About the Book
The documentation of the recent history of the arts and artists of India has been more fanciful than factual. Artists, creative as they are, compile profiles which do not always stick to facts or bear scrutiny in historical terms. It is left to chroniclers to set the record right. The history of post-independence India is rather recent to have been recorded fully. Early scholars were busy trying to revive and reestablish art forms lost to a long, colonial rule. This book focusses on the last fifty years, coinciding with India attaining freedom from foreign rule. Most dramatis personae are alive and have contributed personal recollections to the book. Sumitra Charat Ram symbolises the generation which was born at the beginning of this century and through the changing fortunes of the country, helped serve the arts and artists of India by creating a viable platform-the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra-where very few existed in Delhi. Her persona is a perfect foil for the two worlds- the artistic and the commercial-to meet. Ashish Khokar, her collaborator, comes from a family of scholar-artists and is a product of young, independent India. His concerns, as also his insights are from a point of view of a new, vibrant India. Exposed to arts and artists from childhood and trained in several forms, he offers insights into their beings, while the critic in him dissects their life and times dispassionately. Ultimately, this compilation is relevant for no other reason than the fact that while stars and established names are celebrated, a lot of lesser known but no less talented people, are neglected or remain uncelebrated. A sizable section of this book reads like a who’s who of the art world of India, especially of its capital city, New Delhi. This is the story of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, which is the story of the countless artists it produced and Projected. This book celebrates India’s artistic genius. And, in the process, celebrates those who made it possible.
Born in Baroda, on the 29th of February, 1960, to Mohan Khokar and M.K. Saroja, Ashish Khokar learnt Kathak from Kundanlal Gangani, Bharata Natyam from Swarna Saraswathy’s disciple Shanta Raghavan and Krishna Kumar. Ram Gopal was a major influence.
After post-graduation in History from the University of Delhi, he served as a cultural administrator the Sahitya Kala Parishad, the Festival of India in France, Sweden, Germany and China and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). He also worked for Martand Singh Consultants and undertook India Promotions in China, France and Italy.
A Grantee of the Swedish Institute in arts administration he was later awarded a Government of India fellowship to research on the pioneers of Indian dance.
As an author and photographer he has undertaken several titles (Dance, Textiles, Crafts, Krishna, Indian Images, Jaipur, Ganesha, Khajuraho and Hindu Gods) for the Classic India series of Rupa & Co. He has authored a biography of Baba Allauddin Khan for Roli Books.
He has scripted, curated, hosted TV shows, notable among which is Taal-Mel, a serial on dance commissioned by the national TV.
As a regular writer on the arts, he has contributed to several publications such as the India Magazine, The Week, the Hindustan Times group, Indrama, Elite, Life Positive and Diplomatic Corps. He is a regular art columnist for the First City magazine and Spic Macay’s The Eye. He served the Times of India as their Dance Critic based in New Delhi for almost a decade and now lives in Madras working on the organisation of the Dance Research Repository of India based on the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He is married to Betsy Huffman Hall.
In a world torn by dissension and disharmony, the creative arts have a significant role to play in refining our consciousness and opening our awareness to the deeper levels of rhythm and harmony. In India, perhaps more than in any other civilisation, music and dance is looked upon as a divine gift and a potent means for spiritual development. The astounding concept of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Cosmic Dance, who dances the universe into being, dancing sustains it and finally, dancing subsumes it in the vast aeons of time, while giving the individual soul at every moment the opportunity to break into divine consciousness, is surely one of the marvels of human civilisation. Similarly Lord Krishna playing the flute on the banks of Yamuna represents the eternal call of the divine consciousness which beckons the individual soul to respond in love and devotion.
One of the most positive and remarkable developments in India over the last half century since Independence has been the dramatic revival of art and culture, specially classical music and dance. Previously these areas depended largely upon the patronage of the princely order for their survival, and indeed the unbroken tradition of Hindustani and Karnatic music has always been a matter of great pride for us. With the advent of freedom and the passing of the feudal order, it was essential that the gap should be filled. This was, in fact, achieved in two ways. Firstly, through All India Radio and, much later, Doordarshan, classical artists were given encouragement and opportunities for growth, for which we owe a debt of gratitude to the first Minister for Information and Broadcasting in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, Dr. B.Y. Keskar. The second was the growth of voluntary organisations dedicated to foster the performing arts, and here the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, set up by Shrimati Sumitra Charatram, has played an outstanding role in the capital over the last five decades.
