Sitara Devi: Reminiscing the dancing star
She was a true artist, lived like royalty and indeed behaved like one!
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Zinda naach was a concept in dance offering, in the era of silent films. In interlude and before the start of film - to capture audience interest and attention - live dance was shown, to accompaniment of music. Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, Madame Menaka danced so, in front of the cinema screen, on a sloping stage. Sitara too did that years later and her dance itself justified the title. Zinda naach - full of life, dance. Her dance was just that: zinda and bindaas. Sitara was a born dancing star - a star on firmament of popular Indian dance, be it be Kathak or films or Kathak in films.
Born to a reputed tabla wizard and sanskrit scholar, Pt Sukhdev Maharaj, (and Matsya Devi) the three sisters - Tara, Sitara and Alaknanda - were a popular trio, before individual fates took them to places as far as Banaras, Bombay and Bengal. Although Sitara was born in Bengal (November 8, 1920) she lived most of her adult life in Bombay, with brief stay in Banaras. Her sister Tara was the mother of Gopi Krishna, another famous film dance personage.
Her father was court artiste in Nepal, then Banaras, but fate brought his child prodigy of a daughter to work in Hindi films in Bombay, as early as 1930s and she got her first film dance break in Usha Haran (1940) then Nagina (1941), Vatan (1954) and Anjali (1957) till her Holi dance (dressed up as a boy!) in Mother India 1957, she continued to delight audiences with her oomph and freestyle dance. Not shy of the stage or the camera, she was at home in the medium for which she was born.
When a teenager, no less than Rabindranath Tagore paid her Rs 50 for her show and Sarojini Naidu blessed her. The child was free willed and both leaders complimented her father for bringing up a girl in such independent spirit. Sitara grew up to be a tomboy almost had it not for dance, that gave her femine graces. "In Banaras, I learnt wrestling too and many critics later commented on my energetic dance." That she often lost temper with fellow accompanists was for all to see but her sisterly concerns soon won many over.
Her whole life has been spent in front of gaze, in three marriages that failed (to Nasir Ahmed, then K Asif and finally to Pratap Barot), in countless public stands she took. Sitara Devi had nothing understated about her. Her colours and costumes; bangles and emotional tangles were for all to see. She lived her life cinemascope!
Given a Padma Vibhushan Award in 2001, she declined saying she deserved a Bharat Ratna. At launch of attendance 2002 issue, just retired PM Inder Gujral heaved with relief and said "I'm glad I was not the PM , when she refused the award!" Such was Sitara's ire and energy that scared even the best of men.
Making a documentary on her for Mohan Khokar Archives, some ten years ago, we ran out of beta tapes, since she spoke and danced non-stop for eight hours without pause! Of course, she was fussy about lights, lack of lubricants and when we invited her to dinner, she said she took only liquid diet after a long days work!
Sitara Devi was a genuine article. She was 24 carat gold. Inside out. What she was, she was. She was pure hearted. In all she did, there was no pretence, no fake, surface level nakhras. She was a true artiste, large hearted and generous. She gave away what she earned, lived like royalty and indeed behaved like one too!
Raj Kapoor camp and Chetan and Dev Anand camp treated her like a queen of dance and no Holi celebration was complete in RK Studios without her throwing colours on all. She was pucca about music and rhythm and no wonder her son Ranjit Barot is a master of drums and daughter Jayantimala is a dancer. She was very protective about her children and caring.
She had many skirmishes with ill health and illness but never gave up. In the end, she died on November 25, 2014, just two buildings away from her Peddar Road flat, next to Jaslok hospital. When we look up today, the bright star that dances and shines must surely be Sitara, having a dance party up there, in the heavenly skies.