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Shimla Diary: 1st edition of Classical Dance Festival

March 19, 2018

The Gaiety Theatre
Photos: Dr. Sunil Kothari

After our last visit to Shimla in September last year for a seminar at Institute of Advanced Studies, when I received an invitation to attend a three day classical dance festival organized by Department of Language and Culture of Himachal Pradesh, I was delighted to accept. More so, as my confrere Leela Venkataraman was also invited and the artists from Delhi - Jaipur Gharana exponent Rajendra Gangani, Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran - and from Kolkata, Manipuri exponent Bimbavati and her troupe were to perform, we knew we would have a dance fare that would not only be enjoyable but also the company of the artists would give us opportunity to catch up with the latest.

Gaiety Theatre

The restored Art Gallery

Five years ago for a Festival of Theatre in memory of late actor Manohar Singh, I had visited Shimla. Chorus Repertory Theatre and Ratan Thiyam were to present Macbeth and Neelam Mansingh her latest play. It was at the Gaiety Theatre. At that time it was under renovation but one could visit it and marvel at its history and architecture. During this visit, we were able to see it in its renovated state and enjoyed its interesting history.

Shimla was in the second quarter of nineteenth century, the 'summer capital' of British India. And the British brought along with them 'a tradition of amateur theatre.' Placed on the strategic wedge between the Mall and the Ridge, the Town Hall built in 1887 was a five storey building designed by Henry Irvin in Gothic style and it had galleries, a ball room, an armoury, a Masonic Hall, dressing rooms, offices, a police office, a drawing room, a bar and several other rooms. At that time the structure dominated the skyline of Shimla. But after two decades of its building, it was found unsafe Therefore some sections were demolished. But the jewel in the core, the Gaiety Theatre fortunately remained untouched and the performances of plays continued.

During the time of the Governor General Auckland, a little sort of theatre, predecessor of the Gaiety Theatre existed and plays were staged there. The caretaker who is currently looking after the theatre giving information about the history told us a humorous story. "The first authenticated performance was not an easy one. The member of the cast who was to play a woman's role refused to cut off his moustache; another decided at the ripe time to go for bear hunting. However, the cast was replaced and the play took place." But the full fledged theatre during Queen Victoria's Jubilee year was staged with establishment of Shimla Amateur Dramatic Club, supposed to be one of the oldest in the country. It was formally housed in the Town Hall.

The interesting story about how the Gaiety Theatre was built includes the fact that a plan was invited for its building. The design of the theater won the prize offered by the Dramatic Society in London. A remarkable piece of Victorian theatre architecture, it has been compared to London's Royal Albert Hall, as a miniature version of it. The caretaker informed us that it has been also likened to hall in Vienna and its diverse elements have been compared with some of the best period halls in the world. Whereas other halls are now not extinct, the Gaiety Theatre is considered to be the only authentic Victorian hall and stage to be found in Asia.

Mice and Men

Cousin Kate

The Ballad Monger

Merry Merchant of Venice

Cavalleria Rusticana

Before we went to see the theatre, on the floor above is arranged a photo exhibition of some of the plays. The first play, a comedy-farce to be staged was titled 'Time Will Tell'. Hundreds of plays, musicals, theatre and music performances later, the Gaiety Theatre has spanned events both big and small, both theatrical and historical. We saw a group photo of a musical 'Cavalleria Rusticana -1901'with orchestra, instruments which was quite impressive. There were also names listed of the performers and dignitaries with whom the photo was taken. One interesting photo was of Bernard Shaw's play 'Mice and Men -1902' with names of actors below their pose. The other was 'Cousin Kate' staged in 1903, The Ballad Monger of 1894! One more of 'Merry Merchant of Venice' also staged in1894. There was a humorous title 'Why Smith left Home' staged in 1904. It is an amazing documentation.

The horse shoe type of seating arrangements, the balcony, the special room for the Viceroy and dignitaries, the, stage, the curtains as backdrops to be dropped with rope, the papier maché design, removed and restored and the restoration painstakingly undertaken keeping with its original character is sensitively done.

Noted conservation and theatre architect Ved Sagan was invited to supervise the project. Specialists handled delicate aspects like the papier maché panels and stage with its all Victorian facets have been done by Vimal Joshi. Now it has been restored with a seating capacity of 318. The only change is the addition of contemporary stage lights with dimmers. This is all on the ground floor. On first floor is now Art Gallery displaying contemporary art and is managed by Lalit Kala Akademi. A Conference Hall has a table seating for 24 and when arranged in theatre seating style it can have 46 delegates. There is a rehearsal area, dressing rooms, foyer, exhibition rooms and the upper sections of the stage.

Nowadays the performances take place in multi-purpose hall. The classical dance festival took place there. The theatre festivals are held in multi-purpose hall which is equipped with state of art equipment for light, sound and projection. The acoustics have been controlled through reflective surfaces and dampers. It has seating capacity of 450. Adjoining the theatre is an open air Amphitheatre at level with Ridge. That can seat over 100.

