Sitara Devi was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) on the Dhanteras, the eve of the Indian festival of Dipavali in 1920 Being born around Dipavali, she was named Dhanalakshmi (nicknamed Dhanno), an epithet of goddess Lakshmi who is worshiped especially during Dipawali.
She could return to live with her parents’ only when she was eight. She was born in a Brahmin family, originally from Varanasi, and later settled in Kolkata. Her father, Sukhadev Maharaj, a Vaishanavite scholar of Sanskrit, earned his livelihood by teaching and performing kathak dances in different parts of India. Her mother was Matsya Kumari, who held a relationship with the royal family of Nepal. Sukhadev Maharaj, while serving in the royal court of Nepal had studied Sanskrit and had done an in-depth study of the Bharatanatyashastra; he also practiced and performed kathak dancing in which he excelled. Kathak became a source of his living, as also a passion, which he passed on to his daughters, Alaknanda, Tara, and Dhanno; and his sons, Chaube and Pande.
He had met Rabindranath Tagore, and was encouraged by him to revive the lost forms of Indian performing arts (like kathak), and ensure elevation of them to a dignified status. Sukhadev Maharaj decided to realize this goal by contributing to reforming the kathak style of dancing. At that time, kathak was being performed by nautch girls or boys, and girls of decent families were not expected to learn this style of dancing. He decided to give religious inputs to the content, which was quite different from the content used by the nautch girls. Moreover, he decided to teach this form of dancing to his daughters and sons. Elders of his community were scandalized, and Sukhadev Maharaj was virtually ex-communicated.
Sukhadev Maharaj and his family members had to face the ire of the community members, and his daughters were called prostitutes. This did not deter him in his determination. Sitara, recalling those moments, reminisces: “My father used to say that when Radha could have danced for Krishna why not our girls? Why should men appropriate the right to dance?” Sukhadev changed his residence, and came to another area of Varanasi. He established a school to teach children including his own daughters and sons dancing. He even admitted children of prostitutes who came to the school to learn dancing. Once, the law enforcement authorities came to enquire about the affairs of the school, and Sukhadev Maharaj presented a performance based on the tales of the Mahabharata. They appreciated his efforts. Little Sitara had been watching her sister, twenty years senior to her, learning dance, and she had managed to learn dancing quite well just by observing and self-practice.
Like the tradition of the time, Sitara was to be married when she was a small girl of eight, and her child bridegroom’s family wanted to solemnize the marriage. However, she resisted, and wanted to be in a school. At her insistence, the marriage did not take place, and she was admitted into the Kamachhagarh High School. While at this school, a dance drama based on the mythological story of Savitri and Satyavan was to be enacted in a cultural program to be conducted by the students of the school. The school was searching amongst the students for someone to do a dance sequence embedded in the dance drama. Dhanno prevailed upon her teacher by showing her an impromptu dance performance. The impressive performance clinched the role for her and she was also assigned the task to teach the dance to her co-performers in the sequence. After the dance drama, a local newspaper named the Aaj reported about the cultural program emphasizing that a little girl name Dhanno had enchanted the audience by her dance performance. Her father saw the news, and this changed his perception about his girl with the “twisted mouth”. Dhanno was re-christened as Sitara, the star, and she was entrusted into the charge of her elder sister, Tara for imparting her dancing lessons. Incidentally, Tara is the mother of famous kathak dancer, Gopi Krishna.
By the time Sitara had turned ten, she was giving solo performances, mostly during the fifteen-minute recess during movies in a movie theatre of her father’s friend. Her commitment to learning and perfecting dancing left her with very little time, and she did not continue her schooling. By the time she was eleven, her family shifted to Bombay (now called Mumbai). Soon after reaching Bombay, Sitara gave a kathak performance in Atiya Begum Palace before a select audience, which included Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Sir Cowasji Jehangir. She immensely impressed Tagore who wanted her to give a special performance in Tata Palace of the Tata Group. There the eleven-year-old dancing damsel performed kathak, with all its nuances, for three hours. Tagore called her to felicitate her in the traditional Indian style of giving her a shawl and a gift of Rs. 50 as a token of her appreciation. Recalling those moments, Sitara once reminisced: “But as I thrust out my hand to receive gifts, I remember my father nudged me and whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t take only the gifts! He is a great man: ask for his blessings, girl!’ Obediently, I asked Gurudev to bless me that I would become a great dancer some day.”
Her debut was at Jehangir Hall (Mumbai), then the nerve center of metro’s cultural life. This was the beginning of a dancing career spanning more than six decades.
When she was just a twelve-year-old girl, Sitara Devi was recruited by Niranjan Sharma, a filmmaker and a dance director, and she gave dance sequences in some Hindi movies including her debut in Usha Haran 1940, Nagina 1951, Roti, Vatan 1954, Anjali 1957 (directed by Chetan Anand, brother of Dev Anand). In Mother India 1957, she performed a Holi dance dressed as a boy, and this was her last dance in any movie. She stopped performing dances in movies, as the same were adversely affecting her passion for excelling in the classical dance, kathak.
Sitara was married to Nazir Ahmed Khan, K. Asif, and then to Pratap Barot, with whom she had a son, Ranjit Barot. Her married life was not smooth, and all her marriages had come to an end. This left her finding succor in her passion, dancing.