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When the mentor leaves...
- Lada Guruden Singh

August 5, 2017

She walked into my life 23 years ago as a powerful dance critic at The Hindustan Times. I was a kid and she was one of the most influential voices on the Indian arts scene - having a firm grip over artists, the government, the readers - as one of the brightest minds and aggressive proponents of Indian arts and culture globally. Over the years, she firmly threw her weight behind me ensuring I was noticed by the high and the mighty of the arts world. From being a powerful reviewer, she had become an affectionate caring mentor and listener who took special interest in how my school life and later college was going, what my future plans were and how she could make sure I was on the right track.

Now that I think of it, every time I had a major shift or breakthrough in my career, it was either because of her or because of her guidance and word of encouragement and caution. After my mom, she was the first person to go through the entire manuscript of my first collection of poems, Split Ends. I was in second year of college and she told me to time it with my performance. In fact she came up with the idea of performing on one of my poems that she had liked - She Speaks. She released my second collection of poems, Where Must I Go. This was when I was studying broadcast journalism at Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Again, I had decided upon going to Chennai after having long conversations with her about my future plans.

Later, she pushed for my name as the author of Beyond Destiny, veteran dance and music critic Subbudu's biography. I was fresh from college, looking for a job and this book offer changed the course. I remember her email's subject - SOS Subbudu. As I look back now, I think she was a permanent go-to fixture of my life. Always there for me as a touchstone, as a Guru who didn't want me to be only limited to dance. I remember a particularly emotionally draining conversation with her about conditions at home and she looked at me and said, "Lada, you have a lot of responsibilities on your head, you must stand on your feet soonest. You don't have the liberty to go weak!" I think our adult talk about my future happened around this time.

The release of Subbudu's biography was organised by her. She made the calls and ensured the who's who was present at the do. Again, she came back and this time took me under her wings for Asia Pacific Performing Arts Network and later for the World Culture Forum.

Shanta presenting a bouquet to Subbudu at the book release function

My first brush with Television, as a host of a docu series on Himalayas also happened around this time and it was again thanks to her. She said, "You aren't going to do it for free! You must always value yourself." Later, I became the youngest guest editor for Sangeet Natak Akademi's issue on Tsunami and Healing Through Arts because she introduced my work to the Akademi. I told her, "Am I not too young for this? What would people say" and she shot back, "Either you can worry all your life what people can say and not move an inch or you can give a damn, do your bit in the best way you can and let the world judge you. If an opportunity comes, grab it, don't procrastinate."

At every step of the way, as I walked past milestones, she was there, standing tall silently shadowing me. She taught me, fanned my fire to push the limits, took me deep into the culture trove of Indian arts scene and nurtured me - always guiding me, checking me and inculcating in me the discipline to do research.

I remember the offer letter I got from India Today Group to join their TV channel more than 10 years ago and I rushed to show her. She saw it and said, "Rab Rakkha. Give it your best." Later when I was going to shift to Mumbai, in what was turning out to be a major career move, I remember being unsure about leaving Mom behind. She heard me out and added, "You have an entire life ahead of you. Don't look back at this moment and regret why you didn't step out of home. This is your moment to test yourself out, away from all the support you have here."

When I was contemplating leaving journalism and firmly entering the world of films, she said, "Let this be the first step towards you contributing in a big way to cinema. Cinema is India's soft power now. Go and make a difference" and she gave me a talisman, "Nature and time always move ahead. That's the law we are bound to. When we look back or stagnate we go against the law of nature. It's unnatural and it eats us up."

Last, when we spoke, I was to meet her next time I was in Delhi and take her to Gurudwara Sis Ganj at Chandni Chowk. I had taken her once many years ago on her birthday and we had planned to go there on my next visit.

She is no more. My mentor, the staunchest supporter of Indian arts, a giver of everything and a light to millions as a visionary, who walked the talk. A trail blazer who lit many fires, including the one burning inside me.

And her life - she lived, loved and laughed with passion. From Ma'am to Aunty to Masi - while the void she has left behind will never be filled, I just consider myself extremely fortunate that she chose to enter my life and held me through and through till she had convinced herself, I could walk on my own. But can we ever walk on our own? We always need our parents, mentors and gurus, no matter how old we become.

While I can no longer pick up a phone and talk my heart out to her, she has left me with a treasure of memories that I will hold on to, always as my guiding light.

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