Kathak dancer Sitara Devi was only 16 when she managed to impress Rabindranath Tagore with her phenomenal talent. After watching her perform in Santiniketan, Tagore was so full of admiration that he called her Nritya Samragni or dance queen. Her prowess grew with time, and she became one of the leading exponents of the classical dance form, renowned for her stage performances as well as her expansive personality. Her dance sequences in Hindi movies helped bring kathak into the context of the Hindi film industry.

Born in 1920 in Calcutta to a Brahmin family, Sitara Devi was named Dhanalaxmi. She was not even 10 when she was renamed Sitara, following a much-appreciated dance performance that she choreographed herself. Her father, Pandit Sukhdev Maharaj, was a Sanskrit scholar who performed and taught kathak. He trained all his children, including his daughters Sitara and Tara, whose son was the famous Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna. Sitara Devi went on to study under all three of the great Lucknow gharana gurus – brothers Achchan Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj – all of whom were introduced to her by her father.

Sitara Devi moved to Mumbai in the 1930s and continued to train and perform. Her solo stage shows attracted the attention of Niranjan Sharma, a choreographer and film director, who cast her in Usha Haran. In the 1940s and ’50s, she appeared in a number of films, including Mehboob Khan’s Roti, Vachan and Najma. Her last screen appearance was in Mother India in 1957, in which, dressed as a boy, she performed a dance on Holi. She was a great friend of the families of Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor. Married three times, her second husband was the famous director and producer K Asif. She died in 2014. Her son Ranjit Barot is a music arranger, composer, drummer and singer.

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One of Sitara Devi’s closest and dearest students was Antonia Minnecola, an Italian-American who trained with her “guruji” for three decades. In an interview with Scroll.in, Minnecola reminisces about her time with Sitara Devi, whom her husband Zakir Hussain and his family knew well. She remembers her fascinating life, larger-than-life presence, dynamism, generosity of spirit and her abundant talent. Edited excerpts:

Sitara Devi reading from the 'Natya Shastra'.

What drew you to dance?
I was little when I wanted to dance. I loved to spin, so movement itself was an ecstasy for me, and very natural as a child. I was rather athletic too, [and] loved playing sports, games, roller-skating, ice skating, swimming [and] biking.

One summer, my close friend Judy was going to the Ali Akbar College of Music in the Bay Area to meet Ali Akbar Khansahib, and [asked if I] would [go] with her. When we arrived, I was invited by a student to watch a kathak performance by Chitresh Das [who was] accompanied by Shankar Ghosh. A day or two later, we went to Khansahib’s home, where I asked him if I could enrol in the college. I told Khansahib that I wanted to study dance.

While I was watching kathak, I realised its connection as an art form to what I had been studying in theory with Dalcroze Eurhythmics at the Manhattan School of Music. Eurhythmics is essentially a method of teaching music through movement. Our teacher Robert Abramson, who could play anything on the piano, would play something and ask us: “What’s the metre?” He’d play many odd metres, and for some reason, I was very quick in hearing if it was in 12 or if it was in 7. When I saw the kathak performance, I thought, wait a minute – recitation, poetry, footwork, both pure dance expression and storytelling – this is in an art form which is the fruition of what I have been thinking about and studying. So, I enrolled and began to study with Chitreshji and did so for many years.

Photo courtesy: The Barot family archives.

I used to think: I could study this for a whole lifetime and more... It’s just so much. I remember Khansahib used to tell us – just give it 10 years, then decide if you want to do it, then practise another 10 years, and then maybe think about whether you want to perform. This is what I was getting from him.

When did you meet Sitara Devi?
I first met her at the end of 1974. I was in awe of her. I wouldn’t even talk in front of her. After that, I kept training with Chitreshji and worked with his company. By 1982, it was time to move on. One day, I was passing by Sitara Devi’s house. Tara didi, her elder sister, opened the door. She was a very beautiful woman, with a head of henna-red hair and a piercing gaze. When she opened the door, she looked at me like: who the hell are you? In my faltering Hindi I said – I am Allarakha Khansahib’s bahu.

