It has always been a meeting of streams. Triveni Kala Sangam — literally, a “confluence of arts” — is one of New Delhi's most significant cultural landmarks. The story of Triveni is the story of a feisty woman, an icon of grace: Sundari Shridharani, the institution's founder-director. But it is also the story of innumerable people who benefited from her vision. Because if you were young in the 1970s and '80s and inclined towards art, you knew that Triveni, located between the Mandi House roundabout and Bengali Market, was ‘the' artist hangout of the city. Anyone searching for an acquaintance who was a singer, dancer, painter or sculptor could drop in at the café ubiquitously known as “Triveni canteen”, and sure enough, the person in question would either be spotted at a table deep in conversation with other artists, or soon walk in through the haze of steaming tea and smoking parathas.
Those were days before art galleries sprang up in every neighbourhood of the city, before the landscape had been ‘malled', before even other hubs like the India Habitat Centre had come up. Every crowded evening at Triveni canteen, the babble of voices — plotting forthcoming programmes, dissecting the latest exhibition opening, exchanging a piece of complicated musical notation — would unwillingly wind down from 6.45. That was when the ‘Auntyji' at the cash desk rose from her seat, sounding her little brass bell. Moving among the tables and in the café's outdoor area, she cut implacably through the small talk to ensure every last straggler was out by 7 p.m.
Artists' hubs are known to be unruly places, fuelled by smoke and alcohol, but Triveni's reputation, then as now, rests as much on its arts facilities as its discipline. This combination of creativity and restraint, chaos and order, is a reflection of the moral fibre of the institution's founder-director, known to the staff simply as “Madam”. Wanting to gauge whether Madam would be open to being interviewed, one asks the staff her approximate age. “A hundred and ten,” says an old hand without blinking. But it is not just age (real or reputed) that entitles Sundariji to the epithet ‘legendary'.
Madam comes down from her residential quarters every day to oversee work at her institution. If she doesn't, she feels, the consistent repairs and renovations would proceed without aesthetic sense — a condition essential to her scheme of things.
“For me the first love is not dance, it is aesthetics,” says the former student of Uday Shankar.
Use of material and space at Triveni is both aesthetic and frugal. The corridor leading to the canteen, for example, is lined with plants potted inside air conditioning ducts leftover from the chamber theatre.
Seated in her minimalist office, through whose doorway she can catch sight of the open-air theatre space, now occupied by art galleries, and through whose picture window is visible the lush green of the garden outside, Sundariji remarks that sometimes she too wonders how it all came about — a chamber theatre, three art galleries, students' hostels, classes in various dance and music forms and painting, a potted plant nursery, a sculpture court — on less than half an acre and without a lot of personal money.
The gurus use the facilities free and take fees from their students. “Nobody believes we have given them rooms free of charge,” she relates.
“It just worked out. I'm not a genius,” she says. But she is certainly determined, and this shows in her financial decisions. “We don't even take any government grant, and we have banned any donation. I've given a letter to my manager.”
It must have been confidence of this sort, back in 1950, that made a new bride sit in two hot rooms on the terrace of a coffee house in an attempt to start a dance institution. “From 10.30 to 12.30 and again from evening till my husband came back,” she and a friend would sit at the “desk and stool”. A filing cabinet was donated later, and later still, a pedestal fan that rotated right and wouldn't return.
Considering she was living in Imperial Hotel because her husband “wouldn't live anywhere else,” why did she need to brave such conditions? “My nana (grandfather) had three daughters; my mother was the eldest,” she begins by way of explanation. In a community where dowry was a big menace, he declared that none of his daughters would marry unless it was without dowry. “My mother got married with only a small mangal sutra,” she continues. “So that was the kind of family we came from.”
Eventually, she got a group together and, playing the Nati to the Nat performed by Vijay Raghav Rao (flautist), presented a programme called “Call of the Drum” at the army theatre near India Gate. Shankar Prasad, Chief Commissioner, was a guest and announced on stage, “I'll be very happy to help them.” Sundari heard this in the green room.
The next day she was at his office, on the basis of his remark and the money she had collected, to get him to redeem his pledge. “Poor fellow!” she chuckles. Her audacity eventually translated into Triveni Kala Sangam — the name coined by Rao — as we know it today, designed by architect Joseph Stein, who was recommended to Sundari by Habib Rahman.
At the first meeting Stein was shocked at her wish list for half an acre of land: “Theatre, art gallery, library, photography darkroom, staff quarters, classrooms — I went on adding.”
But tenacity is her middle name. She even pursued the authorities for a year to persuade them to close a little-used road off Tansen Marg to allow space for the theatre.
Triveni, inaugurated on March 3, 1963, has grown over the decades but not its grounds. It even lost some to Shri Ram Centre behind it, notes the director with regret. But its guiding principle is to do great things from small places.
While other bodies in the institutional area violate the rules by renting out their premises for enormous sums, pay fines with impunity and still make a profit, she states, Triveni has never even felt the need to. “I am permitted legally to rent out 30 per cent commercially. But why?” she asks.
“We write only six salary cheques,” she explains. The other five monthly payments are made through the security. “And yet it runs beautifully well.”
Beautifully. Aesthetics is the operative theme.