Renuka and the King of Siam
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

July 15, 2009

This week, after four years at The Hindustan Times, writing on faith and religion and sundry other topics, Renuka Narayanan doffs her main hat, from that of "She Baba" as she called her popular blog to working in the Sarkari domain as its new "She Babu." She joins one of the cultural centres being opened across the world by the intrepid babus of MEA to promote India's image abroad. She will head the one in Bangkok, a city to which she has never been before. But I wager that the moment she places one foot in Bangkok's Swarnabhumi airport and lays her eyes on that marvellous tableau of Amrit Manthan that the Thais have created, complete with life-size devas and asuras, resplendent in iridescent costumes, studded with gold inlay and coloured glass, she will find herself at home in a world she has always inhabited, of myth and fable and Bharat's connectivity with lands across the oceans.

Renuka Narayanan is proof that God has indeed got a weird sense of humour. Why else would someone so unsuitable be India's first - and so far, only - Religion Editor? As she herself puts it, she doesn't have a man's beard to confer instant gravitas on her utterances, she is not bedaubed with red powders and she doesn't look good in orange! At her best, Renuka managed to create spas for the mind and that is saying something. One is sure she will continue to do that from the beautiful, gentle land of Siam, ergo Thailand.


When the second coming of the UPA happened and a bevy of ministers got sworn in, some old, some vaguely familiar and some never seen before in the most prestigious club of India, the Lok Sabha, we were left a bit confused when no helmsman/woman was announced for culture. Worry knit our common brow. News filtered in that "for now" the culture ministry was with the Prime Minister and his Minister of State, Prithviraj Chavan, will look after it (along with science and technology, earth needs, public grievances, personal and parliamentary affairs). Phew! Either this meant that ‘culture' was, as always, no one's baby. Or, could it possibly mean that the Prime Minister himself would keep it under his charge? Finally, the secret is out. At the just concluded Sangeet Natak Akademi investiture ceremony for the prestigious Ratna Sadsyas (fellows) and the SNA awards, we were told by Mr. Chavan himself that the Prime Minister was looking after this ministry and would have loved to have attended the function had it not been for the prior commitment to be the Chief Guest for France's Bastille Day celebrations!

The Secretary, the erudite Bengali babu, Jawahar Sircar, too will not move to Information & Broadcasting and continue with culture. Big plans are in the offing for the future and you need to watch this space to find out details!


"I am more interested in what moves people, than how they move."

Pina Bausch, avant-garde German choreographer took this lesson in the core truth of abhinaya from Indian thought. Pina, whose death this week, a bare five days after she was diagnosed of cancer, was mourned by creative people and heads of state across the world. From the time she came into contact with our very own Chandralekha, in the early 80s, she was deeply influenced by Indian thought. She said, "I am very intrigued by the concept of ‘movement,' in the sense that I believe Indian dance scholars believe that physical movement was used as a communication system before language developed."

Her last contact with India was just last year when she invited young Odissi dancer Arushi Mudgal, daughter of maestro Madhup Mudgal, to present a solo piece in her gala 20th year celebrations in Wuppertal. Until now, Wuppertal, a German mining town has been known only for being the town of Frederick Engels. Now, I suspect, it is better known as the home of Pina Bausch's dance company. In 2006, she visited two places, Calcutta and Kerala, under the aegis of Goethe Institute. This resulted in her "India piece" called ‘Bamboo Blues,' a full-length production staged right after its Indian debut in the Brooklyn Museum of Art to rave reviews.

Bausch's influence extends beyond the world of dance. Her ardent fans include theater directors Robert Wilson and Peter Brook. Filmmaker Federico Fellini had her play a blind duchess in "And the Ship Sails On," and Pedro Almodovar included sections from two of her dances in "Talk to Her." As for dance, I personally have never seen anything as "moving" and evocative of India, designed by a foreigner as ‘Bamboo Blues,' complete with exquisite dancers, clad in mundus, holding ‘teerashilas' and creating friezes drawn from Khajuraho and Konarak.

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum –India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.