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The ceiling reverberated with the incessant thumping of multiple pairs of feet tied with ghungroos, which stomped in unison upstairs. Sitting on a chair in the room, visibly unmoved by the noise, is a 69-year-old woman, busy reciting some lines with a distant look in her eyes. "Through the darkness of a cave, the source of light is revealed," she reads from a handbook called Ram. As one of Capital's most active cultural institutes, Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK), turns 60 this month, its director Shobha Deepak Singh's first instinct is to go back to its landmark production, the one she grew up with — SBKK's Ramlila, now simply called Ram.
"I was very ill and my mother brought me here for occupational therapy in 1969. The centre was only doing Ramlila at that time and my first-ever job here was to catalogue all the costumes," she says of Ram, a production that coincides with Dussehra every year. From cataloguing in the early '70s, Singh eventually promoted herself to costume designing and down the years, some of her successful experiments have become the core of the institute.
Her office is like a gallery-in-the-making, with old photographs of the institute — right from the day she started here, which was about 40 years ago. The institute's inception goes back to 1947, even though it was formally founded in 1952 by Singh's mother, Sumitra Charat Ram. Ask her about the 60 years' celebrations and she says with a laugh, "I didn't even realise it until July, and we still don't have any concrete plans. But since SBKK started with a music concert, I'm thinking of doing the same thing." Singh's recollection of the first performance here is one when some musicians, often found in her parents' house, gathered for an all-night concert after Independence to celebrate "freedom from bonded music".
Singh's need to document the workings of the institute has not only led her to create a massive collection of photographs (4,00,000 negatives, she reveals), some of which she has exhibited over the years, but has also led her to make changes in the institute's productions over the years to suit the changing times. "I believe that India as a country does not live with a dead past, but our past makes us what we're going to be tomorrow. Even our mythology has to evolve with time. I decided to pull the productions out of the groove of blind faith and keep up with what people need today," she adds.
It was during her theatre direction course with renowned theatreperson Ebrahim Alkazi in the early '90s that Singh's life "somersaulted". "It changed the way I looked at things. For instance, in dance, you look at gods as divine figures. But theatre challenged that. I became conventional in the most unconventional way. In fact, my mother was very upset with my first production Abhimanyu," she recalls.
There were other "changes" too. From the conventional Ramlila, the story of Singh's Ram metamorphosed into a tale where literal incidents such as 'Ahilya turning into a stone' and 'the illusion of the golden deer', turned into metaphorical ones. Even the 'Agnipariksha' became a separate scene to understand the faithful Sita. Her other productions too have evolved. For instance, dance-drama Meera has two Meeras — the soul and the body, while Krishna takes one to the twin personalities of the God, that of a popular one in 'Raas Lila', and the profound one in 'Kurukshetra'. On the other hand, real props such as flowers and metal jewellery have been replaced by artificial ones, which have survived till today.
For 40 years, Singh says her existence has been like that of a piece in a lego structure. "It's a part of me. I've grown up with it. In fact, if I clearly remember, I've even played the part of a monkey during the first Ramlila productions," she says with a laugh, then proceeds to quote her favourite line from Ram, "Hanuman so concentrated his mind upon the completion of duty to Ram that his stature grew large enough to copy with the gigantic task ahead of him."
"Every production is a challenge and I think there are gigantic tasks in front of me. But if I concentrate hard enough, I can achieve anything," she concludes.