Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

Capturing beauty

Behind the scenes

A woman with immense spirit and conviction, Shobha Deepak Singh has dabbled with everything that performing arts has to offer. But photography is the form that truly makes her stand out. Juanita Kakoty traces this artiste’s eventful journey with the camera

Meeting Shobha Deepak Singh at her New Delhi residence, an art connoisseur’s den, I realise that it is her unflinching energy that has made her the person she is. “Two weeks ago, I was in bed and read in the papers about a performance at the India International Centre. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my camera and rushed to the Centre. When I reached, there was no place to sit. The auditorium was full. I stood at the back and took pictures of the artistes performing on stage,” she recounted. All this when she is completing 70 years in about a few months!

The celebrated costume designer, photographer, theatre director and choreographer has brilliantly managed and documented the arts over the years. She has been bestowed with the Padma Shri for her contributions, and till today, holds office at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra as its director.

Dancing shoes

Considering her range, it is fascinating to hear her speak about her life. “We lived at Curzon Road, where the HT building now stands. All leading musicians and dancers used to come and stay at the house and so, we were exposed to the fine arts from a very early age. In 1952, I began learning music and dance at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra.” She trained under the great Shambhu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj. “I continued dance till I was 45 years old and then gave it up for medical reasons. That’s when I picked up Sarod and learnt from Biswajeet Roy Chowdhary. Now I do it on and off.”

Post-marriage, in 1969, an ailing Shobha was taken to the Bharatiya Kala Kendra again by her mother, this time ‘for occupational therapy’. After she joined, Shobha served as the first manager of Kamani Auditorium, where the ornaments made by the artists began to fascinate her. “In 1975, when we produced a dance drama and there was nobody to do the costumes, I was put on the task. In 1977, I designed costumes for two ballets and received critical acclaim. I devised a way in which the artistes can rip off their costumes and jewellery in between acts and put them on with equal ease. That saved them a lot of time.” That’s how Shobha started doing costumes.

She also brought novelty to ballet productions. “Twelve years ago, we developed a new script for the Ramayana in Hindustani (the original is in Avadhi) with prominence on the sub-texts.” For instance, how “Ahilya didn’t turn into stone but her emotions did”, and “Sita wanting the golden deer might be a reflection of her desire for something material”.

Shobha’s stint with direction started in 1992, when she did a course under the tutelage of E Alkazi. “That was the turning point for me. I realised that theatre provides space for blasphemy like no other performing arts. And I soon found myself questioning all that we were doing. That’s how I thought of working on new scripts for the Ramayana. In my productions, Sita is a woman who talks her mind, demands to accompany Rama during his exile. Meera Bai, in our ballet, is a strong woman who defies the patriarchal order. I question how she could drink poison and survive; and conclude that the poison actually was a metaphor for the negative vibes around her.”

During our conversation, Shobha invited me to the launch of her book on dancers (March 25, 2013), about to be released soon at the time of the interview. It carries pictures of dancers performing on stage from 1992 onwards.

On stage drama

Recollecting how she turned in-house photographer for the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Shobha said, “In the 1970s, there were no auto-focus cameras and the official photographer always got the timing wrong. I got myself a camera and began clicking away. I wanted to and still do capture the motion of a dancer, which is also an emotion.” This means waiting to click at the right moment, which requires tremendous intuitive perception. This, she admits, comes from her background in the performing arts. In 1992, when she joined Alkazi’s Living Theatre for a course, she was clicking pictures on her own during a show. “I kept the prints at Alkazi’s table and when he saw them, he stormed, ‘Who clicked them?’ As I stepped forward, he smiled and said, ‘You are our in-house photographer from now on’.”

Shobha uses a film camera and all her photographs are natural. No Photoshop. Her natural flair for photography is a legacy left behind by her father. “Before passing away, my father gave me an attaché full of black and white negatives, taken by him during 1935-43. Looking at them one can know how Delhi was much less crowded and more beautiful in those days.”

Her childhood and her husband, Shobha maintains, have been instrumental in giving her a confidence that makes her a happier person. And on that note she adds, “I still have a lot of energy; and miles to go before I sleep.”

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