Born to a kathak dancer and Sanskrit scholar father, Sitara Devi had the art of dancing running in her blood. She was a legendary dancer, described by Rabindranath Tagore as ‘Nritya Samragini’ at an early age of sixteen. She was born in Kolkata on 8 November 1920, on the day of Dhanteras, which marks the beginning of festivities of Diwali, a festival celebrated with ‘Lakshmi Puja’, after which she was named Dhanalaksmi.
Sitara Devi was introduced to kathak by her father Sukhadev Maharaj, at the age of six. As they belonged to a conservative Brahmin family, Sitara and her sisters were not encouraged by the society. They were sometimes also called prostitutes since dancing for women was a taboo in the society of that era. Sukhadev Maharaj gave religious inputs to the content of kathak, which differentiated his daughters’ dance from the ‘disreputable’ variant. He once asked, if Radha can dance for Krishna, why were the daughters in their society discouraged from doing the same and were seen in wrong light? Nothing stopped Sitara Devi from pursuing this art after the encouragement and support she received from her father.
Alongside being an accomplished kathak artist, Sitara also mastered Bharatanatyam and various folk dances. Her love for dancing also inspired her to learn Russian ballet.
The very first time Sitara Devi performed a dance sequence in school, it was covered in a newspaper and appreciated for her skills and graceful act. This was a turning point in her life, and brought her fame at a tender age and this inspired her father to train her professionally. By the time she turned ten, she began to deliver solo acts during the fifteen minutes recess at her father’s friend’s cinema hall. At the age of twelve, Sitara Devi was recruited and introduced into the film industry by Narayan Sharma. This gave her an opportunity to make it as an actress and a dancer in the movies. It was not just dancing, but acting also agreed with her; her acting skills won her awards for movies like Usha Haran, Vatan and Nagina. Having introduced kathak into Bollywood, Sitara Devi also trained prominent actors like Madhubala, Rekha, Mala Sinha and Kajol, and prepared them for the dance performances.
Sitara was seen as a flawless dancer ever since she started. She stepped on the stage to enchant people with her performances at the age of ten. This gave her the opportunity to show her talent to eminent people like Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore. Widely known as the Kathak Queen of India, Sitara Devi also delivered some mesmerizing performances at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1967 and at the Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1976. She was honoured with various awards like the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1969) and the Padma Shree (1973). Sitara Devi was also offered the Padma Bhushan, which she declined as she felt that she truly deserved a Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.
Always full of enthusiasm and zest for life, Sitara Devi has been a role model for the young generation of kathak dancers and went out of her way to encourage them. Having been invited as a chief guest for the dance events by other dancers, Sitara Devi always insisted on staying till the end of the event, irrespective of the fact that her health didn’t permit her to even walk much. Every time she found herself among the dancers and budding performers, she never ceased from sharing her charm as a performer.
25th November 2014 was the last day of the country’s Kathak Queen. Her contribution to the country and the art form of kathak for six decades will never be forgotten. Her legacy is still being carried forward by a young generation of dancers.