Tara didi practically picked me up. All of 4’9”, she embraced me and called for Sitara. She called her Dhaano. And Guruji came out dressed to the nines. She looked at me – I think I had an old saree on – and she said: “What are you doing tonight? Can you go home and get dressed up really nicely, very quickly? I am going to meet Noor Jehan. She’s staying at the Taj.”

Sitara Devi's dance in 'Roti'. Tommydan333/YouTube.

My friend and fellow dancer Michele King and I got all made-up with jewellery and [so on]. Guruji loved to have a little entourage around her. She was such a bon vivant. So, we went with guruji. Meeting Noor Jehan is imprinted on my memory. I was so sorry that I hadn’t heard her sing before that. She had a huge suite and was such a diva. And Guruji was such a diva.

When we got to the hotel, Noor Jehan was almost ready, and you know how pretty she was. And that skin, so beautiful. Eyebrows, faultless make-up, diamond nose-stud and hair in rollers. She was getting dressed. A gorgeous saree with incredible pearl work was laid out on the bed. She said something in Urdu and guruji said, she wants to know – do you want to see her sarees? And I was like, yes, of course.

Then I believe you went back to America and some years had passed before the dance training started...
Yes. By that time, we had two children, Anisa and Isabella. I had been awarded a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies after guruji said she’d accept me as a student. When I arrived at her home, she said, “I can’t teach you just like this. You have to become my disciple. You have to tie thread with me.” And so I did. Zakir and Taufiq bhai were there that day. After the tying ceremony, the student has to perform. I recited and danced a well-known paran I had heard on her LP, and Zakir and Abbaji and so many other tabla players regularly play. [Antonia recites the bols.] I remember guruji sat there smiling.

A glimpse of Sitara Devi’s iconic 'Mor' (peacock) and 'Holi' themes that she created and become synonymous with. Photo courtesy: The Barot family archives.

Right away, she introduced me to what she called A-B-C todas, teaching me how she liked the movement to be. But I just wanted her to get up and dance – because she wasn’t performing too much then, she was already in her 60s. I did go to Ahmedabad and Baroda with my baby in my arms so I could watch her in performance. Of course, there was no YouTube in those days. It was in the old films that I had seen her dance. Zakir would tell me what she was like as a performer. And I knew that she was very powerful.

She gave me some very beautiful items to learn right at the beginning. So, I got a bank of songs, Thumri, Vandana, Tarana, lots of compositions. Guruji would sing too, and sometimes she’d call Tara didi to sing with me as I practised. Chaube Maharaj, her brother, a wonderful artist, would come to her home. He just took a total shine to me, really loved me, taught me a lot and he used to play tabla for me as I learned and practised. Can you believe it? It was unfortunate that he passed away so soon.

How did your relationship with Sitara Devi develop?
I felt very close to her from the beginning. But I had that respectful fear one has of any teacher. Like Taufiq bhai and I had the same feeling learning from Abbaji. We were afraid to make a mistake because if you made a mistake, it was like you broke his favourite crystal bowl or something – “bol” being the operative word.

From the film 'Najma'. SEPL Vintage/YouTube.

For the first couple of years, it was all dance. In 1986, Zakir and I brought guruji to America, booked her tour, accompanied either by Zakir or Fazal bhai, and arranged her very well-attended workshops in the Bay Area. Her other American disciple, Sharron Rose, arranged the Boston and New York workshops and hosted her. Most of the time guruji was living with us. She loved going to the gym, and after we’d work out in the gym, we’d go sit in a hot tub. She told me about her life, intimate things too – it was like woman to woman. She’d often say to me – your marriage is the correct one, two artists. I’d say – but you were married to K Asif. “Oh, he wasn’t faithful to me,” she’d say. I think there were some money issues too. In the beginning, she was making more money than he was.

Did she tell you why she stopped dancing in films?
Because she really wanted to devote herself to classical kathak, and she felt that she couldn’t do both.

Guruji had a universal approach to dance. She studied a lot of different styles. She did her arangetram in Bharatanatyam. She studied Russian Ballet for a year. In Hulchul, she’s en pointe in that film. She studied a lot of folk dance.

