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Ritha Devi, Indian Classical Dancer and Teacher, Dies at 92

Odissi is reminiscent of the images of female dancers that are carved into the friezes of Hindu temples. The upper half of the body articulates precise movements that allow for interpretation, while the lower half maintains any of five statuelike stances. The costumes consist of a headdress, called a tahia; lots of silver jewelry; dozens of tiny bells on each foot; and vibrant silk or cotton dresses with elaborate thread work.

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.

“To miss one raising of her eyebrow or the precise relationship of her hip to the angle of her elbow is to miss the harmony of images she has taken such care to construct,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times in a review of a performance at Carnegie Recital Hall in December 1975.

Photo

Ritha Devi in an undated photo.

Though only 4 feet 11 inches tall, Ms. Devi could command the stage, taking several different roles in a single tale told through movement and dramatic mime dialogue. Her performances often ran three or four hours.

In her United States debut, in 1968 at Jacob’s Pillow, the annual summer dance festival in Becket, Mass., she danced multiple roles in enacting the legend of Ahalya, a story of passion, revenge and redemption revolving around the chaste and beautiful wife of a Hindu sage.

She was born Rita Mukherjee on Dec. 6, 1924, in Assam, a state in northeastern India. The arts were central to her family life. Her mother, Aruna, taught music and organized stage performances in their town. A relative, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

The family later moved to Baroda, a state in western India in a region now known as Gujarat. Ms. Devi’s father, Satyabrata Mukherjee, was a government official there.

Over her father’s objections, Ms. Devi began studying classical dance after graduating from Bombay University. She started with the dance style known as Manipuri, which is derived in part from the martial arts and is named after the region in northeast India in which it originated.

Her parents, eager to marry her off, moved her to Calcutta to find a groom, and in 1950 she married Indra Chatterji. On their honeymoon in Sri Lanka she learned of his dislike for dance when he refused to accompany her to a performance.

Photo

Ritha Devi performing at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in the 1960s or ’70s.

Credit
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives

“The moment we got married, he put his foot down,” she said in an interview for the International Odissi Festival in 2011. “He said: ‘No dance. Nothing. You have to become a housewife.’ ”

When her husband got a job in Madras, India, in 1953, she said, she did not go with him, deciding instead to travel throughout India to learn more forms of the country’s classical dance. They divorced in 1968. The couple had one son, Rahul, who survives her.

As her performing career blossomed, a mentor advised her to adopt a stage name before embarking on an international tour. Her first name, Rita, sounded too European, he told her, so she added an “h” and made it Ritha. Devi was her grandmother’s maiden name.

It was while she was on tour that a New York University faculty member in the audience approached Ms. Devi and asked her to teach. She had been taking her young son on tours with her and had had little money with which to raise him. A steady job was appealing, and she agreed.

She remained in New York for 35 years, teaching, continuing to perform and starting a dance academy.

Later in life, Ms. Devi attributed her stamina in dancing for hours at a time to the enduring struggle she faced as a young woman in pursuing her love of dance against the wishes of the men in her life. Younger generations of dancers, she said, often seemed to lack that passion.

“Unless you have fought for something, you have sacrificed for something, you have totally surrendered for something, you can’t acquire it,” she said. “You have to have dance as your main passion in your life.”

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