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Katha-nrityangana- Sitara Devi

16 Apr, 2020 | Beete Hue Din by Shishir Krishna Sharma
Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

Whenever Kathak is mentioned the first name to come to mind is Sitara Devi. It won’t be wrong to say that Sitara Devi and Kathak dance complement each other perfectly. Where the common man is concerned, the name Sitara Devi may be a familiar and known name for them but what they might not be well versed with is that towards the end of 1930s Sitara Devi actually emerged as a Sitara i.e. a star actress of Hindi cinema. In the 1940s she did many films as a heroine. She also played the vamp in some, and then, in the second half of the 1950s, she bid adieu to acting and completely immersed herself in the practice of Kathak dance. It might be that the 90 year old Sitara Devi’s body may have begun to show signs of aging, but her dedication and zeal for Kathak is still as fresh as that of a youth. 

A photograph of Sitara. Image Courtesy: Film India, 1938.

Originally from a Benaras situated Mishra family, Sitara Devi’s clan had a tradition of singing and playing in temples for the last 5 centuries. The Mishra family had very close relations with Nepal and Nepal’s royal family. Sitara Devi’s grandfather Pandit Ramdass Mishra was a royal singer in the Nepalese king’s court. Her grandmother and mother Matsya Kumari hailed from Nepal and hence she considered herself half-Nepalese. Sitara Devi’s maternal grandfather Maila Pandit Upadhyay was Nepal’s Rajguru (royal educator & priest) and her father Acharya Pandit Sukhdev Maharaj was a high ranking poet, singer and storyteller. Sukhdev Maharaj not only took the family tradition of music and dance to new heights but he also carried out  many experiments with storytelling and emotions, bhāva-Pradarshan (display of emotions) namely Kathanritya (Katha: story, Nritya: dance). Sitara Devi considers the word ‘Kathak’ a corrupted expression (Apabhransha) of Kathanritya. She says, this dance form’s true name is Kathanritya because it originated from the emotive performances rendered during story telling in temples. 
Sitara Devi considers the word ‘Kathak’ a corrupted expression (Apabhransha) of Kathanritya. She says, this dance form’s true name is Kathanritya because it originated from the emotive performances rendered during story telling in temples. 
In those days dancing and singing was forbidden for girls from respectable families and was considered as the labor of courtesans. This rule was followed very strictly even in the Mishra family. That’s why when Sukhdev Maharaj ardently wanted to announce and publicize his experiments and wanted to train his daughters for the same, he had to face heavy opposition from his relatives and society. When Sukhdev Maharaj refused to give in to social pressures, his family was cast out of society. Inevitably he had to leave his locality and shifted to Kabeer Chaura in Benaras where he opened a music school. After some time he went to East Bengal’s Memansingh homestead with his entire household where he tutored the children of the royal families in music. This was towards the end of the 1920s. Sitara Devi was born in Kolkata in the year 1922 on October on the day of Dhanteras but according to her it could be the year 1920 or even 1921.
At the age of 10 years, Sitara Devi joined the stage.
Sitara Devi’s elder sisters Alaknanda and Tara Devi were well known dancers of their era. At the age of 10 years, Sitara Devi joined the stage as well. In the days of Wajid Ali Shah, Mishra family’s Pandit Thakur Prasad  had migrated to Lucknow. There was a heavy influence of the Mughal culture on the musical and dance experiments of Pandit Thakur Prasad and on his successors Kalka Maharaj, Bindadeen Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj, Lachchhu Maharaj and now Birju Maharaj and thus Shringar Ras (flavor of adornment) became the Lucknow Gharana’s mainstay while Bhakti Ras (flavor of devotion) became the backbone of the Benaras Gharana. This is the reason why despite hailing form the Benaras Gharana, Sitara Devi prefers being called katha-nrityangana. 

