QUEEN'S ROAD: Within the structured confines of a demanding discipline like Kathak, Sitara Devi was a free spirit. Author Uday Tara Nayar who penned Dilip Kumar's biography, The Substance and the Shadow, recalls how the danseuse, though in her 90s, was full of life.
Recalls Nayar, "She lived in South Bombay and when I went to meet her, she was as vibrant as always and would put on music and start dancing."
Sitara Devi was married to director K Asif during the making of Mughal-e-Azam and recalls Nayar, "K Asif had wanted Dilip saab to play Prince Salim years before Mughal-e-Azam was made but he was too slim, too young for the role. He started a film with Sapru and could not complete it. The role went to Dilip saab years later and one look at him and Sitara ji told Dilip saab, 'You are my brother.' And since then she came home to tie rakhi on every raksha-bandhan. She would visit Saira ji and him on every wedding anniversary. She would narrate anecdotes and was very witty."
Sitara's relationship with cinema was not lasting though she made appearances in films like Usha Haran (1940), Nagina (1951), and Mehboob Khan's 1957 epic Mother India to mention a few. Her nephew Gopi Krishna though made an indelible impact on Hindi films with his debut performance in V Shantaram's 1955 Kathak-centric hit Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. Sitara's son Ranjit Barot (from her second marriage to Pratap Barot) is a famous composer, arranger, drummer and singer. And has composed music for films like Oh Darling Yeh Hai India.
Classical dancer Rashme Hegde Gopi says, "Though I never saw Sitara Devi, am aware of her legacy. And once, a critic told me that she had such passion for dance that even when she was too old to do an entire piece, she would wear ghungroos and sweep her home with mudras!"
Ashish Khokar, editor and publisher of Attendance, a yearbook on dance, says, "She represented Kathak in its totality. It sounds general, so let me explain. She had Nepali origins, was from Banaras and later moved to Mumbai. She revived Raas, the Brajleela, and created a new form of Kathak - the Bombay Gharana. So she's like a fountainhead of the arts. We had gone once to record her in Mumbai, and this was the age of Betamax tapes, so after six hours of her dancing and talking, we ran out of tape. It was close to midnight, and she said she was in the mood to talk. These kind of artistes are not made anymore. She lived a very khula-dil life. She liked gifts, and she'd ask, you want to record me, but what will I get?"
Noted art critic S N Chandrashekar shares, "I remember reviewing her performance when she came to Bengaluru in the 70s and she had a great sense of laya. She was a noted dancer already then and had created an audience for Kathak in Bombay. She was one of the earliest exponents of Kathak though her nephew Gopi Krishna would also create a great following for the form in subsequent years."
Nirupama Rajendra, Kathak dancer and co-founder of Abhinava Dance Company recalls meeting Sitara Devi, "We (husband Rajendra and Nirupama) met her in '97-'98. We performed in front of her in Kolkata. After that, she hugged us and held us close to her heart and said, 'Kahaan the aap log?' We felt very honoured; others around us told us that she rarely said something like this. She had a strong personality and people were scared of her."
She continues, "We had the privilege of spending two days with her. We found her to be a very straightforward person — if she liked something, she'd tell you, and if she didn't she'd tell you too. In her videos, she moved like mercury and her abhinaya was very connecting: if she was performing 'Thumaka chalata Ramachandra', the way she expressed herself, you'd feel that Rama would walk up any moment. She was really a star performer."