December 21, 2009
Ananda Shankar Jayant, Hyderabad
Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.
She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).
As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.
As someone who had an army family background how did the arts happen?
In British India an army career or even an honorary title –my father had an Hon. Colonel title –was a prized possession. Later, three of my four brothers were encouraged to join the army because for North Indians, especially Punjabis, it is a profession that happens to be a natural calling. Those were the days when India's defence needs were paramount and global anti-war sentiments a tad too fancy!
For me, the arts just happened. Not only because my father imported a music teacher to live in the house and teach classical music and dance to my two sisters and myself, then a child of six. But because the template of one's sanskaras is too indelible over many lifetimes to be denied in the one that is being lived. After all, none of my siblings chose the arts as a calling. One became a doctor and the other a teacher. The brothers became generals in the army! That I pursued music tenaciously, even while I went through the full, 'normal' academic drill (including an MA in International Relations and Law from the University of California at Berkeley) and then, most importantly for me, married an artist, makes me believe that the arts choose you, not the other way around!
With dwindling space in the media, what do you see as the future of dance writing and criticism?
I believe that this is a transition phase. It is linked to the dwindling spaces for the arts in our mass-media driven lifestyle. The forces of global change have so unhinged the opinion making class – the proprietors of newspapers and TV stations, the nouveau riche, the Page 3 regulars who specialise in creating buzzes about creative people - that they not only not know or care about the role of the arts but by promoting mindlessness, they spread anti-culture trends. People like my father did not have an opportunity to study the arts formally but he represented a middle class that knew in its guts that the arts is not a 'fazool ki activity.' This class has shrunk in the face of new pressures from the philistines.
Slowly but inexorably, I believe, the wheel will come full circle. And it will move in that direction because of two factors: one, the open-mindedness of our youth, almost 60% of the population, their hunger for discovering their roots. Look at the hordes of young people in the metros pursuing courses in even mediocre dance and music schools, lining up for auditioning for reality TV shows and you can see that, whatever their motivation at the start of their journey, they are going in the right direction. Secondly, the strong winds of interest in our arts that are blowing in from every part of the world. That a Merce Cunningham memorial service in a posh auditorium of New York just a fortnight ago should open with a chanting of the Maha Mritunjaya mantra and follow up with a Yaman alaap sung by white men and women, goes to prove that our culture is just too strong and too universally true to be put down by today’s philistine Indians.
What are the most interesting aspects of dance that you see emerging today?
A new, uninhibited relationship with dance is being forged by ordinary folk and they are turning to it in hundreds of ways as a mental, physical and spiritual anchor.
What is the role that you would like to see for the state and central akademis, for further nourishment and sustenance of the art forms, in the face of an all encompassing mass culture?
The akademies, particularly at the centre, have already created their charters of development. And these are sound. They need, of course, to strengthen them further and re-focus and sensitise both their programmes and their audiences towards the debasing - and dehumanising - effects of the present day dumbing down of culture and adopting the lowest common denominator mass culture syndrome.
However, it is for the academies to also make people aware that when they bemoan the loss of a Bismillah Khan or a Gangubai Hangal they are grieving for much more than a few sets of raga expositions. They are showing that they value a way of life and it is this way of life which is ultimately what Indian culture is all about.
Can we not plan and execute a national funding policy for arts, on the lines of what is done in say UK or USA?
That the Prime Minister of the country has kept the Culture Ministry in his direct charge is a pointer to the current dispensation’s heartening appreciation of the role of culture as a global soft power. The funding for all official and quasi-official cultural bodies has gone up steeply. New cultural schemes have been added to the roster and they, I feel, are doing well as far as the immense, plural and very varied needs of our cultural field are concerned. It is the individual states, I find, that are lagging behind in doing more for the welfare and recognition of their dancers and musicians.
You are closely involved with art as therapy in your line of work, What are the lessons to be learnt, and what more can be done to spread this awareness?
If dancers and musicians can spare just a couple of hours a week and adopt just one out of so many special institutions such as homes for the aged, the handicapped, orphanages and hospitals, if they could give of their art and their energy to showing and teaching the inmates simple movements, basic abhinaya and decode mudras for them, they will have given their art a new profile in today's welfare-conscious society. They would have sensitized some very special and needy persons - the patients, the administration and everyone associated with them such as their families. By expanding the role of the arts into avenues other than performances, by demonstrating the power of dance and music for the benefit of all these Children of a Lesser God, the performers will not only enrich themselves but create new spaces for themselves in society. There will always come the time when the performance life of a dancer will hit the plateau and if she has no alternative route to fulfilment, she will feel frustration. A dancer is too precious a person to be allowed to wander off into the sunset. Society expects, deserves and needs much more from her or him.
Name two or three individuals in the generation after you who are doing solid, sincere work in dance writing/research.
'Writing Dance,’ always a difficult pursuit, has suffered irretrievably from the drying up of platforms for new writers. But there are a few die-hard young professionals like Dr. Urmimala Sarkar of JNU and Dr. Navina Jafa, Sruti Bandhopadhyay, Shrinkhla Sahai and some others who are doing seminal work in dance research.
Succinctly, what is your advice to those choosing arts writing as a career?
Study the arts, be open-minded in watching and digesting as much of it as you can and then, as with all other forms of writing, stick to the chair. Don't give up!