Sitara Devi tells us, “At that time director Niranjan Sharma was making a movie Usha Haran in Mumbai in which Zubeida’s sister Sultana was cast as a heroine. For another role in the movie he wanted to cast a small girl who knew classical dance and to find such a child they met with the courtesans of Benaras. In contrast to cities like Lucknow, Agra, Delhi, Kolkata and Lahore, the courtesans of Benaras were mostly Hindus.  Because they were largely unfamiliar with classical dance, on the advice of the famous singer Siddheshwari Devi, who herself was from a courtesan’s family, Niranjan Sharma came to meet my father. We used to stay in Kolkata but we visited Benaras quite frequently. Niranjan Sharma saw me dancing in my father’s dance school and choose me for that role in his movie Usha Haran. And subsequently in the year 1933-34, I went to Mumbai. I was 12-13 years old at that time.”  
It took 6-7 years to make Usha Haran and the film was released in 1940. But it didn’t take long for Sitara Devi to get work.
       
It took 6-7 years to make Usha Haran and the film was released in 1940. But it didn’t take long for Sitara Devi to get work. Soon after reaching Mumbai she got the chance to dance in Vasant Movietone’s Vasantsena (1934), Sagar Movietone’s Anokhi Mohabbat (1934), Shaher Ka Jadoo (1934), Vengeance Is Mine/ Ver Ni Vasulat (1935), Registan Ki Rani(1935) and  one film with Manmohan Desai’s father Kikubhai Desai’s Paramount film company. Shaher Ka Jadoo was Motilal’s first film in which Sitara Devi’s elder sister Tara Devi was also featured. Other than this, Tara Devi was also seen in films like Matsyagandha (1934), Shahi Lakadhara (1934), Thief Of Iraq (1934) and Vasantsena (1934). The famous dancer Gopi Krishna was Tara Devi’s son. Likewise Sitara Devi’s eldest sister Alaknanda also acted in films like Suryakumari (1933), Actress (1934), Cinema Queen (1934), Khaak Ka Putla (1934), Navbharat (1934), Lal Chitthi (1935), Magic Horse (1935) and Prem Pujari (1935).     

(As per senior film historian Shri D.B.Samant, Tara Devi had married the then famous actor Maruti Rao Pahelwan, also her costar of films like Matsyagandha and Shahi Lakad-hara, and a few years later the two left Mumbai and settled in Dhule city.)
Sitara and Kumar in Watan. Image Courtesy: Film India, 1938.

Sitara Devi got her first break as an actress in Sagar Movietone’s movie Judgement Of Allah/ Al-Hilal in the year 1935 which was also Mehboob Khan’s first directorial venture. This film’s music director was Pransukh M.Nayak. The main leads were M. Kumar, Sitara, Yakub and Indira. Sitara Devi tells us, “At that time playback had not started and we ourselves had to sing songs in front of the camera. I too have also sung many songs like that for my films. Along with essaying important roles in films like Kumar Movietone’s Nazar Ka Shikar (1936), Golden Eagle Movietone’s Prem Bandhan (1936), Taj Productions’ Zan Mureed (1936), Hans Pictures’ Begunah (1937), Prince Movietone’s Calcutta After Midnight (1937), Sangeet Film Company’s Jeevan Swapna (1938), Sagar Film Company’s Mahageet (1937), General Films’ Baghban (1938), Ranjit Movietone’s Professor Waman M.Sc. (1938), in the year 1938 she got a chance to work under Mehboob’s direction once again. This was Sagar Film Company’s film Watan (1938) where Sitara Devi’s co-artistes were Kumar, Bibbo, Yakub and Maya Banerji, music director was Anil Biswas. Sitara Devi had sung a few songs in the movie as well. Sagar Film Company’s film Mahageet (1937), composed by Anil Biswas was the first film to be made in Mumbai where playback was used, although playback had already been introduced in New Theatres’ film Dhoop Chhaon in Kolkata in 1935. 
Sitara Devi in Baghban. Image Courtesy: Film India, 1938. 

