Shobha Deepak Singh remembers fidgeting in the wings when the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra put up its first production of Ramlila in 1957. She was 14 at the time and more taken up by the costumes than anything else. Two years later, Singh—who has trained under Kathak stalwarts Birju Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj—played a monkey in the Ramayan-inspired ballet’s large ensemble cast.
Today, Singh is the production director of the 54-year-old dance drama that is staged annually by the Kendra. Though the ballet continues to be hosted to coincide with the festival of Dussehra, the institution has made efforts to distinguish it from its folk antecedents. A decade ago, it was renamed Shri Ram and the venue shifted from the Feroz Shah Kotla grounds to the Kendra lawns.
Myth stars: A still from last year’s production. Shobha Deepak Singh
The message was sent out: This was a contemporary dance ballet.
With around 2,000 shows over its historic half-century run, the ballet remains a staple in Delhi’s performing arts calendar. The Kendra, founded by Singh’s mother Sumitra Charat Ram, counts Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, and Indira Gandhi among its distinguished past audience. This year, the Delhi government has booked the first 10 shows of the season—endowing the Kendra with Rs 1.5 lakh per show—as a cultural showcase for the international delegates at the Commonwealth Games.
The ballet’s history wields a strange power on the preparatory routine of the 550 students of the Kendra. Since its inception, the institution has produced 50 ballets. But the Shri Ram ballet stands in like a lead dancer in a chorus. Every year’s production is given the careful treatment usually accorded to a new project. Casting and rehearsals for the 140-minute dance-drama start in July. The logistics are exacting: 70 artists and technicians work for 120 days, some 40 more artisans are involved in the sets, costumes and props, and 200 musicians are involved in the soundtrack recording.
On a visit a couple of weeks before the show opens, the corridors of the Kendra are bustling. The younger students practise, dressed in churidar-kurtas and light ankle bells, in the corridors. The senior dancers rehearse for the ballet in a large practice hall. It is the first scene, and eight perfectly coordinated young men, dressed in dancer’s whites, leap aggressively. They swivel mid-air, all the while maintaining eye contact with their audience. They’re dancing the Mayurbhanj Chhau—a martial dance form from Orissa that the Kendra has done much to popularize. The choreographer, Chhau veteran Shashidharan Nair, and Singh sit on a raised platform. They do not communicate verbally with the students. A raised eyebrow here, a hand gesture there, and the students know when they must retrace their steps.
Later in her office, Singh speaks about the challenge of presenting a popular myth as a ballet year after year, and of straddling a traditional dance idiom with contemporary awareness. In contrast to the traditional Ramlilas staged across the country, the production incorporates digital imagery, an accompanying slide show with English subtitles and updated costumes and sets. This year, the sets are going to be completely minimalist for the first time in the production’s history.
The story presented is based on Valmiki’s and Tulsidas’ version of Ram’s story and, until 10 years ago, the narration was in Awadhi. “In 1957, people understood Awadhi, but it is important to make links with today’s world,” says Singh of the new Hindi dub.
Though photographs taken over the years show a relatively conservative stage ethic, it is clear that the production rises above its period groove. And Singh seems like the right person to spearhead this project. A Padma Shri awardee who has trained in music under Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan, the 67-year-old will use nothing other than a MacBook to take me through her photographic archives.
Singh also studied direction under Ebrahim Alkazi and claims that theatre helped her take a relook at the epic with a little less reverence. She is vocal about her modifications to the story’s narrative. She says that this year, Sita is more assertive and likens the mirage of the golden deer in the Ramayan to the frustration and temptation that arise in an old marriage. “Why was Sita suddenly drawn to a beautiful beast after 13 years of a quiet domestic existence?” she asks.
Singh’s theatre background also makes casting an important part of the whole exercise. Three years ago, she picked Rakesh Saibabu, a 25-year-old student of Chhau who plays the role of Ram, not for his skills but for his personality. Ram doesn’t necessarily have to be the best dancer in the production, Singh asserts. “Ravan is the most difficult role,” she says. “Imagine having to stomp around and dance with those heavy crowns.”
Singh picks up an ingenious crown fashioned out of chatai (woven reed). Golden in appearance and studded with faux gems, it looks opulent but will sit light on the dancer’s head. An artist has been working on it for around a month. It won’t be reused next year. The show though, will go on year after year, as it always has. Its rich heritage is registered in the fact that in 1959, when Doordarshan inaugurated its broadcast waves, it chose to do so with a telecast of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s Ramlila.
Shri Ram will play at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, 1, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi, from 4 October-2 November. Prices for the ticketed shows are Rs 100, Rs 200, Rs 300 and Rs 500.