When Rabindranath Tagore watched her perform, his instinctive response to it was giving her the title of Nritya Samrajni. A title, to which she lived up to.
Died on 25th November 2014
Old Hindi cinema and the aura of classical dance being performed by the gracious actors are amongst the most reminisced features of art and its portrayal in cinema. Rekha’s Kathak performance in Umrao Jaan is one such exquisite example. But do you know the person behind her stellar performances?
She is Nritya Samrajni Sitara Devi, the one who trained many actresses like Madhubala, Rekha, Mala Sinha, and Kajol with the poise and elegance required to perform Kathak. She wasn’t just a trained Kathak performer, but also a dancer who equally valued and performed Russian Ballet, Bharatnatyam, and folk dances. Her fusion of Kathak taal with tribal dancing moves, shot her to fame during the 1940s when she started performing onscreen in movies.
It wouldn’t be wrong if we trace her journey to her birth to Sukhadev Maharaj, a Brahmin Vaishnavite scholar and Matsya Kumari, who claimed being related to Nepali Royalty. Initially, it was her father who taught Dhanno, the art of dancing to the taal. He was a Kathak teacher himself and taught his daughters the same with great passion and support. Dhanno, as she was called earlier before associating herself with the name Sitara Devi, loved to perform on stage from a young age. The applause of the audience, the cheers, the music and everything related to performing Kathak admired her so much that she resolved to pursue it and complete her education rather than getting married at a young age, as it was a norm those days. Her family shifted to Bombay when she was 11 years old.
When she stepped into cinema, she was barely 12, and Niranjan Sharma, the famous filmmaker and dance director recruited her to perform in movies. She debuted with her performance in the film, Usha Haran, Nagina, Vatan, Anjali, Roti, and Mother India. Her unforgettable performances in Roti made her quite famous in the film industry!
Being famous for her dance, many forgot to look into her other talents and interests. She was also a singer and had sung most of the songs she would perform on screen. Sitara was not just a Kathak exponent in India but also abroad. She had performed in abroad countries in the Royal Albert Hall in London, and at the Carnegie Hall in New York; and enchanted the international audience at once with her art and the expressions she emoted in her performances.
She had been married to K. Asif, the famous Indian film producer and screenwriter. But the marriage didn’t reach its favoured destination and both of them parted ways. Later Sitara Devi Ji found her soul mate and got married to Pratap Barot.
A recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Kalidas Samman, Nritya Nipun, and Padma Shree; she was also announced as the recipient of Padma Bhushan, to which she refused stating, her contribution to Kathak deserves a Bharat Ratna!
She took up the art and cultivated it to bring it the lost glory it had, during the times when dancing girls were not respected in the society. When the ghungroo was snatched off its respect, Dhanalakshmi aka Sitara Devi, dutifully placed it at the pedestal of great importance with her performances. Making India proud, she carried the baton of Indian classical dance forms and lived up to the title Nritya Samrajni!
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