Kathak star Sitara Devi's death leaves huge void



Eminent danseuse Sitara Devi, who once impressed Rabindranath Tagore with a three-hour solo recital, died here Tuesday after prolonged illness, leaving behind a galaxy of bereaved fellow performers and fans who called her a "bright star" and warmly remembered her effervesence, spiritedness and generosity.

She was 94, and she died Tuesday after battling prolonged illness, her family said.

Apart from a bevy of performers and actors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his tribute to the cultural icon, recalling her rich contribution to Kathak.

Sitara Devi was on ventilator at the Jaslok Hospital here and her condition became serious Monday. She was earlier admitted to the Cumballa Hill Hospital and Heart Institute.

The danseuse is survived by a son and a daughter. Her funeral will take place Thursday morning after her son arrives from abroad, where he had gone for a show, her son-in-law Rajesh Mishra told IANS.

A recipient of prestigious awards like Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Padma Shri and Kalidas Samman, Sitara Devi was born Dhannolakshmi in the family of Brahmin 'kathakar' Sukhdev Maharaj in Kolkata in 1920.

When she turned 11, the family moved to Mumbai, where she impressed Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore with a three-hour solo recital.

Over the next six decades, she became a Kathak legend and is known as a pioneering force in bringing the genre to Bollywood.

"True to her name, she shone like a star and was the brightest among her siblings and contemporaries," Pandit Birju Maharaj, a Kathak legend himself, told IANS.

Sitara Devi used to learn Kathak from his father Achhan Maharaj and his uncles Lachhu and Shambu Maharaj.

"Her death has created an irreparable void in the Kathak world that very few people can fill," he added.

Her tryst with films included 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.

From the Hindi film industry, legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar, megastar Amitabh Bachchan, veteran actor Manoj Kumar and star choreographer Saroj Khan were among those who fondly remembered the magic of the danseuse, who was honoured with a Padma Shri.

Saroj Khan told IANS: "I've seen her dance on stage at 70 and I can swear on my profession that she looked like an 18-year-old girl. She had a lot of stamina. She used to dance for three hours alone and every morning her practice used to go on. She never gave up dance till 80 or 85.

"Kathak is seen in Bollywood, but it's purity is missing. We have only seen her do it."

Manoj Kumar praised the departed soul for making classical "easy and interesting" for the common man.

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). Later, over the years, she performed all over India and abroad, including prestigious venues like Royal Albert Hall, London (1967) and the Carnegie Hall, New York (1976).

Sitara Devi came from an ordinary but talented Brahmin family of Varanasi which lived in Kolkata and later in Mumbai.

She started short solo performances during movie intervals in a local theatre in Varanasi for a year when she was all of 10 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!

She carried that energy, vivaciousness and effervescence until her last breath.

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. - IANS