The vision and energy of a single person usually lies behind any great achievement. Sumitraji’s single minded devotion to this institution, later supported by her daughter Shobha has been largely responsible for a unique spectrum of cultural activities in Delhi which includes classical and folk dances in many styles, dance dramas and classical music. Some of our greatest contemporary artists and intellectuals have participated in the varied activities of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and I have personally enjoyed many such performances down the corridors of time over the last half century.
The entire odyssey needed to be recorded and documented in a manner that would present to the interested public a comprehensive overview of its activities, based largely upon Sumitraji’s own recollections and reminiscences. This task has been ably undertaken by Sumitraji with the help of the talented young writer and critic Ashish Khokar. His painstaking research, especially in compiling over a hundred profiles of artists will be a useful record for all times to come. This book is coming out on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Kendra which has left such a significant mark on the cultural fabric of the capital. It will be read with interest and pleasure by all those involved in the marvellous world of dance, drama and music, in the broader movement of cultural renaissance and the restatement of the undying spirit of India that has persisted from the very dawn of history and, despite all the negativities of our public life, has retained its vigour and inspirational power.
When I look back on a lifetime which has been fulfilling and inspiring, I wonder how I came to create an institution-the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra-with little design or intent. I had no ambition of establishing a centre for the arts, much less an institution to perpetuate my name. If anything, it was providence.
I was born into a family where the core cultural tenets of India were maintained. Culture to me does not merely mean song and dance or the finer things of life, but a refined way of living. In the family into which I was born, traditional lore and values were inculcated. It was through the celebrations of our traditional festivals and myths that the best of our heritage came to expression. I feel that India’s real culture lies in its villages. If it was true some decades ago, it is even more true today. Village India represents a certain closeness to Mother Nature.
We often mistake cultural institutions to mean a training centre for various arts. While that is part of the truth, the other more important aspect is creating people who are sensitive and refined, who can appreciate beauty and substance and who value values. I have often wondered why I got to do this. Did God plan for me to be the tool or instrument of his desire? I never wanted to cherish or celebrate myself. In fact, I have always believed in teamwork. I often jokingly tell my youngsters that I am a person with limited qualities or talent but the one thing which they can learn from me is to absorb my utmost faith in teamwork.
It is this mantra of team-spirit in every sphere that I look back upon when I think of nearly fifty years of working in the field of the arts and culture. I cherish the memory of hours of rehearsals, preparations and productions. I enjoy the nuances of those times, when the great names of today worked as one family without any feeling of one-upmanship or constraints. So many artists came into contact with us and because of their affection and devotion, we felt a certain bond of friendship. I do not wish to single out anyone artist but in these fifty years the growth and development of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra as a leading cultural institution of not only Delhi but of the country, is in no small measure due to the devoted and unflinching support and contribution of hundreds of artists.
Without artists there can be no art institution. In the case of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, the artists alone made this institution and in return, the institution, perhaps, helped them flower. I first give credit to the countless years of work by so many creative talents whose insights and inputs, dedication and service made this institution what it is-a Kala Kendra, or centre for the arts. In the five decades of its existence, several productions on Indian mythology and heritage have been mounted, hundreds of students trained in the classical art of music and dance, numerous special events organised and major festivals celebrated. Today when I look back on the fifty years of work, I feel a certain calm. This comes from a spirit within which tells me that the journey has been fruitful.
I have never sought public attention, much less publicity, for my work, which for me was more pleasure than work. Often I have refused commenting in the media, largely because I am convinced that I did nothing exceptional. This documentation of the fifty years of the Kendra is only to record the greatness of the artists who shaped and made the institution. I reiterate, I do not wish to celebrate myself through it but the artists who helped me make this institution.
This book is a record not only of the Kendra but also of Delhi, in this century: how it grew from a small settlement to a large town, from a capital to a metropolis, culturally. It records the advent of other institutions and in the process may help the readers and audiences of today to realise the dimensions and outreach of this important field of human endeavour. I am indebted to countless people who have contributed their time and energies in the shaping of this book. It is my wish that the readers of this documentation find it an informative insight into a slice of recent history, especially of Delhi’s growth as the cultural capital of India.
All these years, I have consciously avoided being the centre of attention but after prodding from my family, both the immediate and the larger one comprising numerous well-wishers and artists, I have agreed to record and share these memories of more than fifty years of relishing and cherishing the world of the arts and artists. I am grateful to Ashish Khokar for helping me fulfil this responsibility.
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