The players, big and small, historically include, Viceroy Lord Lytton who wrote and staged the play 'Walpole.' The founder of the Boys Scouts, Robert Baden Powell was part of the cast of 'Geisha', and a young Rudyard Kipling acted in 'A Scrap of Paper'! Legends of Indian cinema like the legendary singer and actor K. L. Saigal is believed to have made his first public performance at the Gaiety during his humble job in Shimla. The well known Shakespearewalla fame the Kendalls, Master Madan and Master Mohan, Balraj Sahni, Manohar Singh and Anupam Kher have performed at the Gaiety.

To visit the Gaiety Theatre Complex as it is now known is a must for any visitors from the field of the performing arts. The main entrance to historic theatre is on the ground level; on the upper level is present theatre. Sometimes in the historic theatre, plays are held. But most popular now is the upper state of art theatre.

The Himachal Pradesh University and Art Gallery of Prof. Him Chatterjee
Photos: Dr.Sunil Kothari

I had met painter Professor Him Chatterjee at Khajuraho few days ago at the dance performance. He invited Leela Venkataraman and me for breakfast on Sunday morning to visit his residence and gallery, some seven kilometers away from our hotel.

Son of Sanat Kumar Chatterjee, the celebrated painter, disciple of legendary painter Asit Halder from Shantinketan, Him Chatterjee is a prolific painter. He is at present Dean and Professor of the Visual Arts Faculty. He has obtained two acres of land on which he has built two storey residential quarters and also his studio and a gallery which houses rare Bengal School paintings of his father, few of Asit Haldar and a couple of rare original photographs of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Well designed, it is a treasure trove and I recommend that visitors, dancers, must visit it.

Sanat Kumar Chatterjee was a prolific painter and a sculptor, also a musician, having studied music at Bhatkhande Music College in Lucknow. His guru Asit Haldar advised him not to be a commercial portrait maker. He advised him to go to Shimla and settle down there, and take charge of painting and visual art faculty. He is known for Guinness Book of World Records for his longest silk painting measuring 100ft by 11ft completed in Lucknow and unveiled in Kolkata in 1998. It is a rare object of art and is housed in the gallery of his son Him Chatterjee. He has published a book Shruti Manjari: Microsound, An Artist's Impression With Pen And Brush. He has painted forms of Shrutis, composed songs in Bengali based on them. Music is formless sound, which creates form through illusion by which Navarasas, nine moods of expression, reflect. He has painted in wash technique Shrutis which can represent the feelings spontaneously. The book has songs in Bengali script, Hindi script and translations in English. It is a remarkable visual work relating to Shrutis, microsounds.

There were several paintings of grand old masters, and also of Prof. Him Chatterjee. Currently he is painting Buddhist flags. The studio is well equipped and on top of his residence we also saw an interesting installation of dancing figures. The residence and gallery are in a village near Chatwick Fall. Regular Himachal Pradesh bus goes there from city reaching there around 12 noon. The natural beauty of the place, hills, trees is absolutely breathtaking. One passes through the Institute of Advanced Studies and the campus of the University. The University has several disciplines of studies and at present there are more than 5000 students. There are also residential hostels for boys and girls. It was a pleasure to spend time with the family of Prof. Him Chatterjee and see the works of art.

The Dance Festival
Photos courtesy: Sudershan Sharma

Shimla is on the hills and its hairpin roads would scare those who are not used to it. The experienced drivers and those who have been living here can negotiate the small roads with ease. Whenever we went to the Gaiety Theatre for performances, our hearts were in our mouths, as the driver negotiated the car. If a car came from opposite direction, he drove back to let the other car go. The plaza, the more than hundred year old Christ Church, the view from the top, the 108 feet tall statue of Hanuman, the restaurants etc., located on height, people walking and some sitting on the benches made the scene colourful. The crowds strolled in the evening. By six in the evening the lights illumined the hills. The festive mood prevailed.

On the opening night, the Chief Minister inaugurated the dance festival; he had come after a three hour long budget session. The first edition of the classical dance festival featured every evening, one local dancer for thirty minutes, accompanied by local musicians. We were informed that one Illa Pandey, a renowned Kathak dancer and guru of Himachal Pradesh, now based in Dehradun, has trained several dancers in Kathak. Her young disciple Akshita Dhiman, with M.Phil in Psychology and PG Diploma in Clinical Psychology has been pursuing a career in Kathak dance. Her exposition of Kathak was impressive. Thaat, uthan, tode, tukde, parans were performed competently. The abhinaya song by Chakradhar Maharaja "Gori tore nayan naval madamate," included gat bhav and gat nikas, which she executed well. She has good potential and with more exposure will acquire finesse. The accompanying musicians Dr. Lalchand (vocal), Amit Kumar (tabla), Gunjan (violin) and Pawan Kumar (padhant, recitation of bols) gave her good support. The same musicians, barring one on tabla, accompanied other two male dancers on other evenings.

