Choreographer Bharat Sharma shares his memories of a culturally nascent Delhi

People who grow up on a school campus are sometimes unused to the hustle and bustle of the outside world. But Bharat Sharma, well-known Contemporary dancer and choreographer, who was born on the campus of Modern School and lived there for 30 years of his life, got far more exposure to the world than many who might have spent a lifetime in the heart of the city.

“There is this whole idea of midnight's children,” he says. “I am this side of the midnight children.” By that, the son of eminent choreographer Narendra Sharma (who was also a disciple of Uday Shankar) and Jayanti Sharma means he was born not on the very night when India was famously awakening to its destiny, but within the first decade of Independence. And, thanks to his lineage, he has had a ringside view of cultural developments in the Capital. Till he got into the ring himself, that is.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Bharat's was a familiar face on the performing circuit, choreographing solo and group Contemporary Dance pieces. Having learnt Mayurbhanj Chhau under Krishna Chandra Naik and Kathakali under Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan, besides training in the U.S. in techniques of Modern Dance, Ballet and Jazz, Bharat carved a niche for himself distinct from his father's work. He also performed extensively with his parents' Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre troupe. Then he took off for Bangalore to join the initial team of the India Foundation for the Arts, an institution designed to support the arts and give grants.

Bharat is now resettled in the city of his birth, having taken up the reins of Bhoomika after his father's demise in 2008. If Bharat's years as an arts administrator and later as a Reader, Dance, at the University of Hyderabad expanded his canvas, they also served to expand his once lean frame. Perhaps it is part of the price one pays for putting one's career aside and contributing to the arts in general. Helping build an atmosphere for art, though, is something of a family tradition for Bharat, who, fresh from an evening of dance by various choreographers to pay tribute to Narendra Sharma on his birth anniversary, reels back to his early days in the city.

Bharat says he can almost track Delhi's history through his personal memories. And for the past few years sifting through the diaries and other archival material on his father, he is able to reconstruct the story more accurately as he combines memories of a culturally rich childhood with documentation of a culturally nascent Delhi.

His father would recollect that “only crows used to crow in Delhi,” says Bharat of the era his parents moved to the Capital from Bombay in 1954. There was very little happening in terms of dance and music. The senior Sharma and his wife Jayanti (former dancer, costume designer and now mentor of Bhoomika) had come to the Capital from the Bombay film industry on the invitation of Ved Vyas, then cultural coordinator for Modern School, and at the express desire of its principal M.N. Kapur, whose passion for the arts had a profound influence on the cultural profile of the city.

It was Modern School, points out Bharat, that brought a number of artistes and productions to Delhi audiences. Its campus constantly played host to events like the Shankarlal Music Festival, where Bharat and his friends would park themselves after dinner and, in an era before the nine-o'clock auditorium pack-up, spend entire nights listening to the classical music greats. “Okay, SNA (Sangeet Natak Akademi) was there, but all the major initiatives were taken by Modern School,” he states. Employing a range of artistes, the school became a community in which Bharat's neighbours were people like actor Om Shivpuri, veteran photographer O.P. Sharma and artist Kamal Krishna, among others.

“My father used to say, ‘I finally got a lab'.”

It was an exciting if difficult time to be an artiste in Delhi. Even an artiste's baby had his share of challenges. When his father choreographed Bharatiya Kala Kendra's first Ramleela, playing Ravan as Jayanti played Sita, Bharat slept in the orchestra pit. Gourang Chowdhury, the versatile percussionist, was in charge, and, says Bharat, “I used to sleep amongst his instruments.” The Ramleela premiered in 1957. “The Ramleela was made in Modern School,” he adds.

Later, when the BKK troupe toured, with its huge production unit of approximately 60 people, including dancers, musicians, stagehands, etc., booking an entire train bogie for the personnel while the equipment went ahead in a truck, one or the other artiste had to be on duty to contain the young Bharat while his parents were busy on stage. “Once, I am told, I escaped with a sword,” he says wryly, mentioning what must be family legend and Bhoomika lore by now, of how the wiry boy wielding his mock weapon had to be whisked off the stage.

Having witnessed art history in the making, Bharat, though, is not content to indulge in anecdotage. He has no patience either, for this “whole thing of glorifying the past” for which India is famous — the assumption being that our ancient arts are fine on a pedestal and cannot be touched, debated upon, improved, evolved. Till the early 1980s, says Bharat, dance and music performances were ticketed and drew crowds. As the government stepped in to ostensibly make culture freely available to the masses, conditions for artistes got progressively worse. Today artistes have to be their own impresarios, organisers and fund-raisers in addition to artistes.

Describing warped perceptions, debatable notions of tradition, politicisation and corruption that cloud the art scene, Bharat notes, “This is Delhi. It affects the world, it affects the rest of India.”

Time, perhaps, for someone to pull out the proverbial sword.

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