When the students of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK) stage the legendary Ramlila, every year, they have one permanent member in the audience, occupying a seat in the front row. For 55 years, she has been marking her presence. Not because she directs and produces the dance-drama or helms the Institute but because Shobha Deepak Singh has a fiery passion for theatre, music, dance, painting, costumes and photography.
“When you have a child, you don’t think of leaving ever,” she says of her untiring work with the Kendra since 1968, when she was hired as the first manager of the 630-seater Kamani auditorium, a unit of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra Trust.
With a profound understanding of fine and performing arts, Shobha has shown strength and vision to pursue her dream: promoting and preserving Indian arts and culture. “There is healing in this for me; I attend every show because my mind keeps thinking how to make every presentation even better the next time,” says the 80-year-old, who now moves around in a wheel chair and with nasal cannula for oxygen.
Lifetime Achievement Award
Last week, when Ustad Amjad Ali Khan presented her the 2023-Sumitra Charat Ram Lifetime Achievement Award (instituted in memory of her mother) for promotion of Indian arts, and she pushed herself to stand up to acknowledge the adulation of the august audience, the fire in her was unmissable.
She bristles and crackles with the same energy and enthusiasm and pays attention to every detail of the Kendra’s activities round-the-year. That she is an inspiration and a conduit for the Kendra and its students and the world of arts and audiences is evident.
With an incredible support team that includes her husband Deepak Singh, Shobha seamlessly electrifies a culturally rich environment. “I have imbibed it from my mother; my family has always had deep love and respect for art and artists,” she says. And Delhiites know it.
The SBKK was established by Sumitra Charat Ram in 1952 as a cultural centre to impart training in classical music and dance and promoting it through their stage shows. Noted maestros of the times, including Siddheshwari Devi, Shambhu Maharaj, Baba Allaudin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Pt. Ravi Shankar, Birju Maharaj, Leela Samson, Durga Lal, Aminuddin Dagar, Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, Amjad Ali Khan and many others either taught or performed here.
Ramlila is SBKK’s flagship project, having run uninterrupted for 67 years. In 1957, Pt. Nehru had requested Sumitra Charat Ram to compress the epic into a two-and-a-half hour version for the stage. She executed it remarkably using Uday Shankar’ shadow play. Till then, all of Delhi’s old Ramlilas were (and still are) staccato enactments over 10 days of Dussehra festival.
Taking over cudgels
In 1969, Shobha stepped in when her mother asked her to sort out the Ramlila costumes. Ahead of her times, she ushered in phenomenal changes. “As a kid I would watch the rehearsals and the Ramlila costumes being made by my mother and other artists in the basement of our house; Indira Gandhi would drop in almost daily to see the progress of the work,” she recalls.
Shobha has no formal training in costume and jewellery designing but is obsessed with the art. “Every year I experiment with different materials to make them look authentic, be cost-effective and easy-to-wear for the artistes, who have to rush and change in between scenes,” she says.
“I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to be a costume designer or a make-up artist, or a photographer, dancer or a musician,” chuckles Shobha, having authored three coffee table books (Musicscapes, Dancescapes and Theatrescapes) with her collection of over 80,000 photographs.
During a show in 1970 when the official photographer failed to capture the all important segment of Ram breaking the bow at the Sitaswayamvara, Shobha turned to the camera like fish to water. “While clicking, I do not look at the beauty of faces; I like the movements and expressions and the racing veins when an artist performs,” she says.
Trained in Kathak and sarod, Shobha uses her knowledge to embellish the presentation of Sampoorna Ramayana and other stage presentations of the Kendra. With original soundtracks based on Hindustani classical ragas and dance styles ranging from Bharatanatyam, Mayurbhanj, Kathak, Kathakali, folk dances of North India, each show is a feast for the eyes.
“I am never satisfied with what I do; I am a workaholic,” says the Economics graduate, who also trained under Ebrahim Alkazi in the 1990s to learn to present mythology on stage, keeping with the times.
It was never easy for Shobha, born with a spinal problem. But nothing stops her from following her heart. This July she travelled to London to watch The Phantom of the Opera, the longest running Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for the umpteenth time, simply in the hope of learning something new. On an earlier occasion, when she met him, he had offered her a job in his production as a costume designer. “It meant staying in London for two years; and I couldn’t imagine staying away from the Kendra for such a long time,” she recalls.
Ramanand Sagar approached her to design costumes for his TV serial Ramayan, but she politely turned it down. “His interpretation did not match my imagination,” she says, never the one to compromise.
“Delhi is my dil and I would give it everything to keep our ‘cultural sanity’. There has not been a day or moment of boredom in my life,” says the 1999 Padma Shri winner.
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