickname Dhanno. She belonged to the Brahmin family of Varanasi. Her father, Sukhdev Maharaj, was also a Kathak performer and a teacher. Her mother, Matsya Kumari, was from the royal family of Nepal. Kathak was the source of livelihood for the family, and they all were passionately committed to the dance form. Her father passed on his gift and expertise of the art form (Kathak, Bharatanatyashastra, Sanskrit) to his children (Daughters Alaknanda, Tara, and Dhano and sons Chaube and Pande).
She was accorded with ‘Nritya Samragni’, which means ‘the empress of dance’ by Rabindranath Tagore when she was 16 years old. Tagore encouraged her to revive the lost Indian performing arts. As a result, she is, to date, referred to as the Kathak queen of India. During her lifetime, she performed at various shows in India as well as abroad. In 1967, she showcased her flair at Royal Albert Hall London and in 1976 at Carnegie Hall New York.
She faced objections from the people of her community to pursue a career in dancing. During that time, Kathak was not being performed much socially. She was even referred to as a prostitute when she continued to perform. But then she was assured by her father, who stated that if Radha could dance for Lord Krishna, why not our girls?
Her family moved from Kolkata to Varanasi. His father taught dance to his children as well as other children who wanted to learn it.
She was 11 years old when her family shifted to Mumbai. Her first Kathak performance in Mumbai was at the Atiya Begum Palace, where Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore and Sir Cowasji Jehangir were present. Rabindranath Tagore was impressed and moved by her performance and requested that she perform Kathak at the Tata Palace (of Tata Group). Tagore complimented her by giving her a shawl and a gift of Rs. 50 as a token of admiration and acknowledgement. Recollecting those memories, Devi once said, “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!’.
Marriage and Career
Sitara Devi married four times. Her third marriage was to the director K. Asif. The wedding was not successful, similarly to the two marriages before. She then married Pratap Barot and had a son named Ranjit Barot. Again, her married life was not that successful, and this one, too, subsequently ended. The first time she performed in a cultural programme was at Kamachhagarh High School; the performance was based on the legendary story of Savitri and Satyavan. Her teacher was captivated and amazed to see such talent. After that event, she was given the task to teach Kathak to her co-performers as well. She became famous by Sitara (which means star) through the Aaj news because of her incredible dance performances.
Her first public debut as a Kathak performer was at the Jehangir Hall in Mumbai. She was selected by Niranjan Sharma (filmmaker and dance director) when she was 12 years old for performing some dance sequences of Kathak in Hindi movies. She served in movies like Usha Haran, Watan, Nagina, Roti, Mother India, Anjali, etc. She also worked as a Kathak choreographer since the 1930s. Her choreography had a significant contribution to the film industry.
Sitara Devi was admitted to the hospital and was on a ventilator because of her ill health. On Tuesday, she passed away on 25 November 2014 in Jaslok hospital at the age of 94. She was suffering from kidney problems. Three weeks before, she was also admitted to the Cumballa Hill Hospital and Heart Institute of Mumbai because of abdominal and pancreatic complications. She got operated on for the same as well.
The memorial service was completed on Thursday morning after her son-in-law Rajesh Mishra arrived from abroad.
Awards and recognition
She was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1969, the esteemed Padma Shree Award by the Indian government in 1973, the Kalidas Samman award in 1995 and the Nritya Nipuna award. Other awards that she received are:
- In 1943, she got the best actress award for Watan and Najma.
- In addition, she was honoured and given an award for performing at the Royal Albert and Victoria Hall in 1967 and showing her flair at the Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1976.
- It is believed that she did not accept the prestigious Padma Shri award from the government of India; she felt it was discrediting and insulting to how much she had contributed in the field of performing arts, specifically Kathak. She said she wouldn’t accept anything less than the Bharat Ratna for her lifetime dedication to dance. She was trained in Bharatanatyam, folk, Russian ballet and some other western dances as well. Bollywood film celebrities like Madhubala, Mala Sinha, Rekha, Kajol, and many more learned Kathak. She is considered a legend in dancing and is famously known as the Kathak queen.
- Sitara Devi, a Kathak superstar, was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 for her remarkable contribution towards the classical Kathak over the six decades.