Updated: November 26, 2014 12:26:26 am
There was only one Sitara Devi and there will be no one like her. For one of my performances, Sitara didi came up on stage after I finished dancing. My heart was pounding, after all, we all knew how outspoken she was. She grabbed the microphone and said, “Tu toh meri cheezen chura chura kar naachti hai. Chotti kahin ki”(You steal my steps and dance style. You thief!). I was speechless. She then looked at me, smiled and looked at the audience and said, ‘Par jo bhi kaho, roohdaar naachti hai’ (But say what you may, she dances with a lot of soul).
This was Sitara Devi, pared of all niceties when it came to Kathak and its exponents. Her refusal to accept the Padma Shri was quite in character. She would say, “Why should I accept an award that has been given to all my juniors.”
She was brilliant — in terms of the chaal of the dancer, the progression of a piece, coming back to sam (coming back to the first beat of the time cycle) and that dramatic climax in the end. She would never set her pieces with the tabla player and would always improvise. There was a different energy and spontaneity to her performances. We will take years getting there. It wasn’t for nothing that Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) referred to her as ‘Nritya Samragini’. She knew how brilliant she was and she was arrogant about it. She was also one of the few Kathak dancers to make a career in films. She worked in Roti (1942) and Mother India (1957), among others.
But when it came to being affectionate to her friends, she would leave no stone unturned. I remember my first recital. She asked me what I was wearing. I showed it to her and she nodded saying, ‘I could not wear that’. She took me to her house and opened her elaborate wardrobe and asked me to pick whatever I wanted. Then she got her help to make kheer for me and said, “Meetha khaakar nachegi toh aur sundar lagega” (If you eat something sweet, it will show in your performance).
I remember her performance of Thumak chalat ramchandra. I don’t think anyone else got that detailing of that famous piece right. The way she loved that imaginary child had many people awestruck. She would hold people with that performance and gaze at them like she knew what was going on in their heads. She was also one of the few dancers who could change half her costume on stage, something that makes so many dancers conscious. I will always regret not writing her biography, which both of us kept planning.
As told to Suanshu Khurana
Uma Sharma is a Kathak exponent, who learnt under Shambhu Maharaj, also Sitara Devi’s guru
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