My Kathak Chronicles

Kathak Crossing Gender-Based Boundaries

Sitara Devi (November 8, 1920 - November 25, 2014), a remarkable dancing legend who created an impact on the entire framework of aesthetics, women empowerment, respectability, performance and cultural nationalism.


Sitara Devi was born in the home of traditional performing artists belonging to the community of ‘Kathaks’. The Kathaks are considered Brahmins, but of lower category, they cannot receivedaan (gifts), or perform any sacred rituals but are allowed to perform Katha (enacting mythological stories in people’s houses, or temple courtyards).

Sitara Devi’s father Sukhdev Maharaj initiated his three daughters into the performing space when ladies of the stage were always the tawaifs (courtesans) who, after 1857, were perceived not as performers but as mere entertainers, and even prostitutes. However, this bold step was well strategised even at the cost of being ostracised by his own community. Patronage of the stage at that time was confined to the aristocracy or the temple authorities. Sukhdev Maharaj was not backed by any prominent aristocrats and wanted them to achieve recognition in their own right and earn respectability for the profession.

In Kathak dance, until 1950s, majority of performers were the women tawaifs, but the power to transmit the art was with the male gurus. The technical repertoire of the male dancer was significantly different to what tawaifs performed, which was framed within the context of enactment of largely sophisticated sensual poetic imagery through music and multi-layered interpretative language of gestures (abhinaya).
Sitara Devi once said, “My father would simply draw from the mythological sacred content referring to both traditions of Vaishnaivsm and Shaivism. He would create compositions, dance dramas from leelas of Rama, Krishna, Lord Shiva. Vibrancy of these gods would resound in the mnemonic syllables, and use of poetic language, or in the songs chosen. We were Brahmin girls, and even as we understood and performed shringar (reference to erotic poetry), my father insisted on the interpretation that went beyond the erotic into the world of metaphysical…”
The period between the 1920s and 1940s can be considered as the watershed decades of Indian dance. Several prominent performing arts institutions like Kalakshetra, Sangeet Bharati, Kerala Kalamandalam, Shanti Niketan were established and provided the space for a frenzy of sociological and aesthetic movements in classical dance forms. Both the institutionalisation as well as the remoulding of aesthetics were important markers to the creation of new performers from respectable middle class families who were neither devadasis (temple dancers) nor tawaifs(courtesans), and these trends also contributed to a new phase of cultural nationalism.

At this time, Sitara Devi’s appearance on the stage was almost revolutionary. And it is in this context and the context of reclaiming cultural space that fitted into a larger framework of reconstructed, respected aspect of Cultural Nationalism that we should situate her. Many eulogies have been written after her death, but Sitara Devi will live on through the hundreds of young girls from “respectable” families who learn Kathak and aspire to perform on stages national and international.

Sitara Devi's personal imprint on the actual performance of Kathak will always be that of a performer who gave the audience a glimpse of liberation, where she abandoned and transcended the body while performing, which made the maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj tell me, “If there is one woman who goes beyond the woman’s body and dances like a man, it is Sitara!” It reminds me of what the 13th century Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin said of an extremely powerful woman Sufi saint of Delhi, “When a lion emerges out of the forest, nobody asks if it is male or female.”

Sitara went much beyond from the time in which she was born, she evolved as a completely institutionalised woman who, through her bold energy, asserted herself on the contemporary stage. She redefined the mould of the traditional woman performer. While on stage, she combined the male and female energies, vigorous and bold to the extent of defiance, completely without shame but covered in the intoxication of sacred pulses.