Danseuse Sitara Devi was considered to be a goddess in Kathak. Starting at an age where the rest are busy playing with dolls, Sitara Devi had started performing professionally by the time she was merely ten.
She was the daughter of Sukhadev Maharaj, a Vaishanavite scholar in Sanskrit, who was passionate about Kathak and passed on the art to all his five children.
The ascension of classical dance as a respectable art form was a tough journey. Sitara Devi was one of the pioneers in lifting the dance form to its current status. In the 19th century, Kathak and other classical dances were performed only by nautch girls. Rabindranath Tagore encouraged Sukhadev Maharaj to revive the lost art.
Owing to the pressure of the society, the family moved to Varanasi from Kolkata where Sitara Devi (named Dhanalakshmi at birth) was born. It was here that she showed true promise and started learning dance formally from her elder sister, Tara. She went on to learn from the legends of the form Acchhan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lacchhu Maharaj.
It was after her solo performance in Atiya Begum Palace before Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Sir Cowasji Jehangir, where the Nobel laureate appreciated her art form and blessed her with a token of Rs 50. At the age of 12, she was recruited by Niranjan Sharma, a filmmaker and a dance director. She won the best actress award for the movie ‘Vatan’ and ‘Najam’ in 1943. Later, she performed in several other films including 'Mother India', but then discontinued.
She had been bestowed with prestigious awards like Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Padma Shri and Kalidas Samman. She was also felicitated for performing at the Royal Albert and Victoria Hall in 1967 and for prestigious Carnegie Hall, New York in 1976.
She famously refused the Padma Bhushan, saying that her contribution to the art form deserved more. In a career spanning for more than six decades, Sitara Devi achieved what her father dreamt of. She established Kathak as the definitive classical dance form of Northern India. She took inspiration from Tandav, and used a lot of physical dexterity in her style.
Her vitality and the research she put in her style was what set her apart. Rabindranath Tagore described Sitara Devi as the Nritya Samragini (Queen of Dance) at the age of 16 – a title that everyone remembers her as.
She will continue to be the legend in the world of Kathak, and will be greatly missed as an inspiration to the thousands who aspire to step in the world of performing arts.