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‘She was a legend, yet she wanted to learn more’

There are a couple of incidents that show how Auntyji lived life to the fullest.

Updated: November 26, 2014 12:20:39 am
Zakir Hussain and Sitara Devi shared a great camaraderie on stage Zakir Hussain and Sitara Devi shared a great camaraderie on stage

By Taufiq Qureshi

The world knew her as Sitara Devi but to me she was Auntyji. She was such a beautiful dancer. Much before Gopi Krishna and Birju Maharaj, she was the one who convinced the world to take Kathak seriously. When she performed to Shivstrotra, she brought Lord Shiva alive on stage, and when she performed as Kali, she looked ferocious. Everyone knows her as the queen of Kathak, but few know that she was well-versed with other different dance forms — ballet, calypso and samba. These can be seen in the movies she choreographed.

We have been close family friends with Sitara Devi and her son Ranjit Barot for years. When we stayed in Mahim, Mumbai, they lived close by, and when we shifted to Napean Sea Road, they also moved. She was my father’s (Ustad Alla Rakha Khan) contemporary, and they often performed together. On concert tours, Auntyji would ask my father to teach her the tabla. By the mid-70s, she became his disciple. She was already a legend, yet she wanted to learn more.

There are a couple of incidents that show how Auntyji lived life to the fullest. When my brother, Zakir (Hussain) was born, we used to stay near Dargah Mohalla in Mahim. That evening erupted into a spontaneous concert. Legends such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Vilayat Khan performed outside our house. They finished their performances around 2.30 am. Then Sitara
Devi took over and performed for hours at a stretch until 7 am.

During my sister Khurshid’s wedding too, she danced throughout. She even made my father dance. There is a photograph in our Napean Sea Road house which has Zakir playing the dhol. It was Auntyji who forced my brother to play, while everyone danced to it.

More recently, a little over a decade ago, my bhabi (Antonia Minnecola), Zakir’s wife used to learn dance from Auntyji at her Breach Candy house. Auntyji slipped and cracked her hip. When the ambulance was called and she was put on a stretcher, she told them to stop, saying she can’t be seen in public like that. She asked my bhabi to get her make-up. Lying in that stretcher, she applied make-up on her face and only then she went to the hospital. Such was the care she took of her image, such was her love for life.

Auntyji would not call my mum bhabi, but call her ‘Bobby’ instead. Back then mother would wear a burqa — this is soon after her marriage. It was Auntyji who told my mum that she didn’t need to wear one in Mumbai. Persuaded by her, my mum stopped wearing a burqa.

She’d always come for Zakir’s birthdays. They shared a special bond. Even on stage, they would have great camaraderie. Every time she would dance to a Krishna composition, she would recite it, and then point to Zakir and say, ‘Yeh dekho mera Krishna hai’ (He’s my Krishna).

I too have learned from Auntyji. I used to walk to her house in the mornings for riyaaz. When her students would dance, I used to play with them. I learned so much about dance because of these mornings on how to accompany dancers with the tabla.

When my father would come back from a tour abroad, Auntyji would come home with food. They would then sit together talking about music and dance with a glass of whiskey in their hand. I was young, but I knew I was part of something great — that there were these two legends talking in front of me. I used to be in awe of them. It still is the best time of my life.

As told to Kevin Lobo

Taufiq Qureshi is a noted percussionist and the son of Ustad Alla Rakha Khan

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