Sitara Devi, the doyen of Kathak dance, would have celebrated her 97th birth anniversary on November 8 this year. Google, known for the fascinating illustrations it comes up with to honour significant people and historic events, decided to dedicate a doodle to the prolific dancer who died at the age of 94 on November 25, 2014. Also known as the ‘Empress of Dance’ or ‘Nritya Samrajni’ after Rabindranath Tagore named her thus, Devi was one of the pioneers who brought the classical Indian dance into the context of Bollywood.
Born in 1920 in Kolkata as Dhanno, Devi was the daughter of Matsya Kumari, who was from the royal family of Nepal and Sukhadev Maharaj, a Vaishnavite Sanskrit scholar whose vocation was to teach and participate in kathak dance performances in different parts of the country.
Maharaj’s in-depth understanding of the Bharatanatyashastra made him pass on his passion for performance art to his three daughters and two sons as well, in spite of how the dance was considered lowly and undignified in general public opinion back then.
Dhanno was enthusiastic in learning the dance observing her sister who was twenty years older to her. She also challenged the regressive practice of child marriage when she was about to be married off at the tender age of eight. She, however, insisted that she wanted to study further.
When her father came to know that Dhanno’s role in a dance drama depicting the lives of Savitri and Satyavan had left the audience enthralled, her father realised her potential and re-christened her as Savitri Devi. She began performing at an early age of ten and because of her commitment towards learning and finessing her art, she had to discontinue schooling. Devi’s dance performance in Bombay’s Atiya Begum Palace bowled Tagore over, who then gave her the opportunity to perform at the Tata Palace of the Tata Group and felicitated her there.
Devi also performed dance sequences in many films like Nagina, Roti, Vatan, Anjali, Mother India etc., after debuting in Usha Haran in 1940. She was conferred with prestigious honours like Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Padma Shree in 1973, Kalidas Samman in 1995 and the India Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 for her imminent contribution ranging over six decades to classical dance.
The danseuse was first married to Mughal-e-Azam director K Asif and later to Pratap Barot.