In a still from 'Najma'. Photo courtesy: Mehboob Productions Pvt Ltd, Mumbai.

Kathak is such a great music, dance [and] theatre art form that it encompasses all those things. You can tell any story [and] render any poetry in kathak. Her father’s contribution was to go back to the ancient texts, including Ramayana and Mahabharata, create shlokas, kavita todas [and] emphasise the tandava aspect. Gopi Krishna used to do the full Ramayana – one dancer. The old style of gat-bhav was that way. A film about Kathak, Circles and Cycles, made by our friend Robert Gottlieb on the renowned dance scholar Kapila Vatsyayan’s story, had Achchan Maharaj, Birju Maharajji’s father, expressing the same couplet for over 12 hours. Different renditions, different expression of the same line, poetically.

Do you have a memory that stands out from your time with Sitara Devi?
We were once at a bookstore in Colaba, and I opened a book on dance and said, “Guruji, look what it says here: ‘Kathak is the greatest of all the dances’.” I thought she would say yes. But she said: “Oh, I don’t know if I would agree with that. Look at all the great dances you have in the world. They are no less. How can you say that one dance is best? There’s ballet – Rudolf Nureyev.” She wanted to meet Nureyev. And she loved Hollywood. She loved Fred Astaire. She was crazy about musicals. So, hers was kind of a universal, open-to-the-world approach.

She would ask me, what do you think of this kind of dance? Do you tap? No, I don’t. Sometimes she would say – you know any of the songs? I knew many songs from the old movies, so I would sing for her and do imitations of Carmen Miranda, whom she loved. I knew all the Astaire songs. If you said, oh, I love the movies of the ’30s or the ’40s or something, she would go on a litany of actresses that she thought were so beautiful – oh, did you see her? Or her?

Rajendra Chaturvedi/YouTube.

In 1986, when guruji came to the States, she wanted to meet Michael Jackson [because] she admired him. When she was in Europe, she went to meet Marlene Dietrich, who was also a cabaret performer. It was explained to Dietrich who guruji was, and she was very nice to her. And guruji said she was such an artist, so beautiful. She asked her, “May I touch you? “Yes, of course,” was Marlene Dietrich’s reply.

If she would teach you a thumri, it was from morning till evening. The same two couplets. I remember one thumri I learnt from her, kahe ko mere ghar aaye, (O Krishna, why have you come to my home?). I got to my lesson in the morning and left that night. She just kept saying, keep doing it, keep doing it. There was even one point where she fell asleep. I think she had her lunch right in front of me. I didn’t eat anything. I just kept going. By the end of it, I was so in Radha and in her betrayal because guruji taught this thumri as Khandita Nayika. I think that’s because of her own experience. She didn’t teach it as a lot of dancers do: Radha is going to take him back, and she forgives. No. Guruji’s version was very tragic. I remember at the end of it, I was weeping. And she finally looked at me and said – good, I cried, you cried. I think she was waiting for me to cry. And it took all day. Of course, much later, she said if you want to add a reunion at the end of the song, you can. We laughed.

I knew that every time I would come to India, guruji would be so happy and excited. After her passing, her son Ranjit Barot presented a wonderful memorial concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts [in Mumbai] with the entire family and me and Zakir. When he introduced me, I was surprised to hear him say that guruji loved me so much and would become so excited at my impending visits that he had to admit it made him a tad jealous. I had never heard him express that before. But, of course, she adored her Baba, as she called him. He was the apple of her eye.

Antonia Minnecola at Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center For Arts and Culture, San Francisco, November 2010. Photo courtesy: Antonia Minnecola.

The last time I saw guruji [was] when I was leaving for the US. I went to her home in Andheri. She was seated in the dance room. When I walked in and she saw me, she put out one hand [and] started crying. She said: I miss you when you go, when you’re away from me, don’t you know my time is running out? Why are you leaving? Her last words to me on the phone just before she died were of love.

Before I had met her, I had a dream of her and her sister, and we were together as if we were a family living somewhere up in some hills. And I always think that we did have some other life connection that was deep. Maybe we knew each other from another life – these are mysteries.