After that, the Jaipur gharana exponent Rajendra Gangani took to the stage, with his impeccable Kathak exposition offering Panchamukhi prayer to Lord Shiva with "Om Namah Shivaya" refrain. He was in great form on that night and regaled the audience with spontaneous improvisations. His Ganesh paran preceded by Gajagati, elephant walk and subtle movements of mouse, vehicle of Ganesh was imaginative. His thaat of Jaipur gharana was an exercise in precision. He created rain and dance of peacock by mere ankle bells, and bhajan to Pandit Jasraj's stuti in praise of Rama and Hanuman, with his complete immersion in bhava, left audience spellbound. Accompanied by his brother Fateh Singh Gangani on tabla and other musicians, he kept the audience in thrall. A memorable performance.

Rajendra Gangani

Bimbavati Devi & Arpita Saha

On second night, Kathak dancer Dinesh Gupta, a disciple of Illa Pandey and Lucknow gharana Pandit Munna Shukla, more in nature of demonstration, performed three stages of Kathak, of temple, of Mughal court with Salami, and present day Kathak reciting bols and enacting abhinaya to mnemonic syllables. To the song, Yashoda beckoning child Krishna, Radha asking Krishna and devotional mood of Meera he performed competently. His footwork and chakkars were flawless. What he has to guard against is over the top bhava, and expressions of female characters.

From Kolkata, Bimbavati Devi, Guru Bipin Singh and Kalavati Devi's vastly gifted daughter and her troupe presented Manipuri dances. Noted dance critic Leela Venkataraman introduced the form that helped audience to appreciate the subtleties of Manipuri dance which was presented for the first time in Shimla. Dressed in gorgeous costumes of mirrored skirt, Arpita Saha as Radha and Bimbavati as Krishna with typical crown, their duet Pantha Jagoi, showing lasya and tandava, was a gem of choreography by Guru Bipin Singh. Vivacious and energetic Bimbavati in Nannichuri, Krishna stealing butter, charmed the audience with her abhinaya. However, Brajen Kumar, the pung player, with his dynamic and brilliant playing on drum and simultaneously dancing, and taking aerial somersaults brought down the house winning rounds of applause. The Balaram and Kanhai playing with ball in Kanduk khel, performed by Arpita and Bimbavati was joyous in spirit whereas the finale by Bimbavati in praise of Lord Shiva was imaginatively choreographed by her, based on Rudrashtakam. Singer Pramila Devi from Imphal rendered songs in typical Manipuri style. Since Manipuri was so far never presented in Shimla, it received enthusiastic response.

On the final day, young Vishal Thakur, currently studying under Rajendra Gangani, presented traditional Kathak items. He has a stage worthy presence. In his thaat, aamad, tode, tukde, paran in teen taal there was graceful 'ang' and pleasant execution. In Dhrupad "Tandava gati mundane par nirtata Vanamali," the expressions were controlled. In gat bhav and gat nikas, movements were graceful. Barring over enthusiasm and showing off in jugalbandi and tatkar, the overall impression he created was of a good performer. With more exposure he should make the grade.

Vishal Thakur

Geeta Chandran

From Delhi, the celebrated Bharatanatyam exponent Geeta Chandran had carefully selected items keeping in view the audience of Shimla. With her very first number kavutvam by Gangaimuttu nattuvanar in praise of Lord Shiva, she had audience eating out of her hands. Vivacious and seasoned dancer that she is, in Meera's bhajan in Maand raga "Mane chakar rakhoji" she danced totally immersing herself as Krishna's devotee. The song and her abhinaya had instant appeal. However, the piece de resistance was "Vanajakshi" varnam in Behag. As Rajiv Chandran, compering the performance with his customary finesse mentioned, it was her favourite varnam for more than 20 years. Geeta as Krishna with lotus eyes, playing the flute cast a spell on all, the entire nature, birds, animals. Praised by the rishis, Sanaka and others who touch his feet, she took off the sanchari weaving in story of Vamanavatara, asking three baby steps from Baliraja. Vishnu took Vishwarupa and in one step covered Prithvi, raising the leg covered sky in second step, and asked where to put third step. Baliraja bowed his head and the lord placed his foot on it pushing him under the earth. Geeta excelled in dramatic depiction. Charanam describing Krishna as more handsome than hundreds of Kamadeva saw Geeta in exulted mood.

In the Suradas pada "Suni suta," Yashoda telling story of Ramayana to child Krishna, Geeta vividly created characters. The narration of key events culminating in Ravana's coming in disguise as mendicant and kidnapping Sita, listening to it Krishna jumping from lap of Yashoda, assuming form of Rama asking Lakshmana to give him a bow, was full of chamatkar. Yashoda's wonderment at Krishna's getting up and again assuming the form of child Krishna were enacted with consummate artistry. The finale with 'Radha Raman' bhajan earned artists standing ovation. The musicians Rajat Prasanna (flute), Dr S.Vasudev with Rupa Kathal (vocal), Manohar Balachandran (mridangam), S. Sankaran (nattuvangam) and lighting by Sharad Kulashrestha highlighted the performance.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic, Padma Shri awardee and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.

Wonderful account ! Made one feel one was actually present in Shimla!
​- Shaili Khanna (March 22, 2018)​

We have so longed to go to Shimla - and of course visit Gaiety theatre. The Kendra has performed there two or three times. Thank you, Sunil, for this review which has renewed our interest to visit Shimla.
- Shobha Deepak Singh (March 22, 2018)

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