Shanta Serbjeet Singh (Jan 11, 1936 - Aug 2, 2017)
- Ashish Mohan Khokar
August 3, 2017
Shanta Serbjeet Singh is no more. She passed away on 2 August 2017. Felled by a mild stroke two years ago, she recovered partially and managed bravely and even ventured out occasionally to attend important functions like the World Dance Day on April 29 organized by the Chandrans, at the IIC, Delhi. They honoured her with a lifetime contribution award and a purse too. As had Anita Ratnam through Abhai last year and attenDance a year earlier. Shanta ji was so cultured her last comments to me when I last had supper with her just 2 weeks ago (15 July) was: "I have not written a THANK YOU note to Abhai or attenDance. Whom do I write to?"
Shanta Serbjeet Singh was a colossus. Her craft of writing was unparalleled and she never injected her own self (I, me, myself) in her writings. Valued for sharp but sensible critiques of first, films in 1960s then dance in 1970s, she was a largely loved and looming figure. She was the elegant first lady of dance writing in Delhi in the 70s. This is a period when many new institutions and stars were coming of age. Those who write on dance and haven't lived in Delhi in the 60s through 70s have missed out much. Shanta never missed much. Her eagle eye and goat like fixity of purpose (she was a Capricorn, born on 11th Jan) made her someone not to be taken lightly.
Her crustiness was also a defense mechanism because she was soft inside. She was a large-hearted person in real life. No one returned empty handed from her durbar. Ask her for an award, she helped. Ask her for guidance, she would guide. Ask her for anything, like a true Punjabi she gave never thinking of returns.
How many careers she made... wannabe dancers, cunning dancers, user-friendly dancers, greedy dancers, needy dancers... anyone. She knew their agendas and avarices, yet she was not judgemental. I've seen many shades of people around her in the last 40 years having lived in Delhi from 1965.
A first rate writer, she was plain good with language, craft and construction of sentences. She was a wordsmith when not a swordsmith! She could cross swords often with those in authority. Babus squirmed in her presence and art managers and promoters listened to her. She was a real authority and wielded it for the larger good.
Married to Himalayan king, painter Serbjeet Singh who painted mountains and made many hundreds of films on the subject, Shanta ji raised two boys - Chottu and Bawa (Karamjeet and Vishwajeet). Bawa's spouse Neeru was like a darling daughter to Shanta ji. Her full time nurse Shymolie from Bengal looked after her well.
Shanta ji has written books that will stay on the shelf for long and articles now digitized that will help future generations. No Padma award ever came her way though a Sangeet Natak did. She was also the elected vice chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi for one term. She made it an artist friendly academy. She was on many committees of arts and culture that mattered and helped patronage systems be dispensed as fairly as possible.
I can say our modest annual folly - attenDance - wouldn't have come to complete 20 years but for Shanta ji's support. She hosted umpteen launches, got an ex-PM once and a sitting CM of Delhi to one, most of the media and personally fetched pastries and savouries to one function because the venue charged 5 star rates. She was always in the background but solidly there. Others tried to damage or bad mouth but she only helped repair and set the sails. May fair winds blow your way...was her sthayi bhava.
Shanta ji's biggest achievement was that she was much loved by most. Unlike other critics of her ilk and time - who are insecure and thrive on divide and rule, petty politics, groupism and gangs - Shanta strode like Durga on a tiger...feared, admired, appreciated and worshipped. She was secure in her work and knew where she stood. Her value system showed culture.
In her passing away, an era has ended. Today the skies have been crying unusually in Chennai. It has rained without reason or season. Now we know why. A good, helpful soul is gone; a great writer we now can only write about. May she be at peace knowing she has earned an assured place in art history and in hearts of many artists. In the last two decades, she brought her many skills to create an association of Asia Pacific region network, linking artists from Korea to Kabul via India. She loved her mountain mansion in Dalhousie, from where she had just returned last month, taking leave of all, as it were.
Her end was as she lived: peacefully. She died at home in sitting position, as yogis often do. She sat in her favourite chair and was gone. Shanta indeed.
The author is a senior critic, historian with interest in cultural policy, international exchange and helps dance in many ways. He edits attenDance, now in its 20th year and mentors many.
What a befitting and poetic tribute... As powerful as her work, as lucid and loving as her every living moment. Om Shanti.
- Jigyasa Giri (Aug 3, 2017)
A beautiful tribute to Shanta-ji. Thank you so much. I knew Shanta-ji in my time in Delhi and even before, always gracious and a great pillar to the dance world. In her passing, it is the ending of era. Very sad indeed.
- Avanthi Meduri (Aug 6, 2017)
Sad indeed. I considered her as my first guru since through reading her columns in newspaper only I became a more serious student of dance at Kanpur. She once wrote to me that "Art washesaway sins." She was kind to encourage me to writeon various subjects. She once asked me to write in Hindi. That means she wanted to popularise arts among people reading Hindi. She wasalways a great pillar. of help.
- Katyayan Kanyakubj Gaurang Brahmavarti Mishra (Sept 1, 2017)
Thank you, Ashish, for your profound and soaring tribute to Shanta Serbjeet Singh, our rock in stormy waters, our eagle-eyed beacon for dancers. Thank you for going beyond the literal in sharing your perceptions of her. And thank you, Anita, for maintaining this site of exchange between dancers. Connectivity becomes a kind of living we cannot do without.
In the spirit of sharing perceptions of Shanta, I would like to point you to something very special about her. When she was last in New York, she invited me to join her on a visit to her gurubhai La Monte Young and Miriam Zarzeela. Awesome in the truest sense of this overwritten word! To be there while they (La Monte Young, Marian and the beautiful Jung Hee Choi) did puja to their mutual guru Pandit Pran Nath, and continued with their musical meditation addressed to him, was to be launched into the dreamstates of sufi bhakti in the bowels of Manhattan’s avant garde! To witness a private performance from its most influential of experimental musicians, expressly for Shanta Serbeet singh. La Monte Young is known today as being the most influential composers of this time, because he initiated what has become the minimalist music genre inspiring breakout composers as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass! The influence of his serialist repetitions were picked up by rave music and popular electronic composers.
For me it was my second visit to the same historic loft nearly 50 years ago when I first had visited them (1968-9). At that time, I had been drawn to and perplexed by this composer who was living a 25 hour day, i.e. eating, sleeping and conducting his activities in 25 hour time cycles. AND throughout it all, he had huge Altec Lansing speakers in his loft booming out – exclusively and continuously - a C major chord! I could barely intuit the surface of how he was researching, studying the nuances of sound while he experienced its impact upon his sleep, and as he attended to his daily activities and to the chord itself.
To discover that after all these years, that my Delhi Rock and I had something so intensely personal and deep in our common histories… This is one of other intimate spaces Shanta gave and shared. Can you thank people for being who they are?
- Uttara Asha Coorlawala
Professor (Adj) Dance, Barnard College/Columbia University (Sept 5, 2017)
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