State of the art

Queen of her times Legendary danseuse Sitara Devi was in the Capital to attend the SNA Award ceremony at which she was made an Akademi Ratna.   | Photo Credit: Photo: S. Subramanium

Sitara Devi, veteran Kathak dancer, talks about the fate of Kathak.

when I can’t sleep I keep creating new compositions.

Sitara Devi, doyenne of the Benaras gharana and the Kathak community in general, was once just another child in the family of Sukhadev Maharaj — a Vaishnavite scholar learned in mythology as well as dance and music — and Matsya Kumari. Sukhadev Maharaj, well versed in the Natya Shastra, was convinced that the dance confined to the tawaifs could be integrated in performances of a devotional nature. He created a repertoire and, ignoring social opprobrium, taught his daughters. Sitara Devi’s own later research and experimentation in concepts like tandava and lasya, detailed mimetic presentation and musical compositions, have enriched the art.

Sitara Devi, born in the 1920s on Dhanteras and originally named Dhanalakshmi, is associated with many firsts, both in films and dance. Her father is the source of the Benaras gharana of Kathak. Among the many Hindi films she appeared in was “Phool”, K. Asif’s directorial debut. She later married him.

The doyenne was in the Capital when she was made a Fellow (Ratna) of the Sangeet Natak Akademi this month. Disgusted with the art scene today and a government that haphazardly doles out Padma awards without a thought to appropriate recipients, she declares the art of Kathak will die with her. What about all the students? Not good enough, she feels. And the gurus? They are already dead, she says. Excerpts from an interview:

On Sukhadev Maharaj’s work

My father took inspiration from the Ramlila. He set the kathas as dance. The Brij Vilas contains stories of Krishna. Based on that he created kavits (rhythmic poems now an intrinsic part of the Kathak repertoire). He added rhythmic syllables including tabla bols to the lyrics, and set them to mudras. The Benaras gharana started with my father.

Community backlash

People were horrified hearing ghunguroo sounds from our house, because only tawaifs wore ghunguroos. But my father declared his daughters would not be confined to a life of dishwashing and housework. People retorted, will they dance in mujras? Our dadaji even hit him on the head with a rod. Finally he said if you insist on this work, go somewhere else. Achchan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachchhu Maharaj (doyens of the Lucknow gharana under whom she also learnt) mocked, are you doing Ramlila? My father said, whatever you say…. Then he established the Radha Krishna Nritya Mandal. Hearing ghunguroos, the police came. Father requested them to return in 15 days. He trained all of us to present the Mahabharata. My sister Alakananda played Draupadi. I was nine or ten and danced a bit role. We used bed sheets for curtains and alta to redden our lips. We opened with the dice game — a climactic scene. To create an effective war scene, he used shadows — it was unknown at the time — with gas lamps behind a sheet. The audience was impressed. My father told them, this is dance: difficult and technical but also devotional. As he became accepted, some tawaifs also sent their daughters to study at our school.

On her film career

Going to Bombay was like going abroad then! I first worked under Niranjan Sharma. I had a contract for Rs.400 a month, in an era when one rupee would cover the cost of dal, rice, oil, wood, potatoes and onions and still leave you with some change! I danced in several films, then I got my first acting role in Mehboob Khan’s directorial debut, “Al Hilal”. Then I acted in “Vatan” when I was 15, in “Roti” when I was 16….

On Kathak today

It is okay to promote youngsters but the chhokris should have something to show! Today’s kids have no background. They learn a bit and start a school. Yeh kya naachenge? (What can they dance?) Don’t academic studies take 20-22 years? I have danced before dacoits without fear. What girl is ready to do that today? To gain something you have to succumb to a madness. These days when I can’t sleep I keep creating new compositions. Then I think, for whom am I creating this?

On gurus

There are no gurus today. They have all died with the old generation.

On teaching

Madhubala, Mala Sinha, and others all came and learnt from us. But they went into films.

Future of Kathak

Kathak is in decline. If I am no more, and if tomorrow, God forbid, Birju Maharaj is no more, it will be the end of Kathak. The End — like they say in the films.

* * *

•Sitara Devi’s father Sukhdeo Maharaj is considered the founder of Kathak’s Benaras gharana.

•She went to Bombay as a child artiste. She remembers her first film as “Aurat Ka Dil”.

•She appeared in K. Asif’s directorial debut “Phool”.