About SITARA DEVI, The Queen of Kathak

  • Know about the life and achievements of Sitara Devi, the Queen of Kathak. She shares some tips for budding dancers.

Kala Kriti Kendra, a cultural centre in Mumbai presented the centenary celebrations programme as a tribute to Kathak queen and Padma Shri awardee late Sitara Devi from 6 to 8 November 2021. The three day programme featured some of the most talented performers of both classical music and dance. The programme included youngsters as well as established performers. Kala Kriti Kendra was established by veteran Kathak danseuse Jayanthimala, daughter and disciple of Sitara Devi and Rajesh Mishra for promoting classical music and dance. The Kendra also teaches underprivileged boys and girls and promotes them on different platforms.


Sitara Devi was born on the day of Dhanteras in Diwali on November 8, 1920. Hence she was named Dhanalakshmi and was fondly called Dhanno. She was the youngest daughter of Pandit Sukhdev Maharaj, a dance scholar and priest from Benaras, and Matsyakumari who hailed from the royal family of Nepal. Sitara had two sisters, named Taradevi and Alakananda and a brother Chaube Maharaj, all of whom were proficient in classical music and dance. But in those days it was not easy to pursue a career in classical dance due to the stigma attached to it. They then became the pioneers of the classical dance movement, particularly Kathak.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


From Benares, the family moved to Mumbai for better prospects and got associated with Hindi cinema. Sitara Devi acted in a few movies in the 1930-40’s mainly for Mehboob Khan. She also danced for the popular song of Holi Aayi Re in the film Mother India made by K Asif.


Sitara Devi got married when she was very young, but she was adamant about attending school, and so came back to Banares. Her father encouraged her to learn Kathak along with her sisters.  She learnt Kathak from such stalwarts as Shambu Maharaj, Achchan Maharaj and Lachchu Maharaj of Lucknow Gharana, particularly from Achchan Maharaj who incidentally is better known as the father of renowned Kathak exponent, Pandit Birju Maharaj. Sitara also learnt from her father, hence her style has flashes of both Benaras and Lucknow Gharana, a fine combination of ‘naaz’, ‘nakhre’ and ‘nazakat.


Sitara has performed at some of the most prestigious festivals and venues like the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnergie Hall in New York, etc. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore witnessed Sitara Devi’s brilliant and vivacious performance in Mumbai when she was yet a teenager. He presented her with a prize money of Rs 50 and a shawl. She refused to take the money and sought his blessings instead. Tagore was impressed with her humility and immediately declared that thereon, she would be known as ‘the queen’ of Kathak.


Besides the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Sitara won the prestigious Padma Shri in 1975 and after a long lapse was given the Padma Bhushan which she blatantly refused, saying, “Why don’t you give proper recognition to classical dancers, don’t you feel we deserve better recognition? If you want to honour me, you should honour me with Bharat Ratna and not any other award.” 


Sitara Devi married Nazir Ahmed Khan and film maker K Asif but the marriages didn’t last. While on a programme tour to East Africa, Sitara met Pratap Barot and eventually married him. Their son Ranjit Barot is an acclaimed drummer and music composer. Sitara Devi danced with complete devotion and command over art. Her performances were a fine mixture of both excellence and subtlety. Her 12-hour long performance is considered a milestone in the history of dance performances.  She used to be often accompanied by Pt Kishan Maharaj or Ustad Allah Rakha on tabla, thus creating an everlasting impact on the audience.


Jayanthimala says, “I started learning Kathak at a very tender age. I had three mentors Tara didi, Chaube Maharaj and Sitara didi, my mother. While Tara didi was quite loving, my mother was very strict, she would punish me if I didn’t   learn properly. It is really difficult to find such a magnificent personality like her. The legacy moves forward with my daughter Rishika who is also a wonderful dancer.” 


Once in an interview Sitara Devi said, “The dancers today, are not prepared to work hard. We used to dance for several hours and were committed too. Audiences used to be thrilled to watch us wherever we performed. Dancers should eat quality food and practise consistently. There is no short cut to success and nothing succeeds like success. It is important to maintain the vitality while dancing, then only people would like to watch you.” 


During one of her last performances in Mumbai, organised by Tabla maestro Pt Kalinath Mishra and Bhavan’s Cultural Centre, the Kathak queen suddenly broke down and said, “Chod kar jana padega sub kuch.” That was a touching moment for everyone! Sitara left for her heavenly abode on November 25, 2014.



This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, January 15, 2022 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

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