Despite setbacks in her personal life, Ritha Devi does not flinch from being devoted to dance.
Ritha Devi is a luminous dance personality, an extraordinary scholar and a celebrated critic. She is one of the very few Indian dancers to study and perform all the Indian classical dance styles in their orthodox and original form. A contemporary of legends like late Indrani Rehman and Yamini Krishnamurthy, Ritha Devi is passionate about the art form.
“My passion for dance keeps me going despite setbacks in personal life,” reveals the Pune-based artiste who was in Bhubaneswar to conduct a workshop on Odissi. She was born with a silver spoon. Daughter of a senior councillor of the then Baroda state in pre-independent India, she was related to Rabindranath Tagore and Lakshminath Bezbaruah, the father of modern Assamese literature. She graduated from the University of Bombay and studied English and Sanskrit. Her love and devotion for dance changed her life forever.
“Seeing the great Uday Shankar dance, I fell in love with dance instantly and the day I watched the goddess-like Rukmini Devi, I decided to be a dancer,” recollects the diva who had to suffer the wrath of her father. Her father stopped funding her higher education and she had to part ways with her husband who believed that “dance is not something that girls from decent families do.”
Left to fend for herself after a broken marriage and a son to be taken care of, the resolute Ritha Devi continued to learn different dance styles from some of the best exponents of her time - Manipuri from Howbom Athomba Singh at Kolkata, Bharatnatyam from Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai in Chennai, Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam Lakshmi and Kathakali from Asan Karunakaran Panikkar in Mumbai, Odissi from Pankaj Charan Das in Puri and Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam besides learning Kathak and Sattriya. “I was fortunate that Pandit Ravi Shankar saw my dance in 1958 and recommended me to some of the best event organisers in Europe. That was the turning point of my career,” she confessed.
After Europe, Ritha Devi toured the Soviet Union thrice followed by a long stay in the US. She was invited to teach Indian dance at New York University for 10 years. She was also awarded three fellowships from prestigious American cultural bodies for undertaking choreography and her works have been preserved in the archives of the National Endowment for the Arts there.
By the time Ritha Devi was back in India, the classical dance scene here had undergone a drastic change. “Half-baked gurus, unusually ambitious dancers and their godfathers in politics and bureaucracy were ruling the roost destroying the sanctity of Indian classical dances,” recollected the dancer-scholar who longed to settle down in Mumbai, the city that she loved a lot for the dance circles. But it was an expensive dream. Added to that, an accident damaged one of her knees that confined her to her home in Pune.
“Unfortunately, Pune does not have much scope for dancers,” she confided. “Destiny always conspired against my dreams. But I am too obstinate to bow down”, remarked Ritha Devi who lives alone. She practices dance for three hours everyday, travels attend and review dance festivals, edits dance journals, conducts workshops and teaches dance.