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Ritha diva!
- Ashish Mohan Khokar

September 15, 2017

There was always something frail yet strong about her. Pint sized, there was nothing short about her talent though.

Born on 6 Dec 1924 to a family of litterateurs of Assam, she was the granddaughter of Sahitya Ratna Lakshminath Bezbaruah. She took great pride in her lineage, also linked to Rabindranath Tagore as a great grand niece! It was however in Indian dance her life lay. She was unstoppable where dance was concerned. She was possessed and sacrificed her everything including her marriage to Indra Chatterjee for cause of dance.

Learning one or more style was popular those days. So she learnt all seven popular and established forms of those times starting with Manipuri and Sattriya. She then started with Chokalingam Pillai in 1953 with Bharatanatyam while her husband was posted in Madras. She was already the first to have taken Assamese forms like Deonati on verge of extinction, out of Assam. Having settled in big cities, Bombay then Madras, then New York, she just took art to bigger and bigger venues.

She additionally learnt Kuchipudi from the great guru Vempati Chinna Satyam and finally made Orissi her own when in 1964 she went all the way to Puri to cajole a reluctant icon adiguru Pankaj Charan Das to teach her the dance of the maharis that became Orissi. Once she found Orissi she made it her own. The form also sat very well on her petite frame and her signature piece Panchakanya became an important production that she performed everywhere.

Photos courtesy: 'The Dance Orissi' by Mohan Khokar-Ashish Khokar

She had class. She never put down anyone or talked ill of other dancers as is the wont of many lesser mortals. She wrote as Dance Critic of the Times of India in Bombay and her writings had style and spunk. Many decades later, she also wrote for attenDance as its New York correspondent. She was polite but pucca. Above all else, she wanted to teach and reach out. Having seen her regularly in the last 30 years in New York or New Delhi and finally at her home in Pune's Kalyaninagar, I had admiration for the dignity she maintained despite poverty of resources and students in end she would have so liked. She was a loner and kept to herself.

Her lifetime desire was to be recognized in her home country so finally when she received the SNA Tagore Award she was at peace. Shyamhari Chakra and I called on her in Bhubaneswar and there was sparkle and joy in her eye. Ritha Devi was the last link with the art of the maharis too for she took great effort in donning look alike costume and dancing. She was a dance devotee, a woman who dared and did what she desired to. She also suffered neglect silently never ever complaining. She had chosen a path for dance and walked alone. No one from the dance community in Bombay helped her. Some even maintained she was beyond help. India lacks a facility for single, old dancers who have no family support systems. Pity. It is in the end years these giants need more attention and adulation. Just company, that someone cares. New York has such a facility - old artists' home - where Ragini Devi and Matteo stayed in the end. Sometimes she regretted having left the basic security of USA for an India that had moved on.

Photo courtesy: Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

Photo courtesy: A Century of Indian Dance

For the last two months or more, she lay in coma in Sancheti Hospital of Pune where doctors looked after her lovingly. Concerned Pune dancers raised funds for her treatment. On 12 September 2017 at 2.30am she went to meet her maker.

May her journey continue in nether land. The diva is gone.

The author is a senior critic, historian with interest in cultural policy, international exchange and helps dance in many ways. He edits attenDance, now in its 20th year and mentors many.

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