Friday Review

Long live the star

“Even when I will die, I shall be doing tatkar.”

The inimitable, ‘bindas’, one and only Sitara Devi, the star, known as Kathak Queen, used to say this with great passion. Mumbaikars loved her. In the ’50s when Brijnarain started the Sur Singar Samsad, organising Haridas Sammelans, classical dance and music festivals in Mumbai, Sitara was a permanent artist performing Kathak. No Sammelan was complete without her.

Sitara was exceptionally talented. Full of energy and infectious spirit, her dance cast a spell on audiences, not for the nazakat (delicacy) and khubsoorti (beauty) the Lucknow gharana was known for, but for her electrifying Kathak. Sitara’s endearing way of speaking to the audience, be it in Motihari village in Bihar, or Carnegie Hall in New York, won her the affection of connoisseurs and lay people. She was a law unto herself.

Besides appearing in films as an actor, a singer and a dancer, what she loved most was dancing. Giant percussionists like Alla Rakha, (father of Zakir Hussain), Samata Prasad (Gudai Maharaj) and Kishan Maharaj accompanied her on the tabla. Their jugalbandis — repartees — are legendary in the dance world. She took up challenges and won hands down. Her own nephew the celebrated film star and choreographer Gopi Krishna (of “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje” fame) once declared that he would dance for nine hours. Sitara being Sitara took it up as a challenge and ‘outdid’ him by dancing for 11 hours at Birla Matushree Sabhagar in Mumbai, some time in the mid’-70s, if I remember correctly.

When Beate Gordon, Director of the Asia Society, New York, went with me to audition Sitara Devi for a tour of the U.S. she fell in love with her for her extraordinary dance and temperament. When we said that costumes with artificial pearls and shining sequins would not be right, she pooh-poohed us. We thought she would appear like a cheap nightclub singer, but we were surprised. She performed with such zest and energy that the audience at Carnegie Hall was eating out of her hands. She gave us a victorious look at the end of the performance and laughed heartily in the greenroom, telling us that she knew how to win her audience with whatever she chose to wear.

In 1978, Jamshed Bhabha of Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) asked me to arrange a private concert by her. She told me to come with her to the renowned Maganlal Dresswalla, supplier of costumes to Bollywood, in the Bhuleshwar area. Sitara being Sitara, the owner received her with great honour. The crowds gathered when word spread. She asked owner Maganlal to get a photographer and posed with her admirers. When selecting costumes, she chose a ‘see- through’ pink ghaghara, skirt, and deep blue odhni for the upper cloth. Seeing my discomfiture, she laughed and twisting my ear said, “ Arre buddhu, main jab nachungi to kuchh sex bhi to dikhana chahiye!” (You fool, when I will dance, I have to appear sexy!). Needless to say she mesmerized the industrialists.

Her index of popularity was such that when I was organising Kal-Ke-Kalakar weeklong festivals of dance at C.J. Hall, from 1970 till 1980, invariably celebrities from the film world like director Hrishikesh Mukherjee and actor David would inform me in advance that they would be coming and their seats should be reserved in the front row. Sitara would spot them and address them with respect and perform parans, tihais, and gats especially for them. Her spirited exposition always won her standing ovation. She was the life of our festival.

I was fortunate when at the request of Dr Mulk Raj Anand, she agreed to release my book on Kathak dance. She was pleased with me. But in another small booklet, I wrote something about the Banaras gharana mentioning other exponents, and she was like a ferocious Goddess Kali! She telephoned to say she had sent a legal notice to me and the publisher. But when I explained that she had misunderstood what I had written, she laughed and said, “You rascal! See carefully. I have not signed the notice. My lawyer told me that if you do not sign, it will be — what is all that valid and invalid — the notice will be invalid!” And she laughed her typical hearty laugh.

All loved her in dance world.

She loved Birju Maharaj, the doyen among Kathak dancers, who told me, “She was a rare human being besides being a great dancer. There will not be anyone like her. What riyaaz, tapasya, practice she used to do. Today’s young generation will have to learn that from her. When she performed ‘Thumak chalat Ramachandra’ she would make us feel that mother Kausalya was helping child Ram taking baby steps!”

Mumbai will not be the same without Sitara. Long live Sitara!

Born on Dhan teras, two days before Diwali, on the day devoted to Lakshmi pujan Sitara Devi was originally named Dhanalakshmi (Dhanno for short) by her Brahmin father Sukhdev Maharaj. He was a court dancer in the royal durbar of Nepal. Later on he settled in Banaras and trained all his three daughters Tara, Alaknanda and Dhanno ( giving Dhanno the epithet Sitara), as Kathak dancers. Dance was looked down upon in the early 1930s and ’40s. Sukhdev Maharaj studied Kathak from Achhan Maharaj, father of Birju Maharaj, to gain legitimacy as a ‘gharanedar’ traditional dancer and guru. He was almost ostracised by the Brahmin community, but he dared them and established the Banaras gharana. He used to dress the three girls as Krishna and the gopis, winning over the audiences who saw in them their beloved Gods.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2020 1:49:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/sitara-devi-obituary/article6639595.ece

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