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Sumitra Charat Ram: Doyenne of art patronage dies (17 Nov 1914 - 8 Aug 2011)
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore

August 9, 2011

Sumitra Charat Ram
(Courtesy: Shoba Deepak Singh)

The passing away of Sumitra Charat Ram ends an era of enlightened and cultured cultural patronage. Born in 1914 on 17 November in Meerut to Raja Jwala Prasad and Rani Bhagyawati, Sumitra was the sixth child and a Diwali gift for siblings Dharam Vira (who later became a distinguished civil servant and also Governor of Karnataka), Kanti Vira, Satya Vira and sisters Yashoda and Sushila.

Raja Jwala Prasad was Chief Engineer of Canals and Irrigation of United Province (U.P) under British India, so a man of rank and power. But his children grew up in a literary environment. This aspect stayed with Sumitra-ji all her life when she later married Charat Ram, the scion of the Shriram family, and started dabbling in arts.

Owing to her closeness to Hindi literature and having studied such luminaries as Munshi Premchand and Sumitra Nandan Pant, she grew up to be refined lady whose hand was sought by many. She married Charat Ram whom she fell in love with and he stayed her PRATHAM PURSUH, also a title of her book she penned later.

Sumitra-ji will be most remembered for her patronage to many artistes through 1940s to 1990s. This was just the initial years of attaining independence and she gave platform to Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan sahib, Shambhu Maharaj, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, Birju Maharaj, Pt. Amar Nath, Maya Rao, Kumudini Lakhia… in fact, three generations of artistes have benefitted from her patronage.

The Kathak Kendra was originally started by her at basement of her in-law’s house, now the Hindustan Times building, on Kasturba Gandhi Road. She was the progenitor of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra and the Sangeet Natak Akademi gave grants to host Kathak gurus and classes there. Later it was shifted out of Kendra and became Kathak Kendra. The story of the revival of Kathak is directly linked to her. It can be said, without her there would be no Kathak in Delhi today. She was instrumental, like Kapila Vatsyayan, in giving all traditional gurus a solid base in Delhi. The Jaipur gharana, the Lucknow gharana, even Benaras (Gopi Krishna and Sitara Devi) gharana, all found home in her heart.

An early class at Kendra with Maya Rao and Kumudini Jayakar (now Lakhia) as students!
Musicians of great lineage, Munnawar Ali Khan sahib, Mushtaq Hussain Khan sahib, even Dagarbandhu were first based at her institution. Sumitra Charat Ram was a lighthouse that guided all as a sister figure or mother. Naina Devi, the first resident of the Kendra when it was at Pusa Road, ran the institution with a firm hand and the first productions in Kathak like Malati Adhav and Kumar Sambhavam were done in this modest house.

Having written her biography (my first book 20 years ago!!), I retain fond memories of interacting with her over the 2 years the book took in making. She was a very warm, sincere person and helped all though she could be moody and given to temper but all accepted it as they knew at heart she loved the arts and artistes.

Her lasting contribution to dance and music will remain the RAMLILA, which still runs. The first choreographers were legendary Guru Gopinath, then Narendra Sharma and later Shekharan Paniker, among many others. Each brought his own stamp. Thus we saw the influence of Kathakali in a north Indian Ramlila. I recall seeing how various Sitas over the years were performed by Shakuntala, Uma Sharma, Aloka Panikar, Surinder Kaur, Ambika Paniker...Ram was immortalised by Raghavan Nair and later no one could match him in royal gait, humility and overall persona of a king in exile. Ravan was ably played by Shekharan Paniker best because he was also from Kerala and knew Kathakali. Narendra Sharma also tried his hand and feet at the role but hardly registered his presence as he did not know Kathakali dancing.

The alumni of SBKK is a roll call of who's who of Indian arts: Amjad Ali Khan, Pratap Pawar, Guru Bansi Lal, Bhagwan Das Verma, Barun Gupta, Bela Arnab, Bharati Gupta, Debu Chaudhury, Debendra Shankar, gurus Devi and Durga Lal, Uma Sharma, Keshav Kothari, Guru Maya Rao, Pradeep Shankar, Rani Karnaa, Rashmi Jain Vajpeyi, Reba Ajmani, Rekha Shankar, Rita Ganguly, Sashidharan Nair, Bhushan Lakhandari, Biswajeet and so many more.

Sumitra Charat Ram's death means an elder sister, a mother figure is gone. Her end years were quiet as her daughter Shoba and son-in law Deepak took over the running of the Kendra. Sumitra-ji still smiled and welcomed me when I would drop in and always was happy to see me. She remains an inspiration. We will all miss her.

Ashish Mohan Khokar’s first book was History of Delhi Artistes through the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, published by Roli in 1998. He has written 30+ books since then but Sumitra Charat Ram remains his favourite subject as it showed how Delhi grew from a village to a "cultured city" to what it is now. Khokar wrote this tribute 2 hours before boarding his flight to USA, where he takes the ICCR sponsored MKDC Exhibition on a 10 city tour.