In the year 1939, Sitara Devi played the main lead in Ranjit Movietone’s Nadi Kinare, Supreme Pictures’ Meri Ankhen and General Films’ Pati Patni, while in 1940 she was seen in important roles in Ranjit Movietone’s Aaj Ka Hindustan, Achhut, Holi, Pagal, National Studios’ Poojaa, Popular Films’ Haiwan and New Theatres’ Zindagi. Achhut was Gauharjaan Mamjiiwala’s last film as an actress where under Gyan Dutt’s music, Sitara accompanied by Kantilal and Vasanti, sang Bansi bani bansidhar ki, tum radha bano nat-nagar ki, which was penned by Pyarelal Santoshi. In the movie Haiwan, Sitara has acted with both her sisters, Alaknanda and Tara Devi. 
Sitara and Kesari in Professor Waman M.Sc..Image Courtesy: Film India, 1938.

At Ranjit Movietone, Sitara met the era’s famous singer-actress Waheedan who had worked under the banner for movies like Professor Waman M.Sc., Prithvi Putra (1938), Rickshaw-wala, Secretary (1938), Thokar (1939) and also for Sagar Film Company’s film Alibaba (1940) directed by Mehboob where she had won over the audiences with not only her acting but also her brilliant singing. Waheedan’s younger sister Jyoti was also a singer-actress who had worked in movies like  Sagar Movietone’s Comrades (1939), Ek Hi Raasta (1939), National Studios’ Mehboob directed Aurat (1940) and Sanskar (1940). Shortly thereafter Waheedan fell ill and returned to her parents’ house in Fatehabad where she finally passed away. Meanwhile Jyoti had married singer-actor G.M.Durrani. At the time of Waheedan’s death, her daughter Nimmi was 7 years old. She later became a star actress in Hindi cinema herself. Even today Sitara Devi remembers Waheedan with a lot of respect and tells us that she had given Jyoti her screen name. 
Sitara Devi remembers Waheedan with a lot of respect and tells us that she had given Jyoti her screen name. 
In the beginning of the 1940s, Sitara Devi was seen as the heroine in Circo Productions’ film Swami (1941) where her romantic lead was P.Jairaj. Made under the direction of A.R. Kardar,  the film featured Sitara Devi singing a solo and a few duets with Rajkumari and Khan Mastana in this film. In 1942 she was seen as the lead actress in Ranjit Movietone’s Dhiraj and Dukh-Sukh

The actor Nazir having co-starred with Sitara in Baghban, made Sandesa (1940)  in partnership with Yasmeen which was the first film under the banner of Hind Pictures. According to Sitara Devi, Yasmeen, who was originally a Jew, suddenly fell very ill and as a result film-production under the banner of Hind Pictures was shut down.

(As per Shri D.B.Samant, Yasmeen was Nazir’s wife, however Sitara Devi claims to not be privy to this fact.)    
After almost 2 years, Nazir decided to revive Hind Pictures and offered to make Sitara Devi a partner in his company which Sitara Devi happily accepted. She made 5 films under the banner.
After almost 2 years, Nazir decided to revive Hind Pictures and offered to make Sitara Devi a partner in his company which Sitara Devi happily accepted. She made 5 films under the banner of Hind Pictures with Nazir, Kaljug (1942), Society (1942), Abroo (1943), Chhed Chhaad (1943) and Salma (1943) and also played the main lead in all these films. In Kaljug, Society, Abroo and Chhed Chhaad, Sitara Devi’s opposite lead was Nazir while in Salma, the opposite lead was Ishwarlal. In 1943 for Silver Films’ movie Bhalai, directed by Nazir, Sitara Devi played the female lead opposite Prithviraj Kapoor.  Sitara Devi says, “The production’s responsibility for Hind Pictures was given to Nazir’s sister’s son K. Asif who was of my age and was a good friend of mine. After having made 5 films as a partner, when I didn’t receive a single penny from the company I got very upset. There K. Asif was also upset with his uncle (mamoo) Nazir due to some reasons. In such circumstances we became each other’s support, we started sharing our sorrows, our intimacy increased and then in 1944 we had a civil marriage.”
 
