Farewell to an era
August 11, 2017
When death embraces a colleague with whom you have been on the same orbit of activity for well nigh forty years, there is a sense of emptiness not easy to shake away with the mind reliving incidents from the past. Shanta Serbjeet Singh and I had been dance writers (she had started years earlier than I had) for a few years before we came to know, accidentally, that we shared more than the same profession. It was in the 80s and we were both invited to what was then Calcutta, to cover a rare, dance event mounted by a company. The performance woven round the Gita Govinda was designed as a site specific performance, staged on the impressive steps and verandah of the historic Victoria Memorial, featuring high profile performers led by Pandit Birju Maharaj directing and designing the dance and playing Krishna (some scenes had Kathakali Guru Balakrishnan in the same role) to the Gopis - played by Saswati Sen, Leela Samson, Bharati Shivaji, Preeti Patel and Madhavi Mudgal . At the hotel where we were booked to stay, Shanta and I at the reception desk got busy filling the form with details asked for - one of them, being the date of birth. Looking over the shoulder and seeing Shanta write 11th January 1936, I said, somewhat intrigued, "Shanta they are asking for your date of birth, not mine." And Shanta replied, "That is mine!" That is how we leant that we were born on the same day - a few hours away from each other!
Before we formally met, Shanta had come to know my husband (then Secretary Civil Aviation and Tourism), seeking his intervention in settling payment for a promotional film her husband Serbjeet Singh had made for Air India. It was one morning in early 1980 when Shanta unexpectedly turned up at 19, Wellington Crescent, our home then. Mentioning that she had to go out on work for two weeks, she caught me unawares by announcing that she had suggested my name as the stopgap writer in her absence, for the dance column in the Hindustan Times daily! She had watched on Doordarshan my occasional talks and interviews of dancers and seen me compere several dance programmes for the Ashoka Hotel cultural wing. Brushing aside my reluctance, she said, "If you can do all that, this is easy." As it happened, the prestigious Kathak Kendra Mahotsav was on at the time, and suffice it to say that my two columns on this widely publicised event, led to an invitation from the National Herald to write on dance regularly. Later, I was called by The Patriot and finally The Hindu for which paper I wrote for 37 years. Years later when I happened to mention to Shanta, that but for her intervention, I perhaps would not have thought of dance writing despite my involvement with the art, her answer took the form of recounting how she got involved in writing dance. Returning after an M.A. degree in International Relations in University of Berkeley, all her attempts for a placing in any of the important English dailies as a writer on foreign relations, finance or law proved fruitless, for all had their specialists - till the Hindustan Times offered her the weekly column for commenting on dance events. As Shanta wryly put it, "It seemed that every sphere needed a specialist but for dance writing any general writer would do! Anyway I decided to give it a try - though barring Hindustani music, my knowledge was minimal. Rest is history and here I am."
Never one to be cowed by a challenge, with her razor sharp intellect, Shanta soon began to acquire a feel for the subject - and at a time when senior critics like Subbudu, K.S. Srinivasan, Rajan had been presiding over the field of music and dance critiquing for years (Shanta often quipped jocularly but with a serious undertone of criticism, "these south Indians have monopolised the field of art criticism long enough," though strangely by giving me an opening, she had added one more to the same tribe!).
Shanta's own approach to critiquing did not even try to compete with those in the field, known for going into details of a performance with all its technical highs and lows. Hers became a view from the top and in analysing a performance by putting it into a context and seeing it from a larger perspective, there were few to beat her. Gifted with an aesthetic eye and very contemporary open mind, she it was that first sensed the potential in Chandralekha's absolutely individualistic approach in Angika. Sadanand Menon's remark to me one day was: "She not only was able to decipher what Chandra was trying, but she also found the language to describe it." On Chandra and similar avant-garde foreign dancers like Pina Bausch, or Susana Linke, Shanta's coverage was in a class of its own. The dancer trying out new approaches was bound to find a firm friend in Shanta, who believed in traditional verities being preserved, but with contemporary inputs. There was an assertive authoritative quality to her writings that readers did not have the courage to even confront the odd gaffe (common to all writers, for one cannot know everything).
