The Queen No One Cared For

When a dejected legend breaks down at an award ceremony meant to honour her, it really doesn’t speak well for a country and its people. Something similar happened at The Legends of India Lifetime Achievement Award 2011 ceremony held recently. Sumati Mehrishi attends the function and returns hearing something very familiar said differently and bravely.

Strokes of rouge, habitually hurriedly brushed over sinking cheeks hide the 90 odd years, the lines they have left on her very beautiful face and the vicissitudes. A couple of attendants help her step out of the car, and a few well wishers gear up to make the queen seated on her carriage — a modest swift wheel chair. A pout of the lips, firm and proud as it would have been during the 1940s when Sitara Devi, the Kathak legend from Benaras was busy being the much sought after actor and dancer in the Hindi film industry.

Her eyes — content and sharp, and a winsome disposition that defies being anywhere close to an image of a decrepit time beaten artiste — Sitara Devi is angelic, still quite a gorgeous queen. She beams when I tell her I have been to 24/23 Kabir Chaura, her childhood home in the galee in Benaras that is known to be home to country’s greatest musicians, percussionists and dancers. “When young, Kishan Maharaj almost broke my head with a baayaan of a tabla. Later we gave the best jugalbandis of our times.”

Sitara Devi (in the role of Yashoda) performing with her daughter Priyamala (in the role of Krishna)/1975 (Photo courtesy: Sunil Kothari Dance Collection)

She settles her delicate kamarband — a traditional waist ornament made of gold strings and jewels, checks the drape of her sari one last time and smiles as people line up in rows to greet her, as she is wheeled in for the Legends of India Lifetime Achievement Award 2011 ceremony held at the India Habitat Centre recently. The danseuse was “honoured” with this heart warming gesture — one of the few in a chain of honours she has received in different parts of the country during the last few months — honestly, quite a sign of a ruffled, panicking art fraternity that fears losing a beloved legend to time.

A legend, unimpeded a milestone like the venturesome Sitara Devi, who was trained by her Brahmin father into the Jaipur and Lucknow styles of Kathak, shaped up to dabble with a vast repertoire that accommodated Tandava, Ramayana and Mahabharata — in spite of the loud opposition from relatives and co artistes he faced—before she became the best known artiste of her times.

Sitara Devi had always believed in learning all expressions of dance — including Russian ballet and Bharatanatyam. She says, “I knew I could never become T Balasaraswati or Yamini Krishnamurthy. But I wanted to learn Bharatanatyam to be able to become a complete artiste. I practiced Russian ballet for over a year, and performed it for the film Hulchul made in the early 1940s to prove that I could take something up like that up. There were times when Pandit Ravi Shankar thought I was ‘following’ him at concerts. He would ask, ‘Are you following me?’ I would him I was not jealous of him or following him. I would try to learn from him. Things I did not know and he did. Things about dance and rules of performance hehad set for junior artistes.”

Humility, modesty and the seriousness to learn the dance form made Sitara Devi so different from the stars who trained under her — like Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Rekha and then Kajol. “These girls always were interested in joining the film industry. Kajol disappeared after learning for a while.” 

The burst of concern to make Sitara Devi feel happy and purposeful isn’t unfounded. In Sitara Devi’s case, particularly, everyone in the art fraternity (except for the discerning and important people who labour over putting together the ceremonious Padma awards lists) is more than willingly cautious. No one wants to hurt her. For the accolades and awards or the lack of them, Sitara Devi is not the only artiste our country has wronged, but yes, she is one of the many artistes who have squandered their nerves, peace, stamina and gifted minds on showing how disgruntled they have felt over the government’s apathy, short sightedness and shrieking deafness – scowling, dejected, clueless of the political chicanery within the circuit that keeps them away from opportunities and accolades.

This, perhaps — at a time, when people like Sitara Devi should be ageing on a relic of an arm chair, living the autumn of their lives gracefully, reliving the magical days they have given this country, its people and the West.

Interestingly, Dipayan Mazumdar, the man behind Legends of India, barely looked ruffled at this occasion long due. He happily shared the dais with the award panel, including Soli J Sorabjee, Former Attorney General of India, Former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, Educationist Varsha Das and DG, ICCR Suresh K Goel with a seasoned organiser’s gumption — until Sitara Devi’s memorable vote of thanks — initially– a trail of anecdotes, sarcasm and observations leading everyone present into a fit of guffaws turned into a slightly innocent melancholy bitter song — of woes, complains, bottled up grudges, modest, humble confessions and tears.

Heroically, Mazumdar discouraged everyone, including Sitara Devi’s daughter, kathak dancer Jayanti Mala from nudging Sitara Devi to stop. He wanted her to speak. It’s an honour he was earning — for himself. The honour — of having let a star artiste narrate how people let her down.

Perhaps — at a time when the “Queen of Kathak” – as Guru Rabindranath Tagore had described her after watching her perform — should be reminiscing a surreal performance or an auditorium bursting on its seams with insatiable crazy audience or the pedestal she has taken Kathak and abhinaya to or her repertoire to school kids and generations that never saw them performing. She is Padma Shri “Sitara Devi”. She is 91. She still performs. She can still make an imaginary peacock dance with her abhinaya and the nimble fingers.

She can still command Pandit Birju Maharaj – her junior and dear — to perform this way or that. She adds, “Birju Maharaj kya kya kartein hain aajkal mujhe nahin samajh aata hai. I always concentrated on doing abhinaya and he would get entangled in the tatkaars and math. But I know that people like Birju Maharaj and I, people like late Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Late Ustad Vilayat Khan and Late Alla Rakha Khan were true gharanedaars. Not like people who settled abroad after dabbling with various things, not really doing something worthwhile. I got my biggest award from Guru Rabindranath Tagore in his appreciation for my art, that’s true. But it pains to see the government’s apathy over and over again.”

A voracious appetite for the golden past and a forlorn dwindling present is one of the infirmities in a star artiste’s old age. Hearing its song with welled up eyes is the least you could do for someone like Sitara Devi.