The 45 min drive from my residence in Navi peth to Kalyaninagar, where the legendary Ritha Devi resides, was over in a blink of an eye (rather it seemed to!) My mind was constantly hovering over the thought about meeting such a legendary dancer in person. I had done some home work regarding the 92 years 'young' dancer's background and so was thinking about all the questions that I had prepared. I had this image of a woman in salwar kurta, with white hair, sitting on the bed, looking out of a pair of spectacles. This image was going to be shattered in the coming minutes! When I reached her home, the front door was open. I rang the bell and a clear, loud and strong voice asked me to come inside. There she was…sitting in a chair, with thick black hair left open, draped in a saree, and flashing a 100 watt smile with a slight tinge of makeup - the legendary was Ritha Devilooking radiant and graceful ! Words failed me that instant!…
It took me some time to recollect my thoughts and proceed with the conversation.
Ritha Devi, a luminous dance personality, an extraordinary scholar and a celebrated critic. A contemporary of legends like the late Indrani Rehman and Yamini Krishnamurthy, she is one of the very few Indian dancers to study and perform all the Indian classical dance styles in their orthodox and original form. The life story of Ritha Di is an example of how passion can and will change your destiny. It often feels like her dreams were blown away even before they could form any shape.
"My passion for dance keeps me going despite setbacks in personal life," reveals the Pune-based artiste. Born in the family of senior councilor of the then Baroda state in preindependent India, she is related to Rabindranath Tagore and Lakshminath Bezbaruah, the father of modern Assamese literature. She graduated from the University of Bombay and studied English and Sanskrit.
"Seeing the great Uday Shankar dance, I fell in love with dance instantly and the day I watched the goddess-like Rukmini Devi, I decided to be a dancer," recollects the diva who had to suffer the wrath of her father. Her father stopped funding her higher education and she had to part ways with her husband who believed that "dance is not something that girls from decent families do."
Left to fend for herself after a broken marriage and a son to take care of, the resolute Ritha Devi continued to learn different dance styles from some of the best exponents of her time - Manipuri from Howbom Athomba Singh at Kolkata, Bharatnatyam from Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai in Chennai, Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam Lakshmi and Kathakali from Asan Karunakaran Panikkar in Mumbai, Odissi from Pankaj Charan Das in Puri and Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam besides learning Kathak and Sattriya. "I was fortunate that Pandit Ravi Shankar saw my dance in 1958 and recommended me to some of the best event organisers in Europe. That was the turning point of my career," she confessed.
After Europe, Ritha Devi toured the Soviet Union thrice followed by a 3 decade stay in the US. She was invited to teach Indian dance at New York University for 10 years. She was also awarded three fellowships from prestigious American cultural bodies for undertaking choreography and her works have been preserved in the archives of the National Endowment for the Arts in New York.
By the time Ritha Devi was back in India, the classical dance scene here had undergone a dramatic change. "Half-baked gurus, unusually ambitious dancers and their godfathers in politics and bureaucracy were ruling ,destroying the sanctity of Indian classical dances," recollected the dancer-scholar who longed to settle down in Mumbai, the city that she loved a lot for the dance circles. But it was an expensive dream. Added to that, an accident damaged one of her knees that confined her to her home in Pune.
"Unfortunately, Pune does not have much scope for dancers," she confided. "Destiny always conspired against my dreams. But I am too obstinate to bow down", remarked Ritha Devi who lives alone. She practices dance for three hours every day, travels attend and review dance festivals, edits dance journals, conducts workshops and teach. Two of her students share their feelings for their Guru.
Radhika Karve- I first met Rithadidi in 2004, immediately as she returned to India. After watching one of her performances as a devotion to Lord Jagannathji, I couldn't stop myself from meeting her! I visited her residence in Kalyani Nagar just to meet this dedicated legend and she inspirngly said "I will teach you Odissi”
I was awed and overwhelmed by her as it was my long lost dream which was going to be a reality and thereafter it has been an experience beyond words! A genuine and gentle teacher who wants her students to learn the nuances of this art to the perfection not thinking about their age..in my case I was 40 when I started learning!
I am very lucky to be called as one of her students and to be loved immensely by her and fondly called as
“ Meri budhapeki laathi!"
I offer my heartfelt obeisance to my one and only one .... Rithadidi
Gagan Banodha - I first met Ritha Didi when I, through spicmacay, had organized a program of Didi in University of Pune. She owned the floor and I couldn't believe my eyes, she was 85 years old then! And believe me she was 85 years of grace! Not just her dance but her entire persona is epitome of grace! She has an aura, which very few people are blessed with. I just knew that I had to learn from her, she was like the river Ganga oozing and flowing with knowledge and grace and I knew I had to take some of it with me even if it was just a pail of that holy water. She is not just a master of her art but also a very good orator, and extremely adept in other dance forms. She has even made a syllabus for easy learning of Odissi and taught me so patiently, lovingly and enthusiastically. Compare that with her time when she used to learn from her guru, she had to invite him to Mumbai with all expenses taken care of and he would come once in 10 days . When he was in a mood to teach, he would come on stage and mesmerize her with his performance and that was it. There were no repeats and she had to learn, memorize and acquire it from such performances. She was a fighter all her life and still is fighting and defying the old age now. Charmed and blessed I am to have her presence in my life.
In 2012 she was awarded the prestigious "Sangeet Natak Akademi Tagore Puraskar". To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore they added his name to this award, only for that year making it even more unique.
Ritha Devi looks like a child lost in her own house filled with memories and memorabilia. She has this antique 'Nataraj' idol along with her 'Jagannathji' who has accompanied her throughout the dance journey of 92 years!
Complied with the help of inputs given by Radhika Karve.
It took me some time to recollect my thoughts and proceed with the conversation.
Ritha Devi, a luminous dance personality, an extraordinary scholar and a celebrated critic. A contemporary of legends like the late Indrani Rehman and Yamini Krishnamurthy, she is one of the very few Indian dancers to study and perform all the Indian classical dance styles in their orthodox and original form. The life story
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