Shobha Deepak Singh tells Anjana Rajan about growing up with the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, one of Delhi’s earliest cultural institutions, which has reached its diamond jubilee year

Whenever it rains in dry old Delhi, commuters end up training their verbal ammunition on the unmaintained sewage system and the potholed roads, the badly managed traffic lights and the lawless drivers. But if on such a day you are lucky enough to get a view of the Yamuna, which finally takes on the look of a river during the monsoon, and if you have heard the oft-repeated tales of Krishna and his adventurous journey across it as a newborn, one monsoon night in hoary ages past, then you remember that the season is one for customary cheer. And the festival of Janmashtami, celebrating the birth and miraculous saving of the ‘Blue God’, is at hand.

It is the season of stage productions celebrating Krishna's life, and, as in other years, the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, one of the city’s oldest cultural landmarks in Mandi House, is preparing for its popular dance drama Krishna, under the watchful eye of production director Shobha Deepak Singh.

As Vice Chairperson and Director of the Kendra, she keeps her eye on more than just the dance shows of the Kendra repertory, but it is towards the artistic and creative side that Singh admits she has always been most inclined.

This is not surprising, since the Kendra was founded by her mother Sumitra Charat Ram and registered as a society in 1952, when Shobha was only nine years old. Since 1968 she has been formally with the institution. She was the first manager of Kamani, she relates. Kamani, certainly among Delhi’s best appointed auditoriums, is a unit of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra.

But the first task her mother gave the young Shobha at the Kendra was to sort out its costumes. The guidance and example of her pioneering parents — her father was Charat Ram of the iconic DCM group — whose portraits hang in her office, is palpable. “My father told me don’t just put the costumes separately like, saris, blouses, lehengas, but make sets: blouse, sari, dupatta,” she recalls. It is a small detail that gives an insight into not just the close interest her father took in the workings of the Kendra while keeping himself in the background, but also the practical demands of running a performing arts institution, where inattention to such details can be the trigger to chaos, stage failure and financial loss as well.

It hasn’t been easy, she explains, even as she exudes a satisfaction that the Kendra has survived 60 eventful years. In fact she and her team have “just realised,” says the director, that they are into their diamond jubilee year. It was when she thought about Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee that it came to her. “The Kendra was founded the same year as the coronation of the queen.”

So can we count this year’s Krishna, set to open on August 6, as the flagging off of the diamond jubilee celebrations?

No, says the director. “Now we have to think what to do and where to get the funds.”

The art loving public would be confident that financial muscle won’t be lacking in an institution with the Kendra’s history, so we can await the unveiling of the plans with a certain assurance. But every institution needs wise financial planning, and since her youth Shobha has had a role to play in ensuring this, even though she did it as an artist.

Back in 1969, she remembers, when the only stage production was the famous Ramlila (now evolved into “Ram” that is staged during the Dussehra season), the Kendra was spending Rs.200 a day on fresh flowers for the dancers to wear in every show. “At that time gold was Rs.250 a tola!”

So she introduced plastic flowers that looked like the real thing but were cost-effective. Also, the dancers wore metal ornaments. These not only tore at their blouses during lightning fast costume changes but also cost the institution Rs.20,000 a year for polishing. They were also not always to Shobha’s taste, fascinated as she was by the arts of costume and accessory designing. A hundred tolas of gold worth of needless expenditure!

She designed ornaments of other materials, with velcro attachments that could be snatched off in an instant and refastened even as the dancer rushed back for the next entry. “We also made chatai mukuts (crowns made of cane matting).”

In 1977, when the Kendra celebrated its silver jubilee, she performed Kathak. Her lehenga was “pulling from all sides” as she executed the chakkars. It was another learning experience. “I’m saying all this because it was hard work,” she emphasises.

These were some of the teething problems, she notes, but she enjoyed the challenges, and small jobs like going to Chandni Chowk to get makeup materials did not deter her.

Also, a thought that has constantly played in her mind is that she must create an identity for herself. It was her husband Deepak Singh (the kind of partner, she notes, later in the interview, that alone can help one to face life with the gusto she has) who told her it was important to carve her own niche if she was not going to be known as the daughter of the Charat Rams but someone in her own right.

A four-year theatre direction course with Ebrahim Alkazi was the “turning point” in her life and taught her how to treat mythology in a contemporary way. It was in 1992 after this course, during which she was part of eight productions, that she went beyond designing costumes and sets and directed the production Abhimanyu.

Other productions in this line dear to her heart are Durga and Meera. Her mother, she notes fondly, never quite agreed with her iconoclastic views on mythology that came about as a result of her interaction with the theatre acumen of the veteran Alkazi, but she always agreed when she saw the show. In particular, Sumitraji told her when she was producing Meera she could not fathom the need for two Meeras. “But she never told me not to do it,” emphasises the director. Also, after she produced Meera, says Shobha, her father and husband were so happy they took her out to dinner, “which meant a lot to me,” she remarks, adding her husband is her most vocal critic.

She is quick to add, however, “I can’t do these things in isolation.” So she has had what she calls the “pancha tatva” team: “Shashidharan Nair (dancer/choreographer), Justin McCarthy (Bharatanatyam exponent/choreographer), Biswajit Roy Chowdhury (sarod exponent/composer), Shanti Sharma (vocalist/composer), who is unfortunately no longer with us (the artiste died an untimely death), and myself.”

Administration is a tough job, she avers. The Kendra has seen a number of ups and downs, though on hindsight it would seem the trajectory has been more upwards than down. There was an unprecedented strike by artistes in the mid-1980s, after which many old stalwarts left, who had been part of the institution since the first Ramlila. What are the contract terms now?

“There is no contract,” says the director, saying it is still a relationship of trust. But “for BKK the biggest problem is other people take them” after they have trained on the job at the Kendra. “It’s a really losing battle all the time. You train a dancer from zero and after three to four years he flies.”

As for “zero”, yes, she really prefers her repertory artistes, who are taken after audition, not to have trained in dance though many have done some form of movement. “It’s better to have a kora kaagaz (blank sheet),” she notes. Her track record shows she is capable of writing plenty on it.

The Kamani auditorium is arguably the best equipped in Delhi, and a show there brings a certain prestige to artists but it is also hugely expensive for ordinary artists working without sponsorship. Shobha Deepak Singh feels for its constant upgrading, it deserves the price. “We even have a carpet from which chewing gum can be removed,” she points out.

Besides she notes, artists who book it have invitation cards loaded with names of sponsors. “We are the only ones without sponsors,” she rues.

Kamani, while a household name in art circles, is often confused as “Kamini” and “Kamayani” by the uninitiated. Its name, though, came about because at a time when Sumitraji was struggling to complete it — “its shell was ready but lights, sound and other equipment was costing a lot” — she came across a gentleman named Mr Kamani, relates Shobha. “He offered to finance it if it were named after him.” That is how a hall that has given us immortal memories of performances by the greatest stalwarts of the 20th Century, has immortalised the name of a man who stepped in just in time!