Sitara Devi with Shammi Kapoor and K. Asif. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

 (In contradiction to Sitara Devis story, Shri D.B.Samant says that K. Asif had nothing to do with Hind Pictures other than that that he was Nazir’s nephew. Nazir did not like K. Asif’s almost daily presence in the studio and hence he opened a tailoring shop for K. Asif in Dadar TT.) 

Even after parting ways with Sitara Devi, Hind Pictures made films like Leila Majnu (1945), Maa Baap Ki Laaj (1946), Wamaq Azra (1946), Abidah (1947), Mallika (1947), Yaadgar  (1947) and Gharbar (1948) under its banner. With the exception of Mallika and Yaadgar,   Nazir’s heroine in all of these films was Swarnlata. Nazir married Swarnlata who was from a Sikh family and after Partition, they both shifted to Pakistan. 
In 1942’s National Studios film Roti, Sitara Devi worked as a heroine once again under Mehboob’s direction.
In 1942’s National Studios film Roti, Sitara Devi worked as a heroine once again under Mehboob’s direction. In this big budget multi-starrer, important roles were played by Chandramohan, Sitara Devi and Sheikh Mukhtar. Akhtari Faizabadi also essayed an important role. Later on while Sitara Devi completely immersed herself in Kathak, Akhtari Faizabadi crossed many milestones as Begum Akhtar in light singing. Sitara Devi sang 3 solos for the film Roti under the music direction of Anil Biswas.

In the year 1943, Sitara Devi was once again seen in Ranjit Movietone’s film Andhera. Arun was her hero for the film.  The famous actor Govinda is Arun’s son. For the film Andhera, Sitara Devi, under Gyan Dutt’s music sang one solo,  a duet with K.C. Dey and 2 duets with Arun. In 1943 Mehboob decided to become a producer and established Mehboob Productions. This banner’s first film was Najma (1943) where Sitara’s co-artistes were Ashok Kumar, Veena, Mijjan Kumar and Yakub. Under Rafiq Ghaznavi’s music direction, Sitara Devi sang 1 solo, 1 duet with Parul Ghosh and 2 duets with Ashok Kumar. 
A photograph of Sitara Devi dancing. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

In the year 1944, Sitara Devi acted in Prabhat Film Company (Pune)’s film Chand, and also sang 2 solos for it. The film is also remembered as the debut film of the first music director duo of the history of Indian cinema, Husnlal-Bhagatram. This was actress Begum Para’s debut film as well.    
Directed by Master Vinayak, Badi Maa (1945) featured Noor Jehan, Ishwarlal, Yakub and Sitara Devi as well as Lata Mangeshkar who not only acted, but also sang 2 songs, picturised on her, under Dutta Korgaonkar’s music.
Sitara Devi was also seen in actress Nanda’s father Master Vinayak’s Prafull Pictures’ film Badi Maa in 1945. Directed by Master Vinayak, the film featured Noor Jehan, Ishwarlal, Yakub and Sitara Devi as well as Lata Mangeshkar who not only acted, but also sang 2 songs, picturised on her, under Dutta Korgaonkar’s music. In the same year, 1945, Sitara Devi was seen in Atre Pictures’ Parinde and Famous Films’ Phool as well. Phool was made under the direction of her husband K. Asif where other than Sitara, the actors who essayed the main roles were Veena, Prithviraj Kapoor, Suraiya, Yakub and Mazhar Khan. The film’s music director was Ghulam Haider.  

