In life, the great kathak dancer Sitara Devi exemplified the motto "never say die", performing and living life to the fullest till the very end. And the end had to come, even to one to whose name one often prefixed with the epithet "ageless".

Surrounded by her family, Sitara Devi passed away in Mumbai on Tuesday morning, after a heart failure. She had been admitted ten days earlier to the Cumballa Hill Hospital and Heart Institute and then transferred to Jaslok Hospital, her son-in-law, Rajesh Mishra, said. She was 94.

She is survived by her son, the drummer and musician, Ranjit Barot, and her daughter, Jayanti Mala, a kathak dancer, who is married to Mishra. Sitara Devi split her time between the homes of her son and daughter, both of whom live in Mumbai. Jayanti Mala is her niece but was raised by Sitara Devi as a daughter.

Sitara Devi was married twice, first to K Asif, who directed the film, Mughal-e-Azam, and then to Ranjit's father, Pratap Barot, although both marriages ended.

Zest for life

"She had a huge zest for life," said Jayanti Mala. "Till she fell ill earlier this month, she was very active, travelling, shopping and taking a keen interest in the daily dance classes I hold at home." Ranjit was abroad and was due to arrive in the city on Tuesday night.

She had had a heart problem for several years, but had continued to dance, taking a pill for this condition before performing, said Jayanti Mala. She also regularly travelled to Banaras, Delhi and Lucknow, spending time with kathak dancers there.

Instantly recognisable by her huge red bindi and hair left open, Sitara Devi would often turn up at the annual Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in Mumbai to watch younger dancers. She did that again earlier this year, and also gave an impromptu performance. She could not do footwork, for which kathak is famous and which was her forte. But refusing to let age get in the way, she presented a ghazal sitting in a chair, restricting herself to abhinaya, the art of facial expressions, and hand movements.

Roots in Banaras

Sitara Devi was born in Kolkata into a Brahmin family of musicians and dancers originally from Banaras. She learnt kathak from her father, Sukhadev Maharaj, a Vaishnavite Sanskrit scholar and dancer. She imbibed all the intricacies of the Banaras gharana from him and went on to become one of its most vigorous proponents and propagators. Her family moved to Mumbai when she was a teenager. In the city, besides pursuing her classical dance career, Sitara Devi also danced in a few Hindi films.

Sitara Devi composed many kathak pieces, such as todas and parans, which Jayanti Mala has already begun compiling. She had also created items based on stories, like the kind usually seen in Bharatanatyam, which her daughter is also documenting. While Sitara Devi was steeped in the traditions of the Banaras gharana, she always encouraged her students to absorb what was appropriate from other dance forms, such as ballet, tango and tap dance, said Jayanti Mala. Over three years, in her youth, Sitara Devi herself made several trips to Russia to learn ballet, her daughter said.

Influential style

Other dancers in Mumbai also mourned Sitara Devi's death even as they celebrated her legacy.
"She danced like lightning," said Manjiri Deo, 66, a dancer who has spent several years collecting and documenting kavits, poems sung within a taal, from stalwarts, including Sitara Devi. "Her style was very influential."

Despite her stature, Sitara Devi went out of her way to encourage young dancers, said dancer Rajashree Shirke. She often came as the chief guest to the annual productions presented by the students of Shirke's dance academy, Lasya, staying till the very end. "I often asked her whether she wanted to rest in between, but she always declined," recalled Shirke. "She said she had come to watch the youngsters. Young dancers have lost an invaluable role model."

Sanjukta Wagh, a dancer of the younger generation and a founder of the Beej Dance Collective, said she had seen Sitara Devi only a few times, but even that had left an impression. "Dance was her life and you could see that," she said. "Her dance was effortless. Her costumes were often over the top, but, that goes with her tradition. She was an intimidating presence, but she was her own person, who lived by her own rules."