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Sitara Devi - The Kathak Legend

           What is pure kathak? Pure kathak is spiritual, so says world-renowned kathak dancer Sitara Devi. The prevalent form of the dance being taught at several centres and institutions all over India, is not.

          What is popularly known as kathak today is the durbar or court style which kings and nawabs patronised in the 18th-19th century. The real kathak with its real features was slowly forgotten. It was the Lucknow gharana, promoted by the Oudh kings, which later became the source of kathak as we know today, she said.

           Eighty-year old Sitara Devi has dedicated her whole life to the restoration of the real form of kathak which can be traced to Natya Shastra, the ancient Indian treatise of classical dance forms.

          Once called the Kathak Queen of India by Pandit Rabindra Nath Tagore, she had received her lessons from her father as well as the legendary kathak maestros of Lucknow gharana - brothers Acchhan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lacchhu Maharaj.

           A recipient of several awards, she had performed at the Royal Albert and Victoria Hall in 1967 and the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York in 1976. It was also through Sitara Devi (and later Gopi Krishna) that kathak became integral to the film industry since the 1930s. Their choreography accorded new meaning and relief to the film world. She herself got Best Actress award, at the age of 18, for her performance in Vatan, as also in 1943 for her role in Najma. Currently she is planning to launch her own dance academy.

           Recently, she participated in a workshop on nritya (dance) and staged a performance in New Delhi as part of an Ekal (solo) Utsav (festival) conducted by the Katha Kendra - this year in memory of the late Sukhdeo Maharaj, a doyen of Banaras gharana. (Kathak Kendra, situated at Mandi House in New Delhi, is a unit of the autonomous Sangeet Natak Akademi - national academy of music and dance.) Apart from a solo festival, the centre also holds every year another annual festival called Kathak Mahotsav, which was instituted in memory of Maharaj Kalka and Maharaj Bindadin of Lucknow.

           Born in Varanasi in the late 1800s, Pandit Sukhdeo Maharaj was a scholar and poet who founded the Banaras gharana of kathak. Grand nephew of the early kathak masters Kalka Maharaj and Bindadin Maharaj, he belonged to a long line of musicians and kathak dancers. His father was Pandit Ramdas, a singer and cousin of the great masters of Lucknow gharana, brothers Acchhan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lacchhu Maharaj.

           Pandit Sukhdeo Maharaj rescued kathak from notoriety and taught the dance to women of Brahmin homes - starting with his own daughters: Alaknanda, Tara Devi and Sitara Devi. (Dance used to be performed by women of disrepute those days). Sitara Devi, a synonym for kathak, has been reigning as the Queen of Kathak for over 60 yerars now.

-by Mamta

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