Memories of Writer, Dance Critic, Journalist Shanta Serbjeet Singh

Shanta, a sharp and witty critic, spotted the core concerns in the art and performance scene, and wrote about the issues of preserving and propagating dance and music forms.

I first read an article by Shanta Serbjeet Singh in the Economic Times in early 1970. It was written under the pseudonym Lily. I was impressed by her excellent command of English. Those days I was writing dance reviews for the Evening News of India in Bombay. I did not know much about the Delhi dance or art scene.

Although I would visit Delhi to attend events at the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), I was not acquainted with any dance critic in the city. The editor of ET was kind enough to give me Shanta’s address. I wrote to her asking if we could meet the next time I was in Delhi. She wrote back saying she would like that and mentioned that she had read my cover stories in the Illustrated Weekly of India on dance forms like Odissi and Mohini Attam.

When we met at her well-appointed apartment in Defence Colony, my attention was drawn to the many oil paintings of the Himalayas adorning one wall, by her husband Serbjeet Singh. He joined us as we talked about various dancers in Mumbai like Sitara Devi, Roshan Kumari, Damayanti Joshi, Gopi Krishna, Vyjayantimala and the Jhaveri Sisters. We also talked about Yamini Krishnamurthy, who was making a name for herself.

In the early 1970s and 1980s, classical Indian dance forms were gaining popularity. Government support was being extended to institutions in a big way, among them the SNA, its constituent body, Kathak Kendra, Bharatiya Kala Kendra (which later became the Sri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra), Triveni Kala Sangam, Sangeet Bharati and Kamala Lal’s Natya Ballet Centre. These institutions produced dance-dramas on various themes, including the Ram Leela and Krishna Leela. Solo dance performances were held at Sapru House and dancers like Indrani Rahaman, Birju Maharaj, Maya Rao, Uma Sharma, Urmila Nagar, Rani Karna, Devilal and Durgalal and Yamini Krishnamurthy were part of the growing dance scene. I came to know Sumitra Charataram through Kumudini Lakhia and attended many a soiree at her Curzon Road apartment.

At the time, Shanta was writing not only on classical dance but also on cinema, art and theatre in her regular column in ET. Her pieces were always very readable. As she remarked in an interview in a special issue of Nartanam quarterly on dance criticism and photography (Vol XIV No. 3), that she preferred a conversational style as the reader wanted to be informed about what was happening.

Soon she realised that “writing is about what happens, but what happens is because of what is written. Through it, I was influencing what was being done. So much, that you get a sense of responsibility. You can’t take your writing lightly.” She further said, “With the passage of time, a conscious, deliberate sense of responsibility did come in … Much later came an awareness that these traditional arts have survived because they were never searching for newness as such. They are searching for the self which will always be you.”

Shanta Serbjeet Singh

Shanta wrote about classical dance, cinema, art and theatre in her regular column in ET. Credit: Karamjeet Singh

Those decades were a golden era for classical dance forms. Critics were asked to write 500 or 600 word reviews following the performance to make it for the next day’s edition. That generated a great deal of excitement and dancers looked forward to knowing what the critic had to say.

There were other critics like Subbudu, V.V. Prasad, K. Srinivasan, S.V. Rajan, all of whom had their own style and approach. Shanta was the dance critic of Hindustan Times from 1970 till 1995 and her style was to guide budding dancers, spot talent and encourage the artistes. She used to say that for a performer to hold an audience for an hour-and-a-half to two hours was something.

By then, besides Bharatanatyam and Kathak, Odissi and Kuchipudi dance forms were gaining popularity. Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra trained Madhavi Mudgal, Sonal Mansingh, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kum Kum Mohanty (nee Das), and Raja and Radha Reddy won critical appreciation for Kuchipudi.

Ashoka hotel’s convention hall was a regular venue for performances by leading classical dancers. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) sent dancers and troupes under cultural exchange programmes to foreign countries. Well-regarded critics were put on committees constituted to select dancers for performances in foreign countries and to receive grants based on their reputation.

When the era of television arrived and dance performances began to be recorded and telecast, critics were asked to their join selection panels as well. Critics played an important part in consultations for the festivals of India held abroad. Shanta contributed a great deal in all these areas.