In the second half of the 40s, Sitara Devi had completely inclined towards Kathak. She had almost separated herself form singing and acting, however she did continue to do the odd film. In 1947, Sitara Devi acted and sang for Sunrise Pictures’ film Amar Asha. Almost 2 years later, in 1949 she was seen in Liberty Art Productions’ film Lekh along with Suraiya and Motilal, and in 1950 she was seen in Hindustan Chitra’s film Bijli. In 1951, her husband K. Asif under the banner of K. Asif Productions, made his first film Hulchul as a producer in which Sitara Devi worked with big stars like Dilip Kumar and Nargis. Lata Mangeshkar lent her voice in playback for Sitara Devi in this film. Made in the year 1957, Chetan Anand’s Anjali, composed by Jaidev was Sitara Devi’s last film as an actress where her co-stars were Chetan Anand, Nimmi and Sheela Ramani. In the same year she was seen dancing in a song of Mehboob Khan’s film Mother India, Holi aai re kanhai rang chhalke, along with Kumkum
In 1951, her husband K. Asif under the banner of K. Asif Productions, made his first film Hulchul as a producer in which Sitara Devi worked with big stars like Dilip Kumar and Nargis.
Mother India proved to be Sitara Devi’s last film after which she completely inundated herself in dance. She did Kathak Programs in many countries all over the world. The distance between K. Asif and herself had been growing for a while now. Exploring the reasons behind this growing separation, Sitara Devi says, “In all sense K. Asif was a very decent, intelligent and progressive person. He used to take good care of me. But the thing that I couldn’t tolerate was his colorful nature. 2 – 3 years after our marriage, he went to Lahore and got married once again. He started Mughal-E-Azam in 1950s and got married for the third time to Nigar Sultana who was portraying an important role in that movie. And despite being his legal wife, I had to separate from him. In 1958 for a program I had gone to Dar es Salaam in East Africa where many Gujarati families had settled down. Our accommodation was with one such Gujarati family. After some time my friendship with Pratap Barot of that family translated into marriage. Pratap Barot is the brother of the then famous singer Kamal Barot and film Don’s (1978) director Chandra Barot. As the British Raj ended in East Africa, like all Indians, the Barot family was also forced to leave the country and Pratap Barot, who was an engineer with British Airways, went and settled in London. He still lives in London, although in 1970 I separated from Pratap Barot also. Our only son Ranjit Barot lives in Mumbai and is a big name in the music industry. Meanwhile, K. Asif was not satisfied even with his third marriage. In the 1960s he started a new film with Guru DuttLove and God (1986) and during the same time he married Dilip Kumar’s younger sister Akhtar making it his fourth marriage. Dilip Kumar hasn’t been able to forgive Akhtar and K. Asif for this even today.” 
 
A photograph of K. Asif. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

With Guru Dutt’s death in the year 1964, the film Love and God remained incomplete. Some years later K. Asif replaced Guru Dutt with Sanjeev Kumar and started shooting afresh. Sitara Devi says, “On 9 March 1971, I was performing in Mumbai’s Shanmukhanand Hall. At 2 AM after reaching home I got to know that K. Asif is no more.  He had gone to meet Sanjeev Kumar and at around 6 PM at Sanjeev Kumar’s residence, he suddenly collapsed and died instantly. He was just 48 at that time. After his death, me being his legal wife, I performed the various final rites like “Shaiyadaan” as per Hindu traditions at my level residence.”

Padmashri, Sangeet Natak Academy award, Doctorate from Khairagadh University, Kalidas Samman, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, Rasik-Ranjana, Nritya-Nipuna, having acquired dozens of such awards, Sitara Devi used to stay at South Mumbai’s famous Peddar Road till around 3 years ago. At present, she stays at Aramnagar in Andheri (West)s 7 bungalows area.  She is Dilip Kumar’s adopted sister and has been regularly tying him a Rakhi for the last few decades. Having shunned the Government of India’s Padma Vibhushan award, Sitara Devi says, “If you want to honor me then do it with a Bharat Ratna. I have dedicated my entire life to Kathanritya, and for a dancer like me, any honor other than a Bharat Ratna is not an honor but an insult.” Sitara Devi passed away in Mumbai on 25 November 2014.

(Part of Shishir Krishna Sharma's Beete Hue Din blog series.)

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