As a dancer it takes a whole life to excel in one dance form, but it was Ritha Devi who excelled in more than half a dozen classical dance forms of India. She was the grand niece of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, born in Baroda 93 years back and dedicated her life to live the dance.
Her multifaceted interest in dance took her up to learn Manipuri from H Athomba Singh, Bharatanatyam from Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai, Mohiniattam from Kalamandalam Laxmi, Kathakkali from AK Panikker, Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam and Odissi from Pankaj Charan Das. It is said that she was the first recognized Sattriya dancer (I am not sure, how authentic that information is) also she learnt Kathak for some time. In the era of single minded expertise one cannot imagine to venture into so many diverse and paradoxical dance forms. She was basically known as an Odissi dancer and the best pupil of Guru Pankaj Charan Das, the first and foremost Guru of modern Odissi.
In 1984 dance critic Jennifer Dunning wrote in the New York Times – “RITHA DEVI offered a selection of pieces with familiar and unusual themes on Saturday night at the Cubiculo, 414 West 51st Street, in a program of dances in the Odissi and Kuchipudi styles.
It was in the most dramatic of these pieces that Miss Devi shone brightest. In the Kuchipudi section, ”Chandalika (The Untouchable Girl)” offered Miss Devi the widest range for her considerable skills as an actress. Choreographed by Miss Devi, as were all but one of the dances in the program’s seven pieces, ”Chandalika” tells the story of Prakriti, a young woman of the untouchable caste who falls in love with Ananda, a gentle young monk who acknowledges her. In the end, she knowingly causes the death of her mother because of that love, and renounces Ananda and the world.” This review speaks volumes of Ritha Devi’s talent as a dancer. She was an innovator and explorer. Her dancing style was a blend of tradition and innovation within the boundary of tradition.
Personally I first met Ritha Devi on the roof top of Chittaranjan Acharya, a technocrat and student of Guru Pankaj Charan Das’s temple facing home in Bhubaneswar, perhaps it was April, 2007 and that was quite amazing to see the octogenarian dancer practicing rigorously in a hot summer noon, also talking in details about the fundamental beauty of his Guru Pankaj Charan Das’s style. I with my friend Shyamhari Chakra had talked to her for a couple of hours.
She was a store house of information and historical inputs about Indian classical dance. She went on speaking about the dance scenario of 60s. Vividly she described her Guru Pankaj Charan Das’s genius, his maverick style of teaching and strict methodology of training to attain the perfection. She was unhappy that Pankaj Babu could not get what he actually deserved.
When I wanted to know from her what exactly the differences are from the styles of Guru Debaprasad Das and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra from his Guru’s style, she graciously demonstrated few of Guruji’s rare compositions and llustratedly explained us the intrinsic and nuanced movements. Again I met her few more times and every time her warm affection remained undiluted.
She spoke to me about his great grand fathers Rabindranath Tagore and Laxminatha Bezbarua. What a great legacy she had; Born into the family of Bezbaruas and married in the family of Tagores. She was first among the very few dancers who took Odissi to global stage along with Indrani Rehman.
On Monday Ritha Devi breathed her last and with that came the end of an era.