Her writing was witty, crisp and sharp, be it in the form of reviews, essays or profiles. She had an ability to convey her viewpoint in a measured manner. She gained the reputation of a critic who was able to unerringly spot core concerns in the art and performance scene. The problems faced by institutions with regard to the issue of preserving and propagating dance and music forms was one such area of concern. Shanta wrote about such issues in an incisive manner.

In 1984, Max Mueller Bhavan’s dynamic director Georg Lechner arranged a conference – the East West Dance Encounter – in Mumbai, in collaboration with the National Centre for the Performing Arts. Shanta attended the conference. She was impressed by the radical approach of dancer Chandralekha and her innovative choreographic works. In fact, in the early 1970s, Shanta was the first critic, in fact only critic, to write a very perceptive piece about Chandralekha’s work Navagraha, performed with Kamadev in Delhi. Her insights into what Chandralekha was attempting to do in terms of her innovative work are still remembered.

The East West Dance Encounter was a historic conference which drew the attention of audiences to dancers who were working alone, without any institutional support, to look at traditional forms, seek new directions in Indian dance. Chandralekha’s observations on the interrelationship of physical traditions like Yoga and Kalaripayattu, the martial arts of Kerala, were a revelation to dancers, critics and observers of dance. Shanta’s column communicated the excitement she felt. Her reputation for a nuanced perspective and openness to new ideas was well deserved.

Her nuanced views were also sought by individuals such as Keshav Kothari when he was secretary, SNA, and by his successor Jayant Kastuar. In the last six years Shanta’s career entered a new phase – she was elected vice-president, SNA and chairperson, Kathak Kendra. Due to her efforts institutions promoting forms like Kuttiyatam, Chhau and the Sattriya dance of Assam were given enough freedom to train the young generation without undue interference from the parent body. They were also provided with the requisite infrastructure as well.

Whether it was committee meetings at ICCR, SNA or Doordarshan, Shanta’s voice of wisdom was much respected. Dancers such as Birju Maharaj, Uma Sharma, Shobha Deepak Singh and Prathibha Prahlad to name a few shared a good rapport with her. She encouraged young writers and poets like Lada Gurden Singh and ensured that a biography of senior critic Subbudu was commissioned by the BharatiyaVidya Bhavan. She nurtured young writers.

For a decade Shanta helmed the Asia Pacific Performing Arts Network (APPAN), founded by UNESCO in 1999. She was an indefatigable organiser. I remember performances by great masters such as Ammanur Madhav Chakiyar (Kuttiyattam) at her Dalhousie bungalow with a focus on how performing arts can be an ideal medium ‘to attain and sustain mental and psychological health along with physical well- being’. Under the aegis of APPAN, she organised events all over Asia. When the tsunami of 2004 unleashed its trail of devastation, Shanta started a project focusing on ways to bring relief to the worst sufferers in the four affected Asian countries of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.

As a woman journalist, Shanta was among the senior journalists who established the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) in 1994, serving one term as president of the body and playing an active role in its affairs. The IWPC was conducive to interesting talks and conferences and to the formation of strong friendships. I have spent many a sunny afternoon as her guest in the IWPC’s pleasant environs.

We were good friends and often agreed to disagree. She held me in esteem as a research scholar, author and a fellow critic. It was a mutual feeling. She responded positively to my works on dance. We shared space in ET for 17 years writing on dance and allied subjects.

Before Serbjeet Singh’s demise, Shanta’s home was a meeting place for writers, dancers and critics, with Serbjeet Singh contributing his brand of humorous comments on dance and dancers.

When Shanta was taken ill, I visited her in Dalhousie. We reminisced about the four decades of Indian dance that we had witnessed – in Delhi, all over India and abroad. She wanted to edit her reviews and publish them in the form of a book. Sadly she was not able to do that. Had that happened, it would have given the reader a valuable glimpse of four decades of the dance scene in Delhi and India. Reviews from the pre-internet age are not easy to come by.

Shanta’s published works include Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor (2000), which she edited; The Fifth Milestone: A Feminine Critique (1998), Nanak, The Guru (1970) and America and You (1957).

Shanta is survived by her two sons, Karamjeet (his wife Niru and grandson Rohan) and Vishwajeet. Those who knew her well will always cherish happy memories of a brilliant writer, dance critic, woman journalist and a warm human being.

Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, author and critic, and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi.