The New York Times remembers a 92-year-old Indian dancer
Abracadabra By K. B. Ganapathy, Columns

The New York Times remembers a 92-year-old Indian dancer

The world is available to anyone who does the work to know and learn it… to enjoy what is in the world is our birthright.”

— Father of Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the book “An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic.”

The wise counselling quoted above must be the secret of success and achievement of many in the world. Be it the field of art, literature, science, technology, business or industry. Why? It could be in politics and spiritual pursuit as well. I am impelled to reflect in this manner about our  life, strife and success after reading a very eloquent and exhaustive report about the death of “one” Ritha Devi on September 12, 2017 in Pune, India, in The New York Times in Berlin, Germany, where I was on a sojourn.

It was, in fact, the stunning single column, black and white photo of Ritha Devi, chest-above, with an equally eye-catching, crown-like headgear that caught my attention. I am sure, otherwise I would have given the news a pass and moved on to other pages. The headline simply said, “She revived and taught classic form of Indian dance” and in small print “Ritha Devi 1924-2017.”

From here there was no stopping me reading the report till the end. After all, to deserve such an accolade and an elaborate report in the world’s No. 1 newspaper, that too when one is dead at an age where her achievements have completely faded from the memory of art connoisseurs and critics, is the greatest honour any artiste would wish for.

Ritha Devi

From an Indian’s perspective I would say it was more than getting a Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour awarded by the Indian Government. The report was carried not in an insignificant corner of that huge paper but on page two, top of last two columns. The best position possible. India may have forgotten her, Indian media may have ignored her death relegating it to an obituary, but not The New York Times. The report was filed by Amisha Padnani and this tribute to an artiste par-excellence, I guess, could not have been bettered.

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The opening para tells the reader who she is, when she died and her age succinctly thus:

“Ritha Devi, a performer and teacher who presented Indian classical dance to American audiences with poetic beauty, died on Sept. 12 in Pune, India. She was 92.”

She was living in Pune and had suffered a stroke on July 30. She had specialised in Odissi form of dance that originated about 2000 years ago — that is about the time of Buddha — in the ancient temples of Orissa, now Odisha. In Odissi dance, a mythical story is told through body movement or facial expression or it may convey a spiritual message too from Hindu religious texts.

Till about 1950s, Odissi dance form was not quite favoured by the dance connoisseurs in India. It was Ritha Devi who studied this dance form deeply and began to revive it in 1960s. She undertook worldwide tour in 1970 and later became a professor in New York University’s Dance Department where she worked from 1972 to 1982.

The report says, “Ms. Devi was a consummate actress, conveying emotions through every part of her body, be it the flexing of a toe or the swooping of an arm. Even her face seemed to dance; her lips, brows and gaze all helped tell the story.” No wonder she had performed in the best of art theatres including the famed Carnegie Recital Hall as early as 1975 to raving reviews by reputed art critics published  in all the papers including The New York Times. Though only 4-feet -11-inches-tall, she commanded the stage throughout her performance that usually lasted three to four hours.

She was born Rita Mukherjee on December 6, 1924 in Assam. Her mother Aruna taught music and organised stage performances in their town. Apparently, art was in Ritha Devi’s blood. Rabindranath Tagore was her relative. The family later moved to Baroda, known to patronise art, where her father was a Government official.

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After graduating from Bombay University, she started studying classical dance despite her father’s objection. In 1950, she got married and went to Sri Lanka for honeymoon where she learnt that her husband did not like her to dance and give public performance. This ultimately led to divorce in 1968. The couple had one son who survives her.

It was interesting to learn how the spelling of the word Rita was changed to Ritha with the addition of one extra letter ‘h’ and the suffix Devi. A mentor advised her to adopt a stage name before embarking on an international tour saying that her first name Rita sounded too European. So it was Ritha Devi and Devi was her grandmother’s maiden name. Now, you ask. What is there in a name? The Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon was not right in his answer.

Ritha Devi remained in New York for 35 years running a Dance Academy before returning to Pune, India. The secret of her stamina and success: “You have to have dance as your main passion in your life.”

India is proud of you Rita Mukherjee nee Ritha Devi. May you be an inspiration to all our young dancers.

RIP Ritha Devi.

Tailpiece: I learnt that in Pune, Ritha Devi lived in penury and was not able to meet her hospital bills, according to her surviving son. The counselling neuro-physician at the hospital waived off his fees but the hospital charges had to be paid.

This reminded me of our own Dr. C.B. Murthy of B.M. Hospital who had likewise waived off hospital bills while treating Police Officers wounded in the gun-battle with the notorious forest brigand Veerappan.

In cases of those who have served the country or brought name and fame to the country, the government should rush to their help in times of personal difficulties like this even before being approached. I guess if she had remained in America, she or her son would not have faced this kind of embarrassment and problem. But this is India!

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October 2, 2017

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