I recollect when she had wrongly mentioned two equally high profile icons of music, totally unrelated but belonging to the same traditional performing community from the South, as mother and daughter, and Subbudu being an encyclopaedia of knowledge in this area, was horrified. I was apprehensive of his starting a no-holds-barred offensive he was known for. But nothing happened and I soon realised that this man who spared no one, had a sneaking admiration for Shanta for her bold and fearless writing. And coming to think of it, these two were two of the same kind who would stand up aggressively for what they wrote. Both often took malicious delight in pulling down inflated egos - Shanta's prose more sophisticated but equally searing in criticism. One cannot forget her unflinchingly standing up to adversaries - for example when her unflattering remark on a certain dancer who was a top bureaucrat's wife, landed the paper in a court case with the critic having refused to express regret. However one fine morning returning from a tour, Shanta was to find out that the paper, seeking a quick end to what was turning out to be a long drawn battle of wits had quietly expressed regret and sought a closure. Shanta never quite forgave them for what she deemed was their cowardice.
At her best in writing about the issues in art administration - and this covered all the arts - her writings for the Economic Times (1970-1995) saw an excellent analysis of problems with rare insight. For the Times of India, her weekly column on the art events in the capital for the coming week became a cultural calendar for handy reference for many.
Shanta became a well known figure in the larger arena outside of performances. She even served on national juries of the International Film Festivals including Cannes and the Berlin International Film Festival - also covering these for the papers.
As a member serving on several committees and Boards of government organisations like the ICCR, the Sangeet Natak Akademi of which she became the Vice Chairman and the Sahitya Kala Parishad, Shanta gave a stature to art writing. She enjoyed operating in the larger art arena, and as the motivating force in the Women's Press Corps created in 1995 and with her drive and efficiency organised activities - including performances by world famous singers from Pakistan too. In 2002, as Chairperson of APPAN (Asia Pacific Performing Arts Network) under the aegis of UNESCO in Seoul, South Korea, she presided over the fourth International Festival Symposium with seminars and performances built round the theme of The Role of Healing in the Arts of Asia. APPAN was her baby, its board constituting mostly her family members slogging and doing the leg work with a couple of other advisors like Rajiv Chandran and dancer Prathibha Prahlad, herself no mean organiser of events. Under APPAN, Shanta organised some very rare events in Dalhousie and Rishikesh - in the most awesome venues with the sky as roof, the open spaces overlooking the mighty Himalayas with the flowing river Ganga - with performances and discussions including Asian and Indian artistes. From Joget Pingitan from Bali, Rabam Boran from Cambodia, to Java's Abdi Bedaya to Sheikhat from Morocco, one saw rare Asian forms - along with India's Kathakali and Kathak and what have you. Shanta's faith in arts for their healing power and ability to forge unity among varying cultures was unshakeable.
Shanta's books reflected her versatile personality .The fiftieth Milestone: A Feminine Critique, Nanak the Guru were followed by the only book on dance edited by her - Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor.
She was married to film maker and well known painter Serbjeet Singh, a specialist in landscaping the Himalayan terrain. A larger than life, hearty figure, one remembers him seated on a chair in the verandah beside the living room, painting, peremptorily ordering the household for something he wanted. Fiercely loyal to Shanta, and a fighter for her causes, he was also a demanding head of the household. Devoted wife and mother of two boys, with Serbjeet requiring a lot of help during his last year or so after a fall on the mountains he so loved, Shanta was ever running around. Otherwise, during this period free from regular column writing, she could have written some more books. But soon after Serbjeet's sudden departure from the scene, Shanta too fell ill and gradually, her strong presence in all art events became rare - her last official appearance being when she was given the lifetime achievement award by Geeta Chandran under Natya Vriksha. While the elegantly turned out presence was missed, one could still have the occasional interaction visiting her place, exchanging gossip with her about the goings on in the art world. Her voice had grown feeble but when I asked her how she was feeling, the reply last time, was: "Well, Leela, I am not going to run up and down stairs ever again. But I am fine." It was the same courage to look life in the face and never accept defeat.
Shanta and I differed on aspects. She took to certain people for whom her support, love and adulation in her columns, I felt, went over the top. But that was her way, though some did not live up to such loyalty. She also extended a helping hand with consoling words to artists caught in unhappy and violent marriages.
One image keeps coming back - of four of us dance writers sitting at a table in the hotel dining room at Khajuraho at 11.30pm, recounting incidents, cracking jokes and laughing our guts out. The hotel staff wondered if we were tipsy - unable to believe that we were only punch drunk with one another's company. Many of that group are missing today.
Shanta's was an eventful life. May she be at peace wherever she is!
Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.
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