There are few art critics in India who have the consolidated grasp over multiple art forms and the seminal issues of the arts, as did Shanta Serbjeet Singh, who passed away after a long illness borne stoically. With her passing, in her home town Delhi, on August 2 this year, she left a giant-sized void in the field of writing, envisioning and thinking about the arts. It is a pity that this piece is being written as an obituary rather than an interview, because till the last Shanta ji, as she was affectionately called by all, was lucid, bold, articulate and ever involved with the concerns of the arts.
Many remember her as the long standing leading light at the Indian Women’s Press Corps, especially her role in curating the cultural component of its annual fund raiser. But that was to be expected from her, for Shanta ji was a feminist pioneer and in the early fifties had studied in some of the most prestigious Universities overseas. She had done her Masters in International Relations from the University of California, Berkeley, and earlier her undergraduate degree from Western College for Women, Oxford, Ohio, in Political Science, soon after she completed her Bachelor’s degree in English from Calcutta University.
Upon her return, she married “the most unusual man I ever met” she once told me, the painter, cartographer, and a different kind of mountain man, Serbjeet Singh. Her fascination for him and with him, lasted all her life thereafter.
He was an avid lover of mountains and she learnt to love them too. She learnt many tricks of how to survive and enjoy the mountains, one of which she shared with me- “If you feel nauseous while driving up, you should eat a good meal of ‘paronthas’ and ‘achaar’”. I looked at her in shock, because I felt that she was too elegant to offer such rustic advice, but she reassured me telling me that she learnt this from Serbjeet ji, and that it works!
He painted mountains, trekked in mountains and made films about mountains and the people who called them home- the Gujjras, the Gaddis, the Kinnauras and so many more. Shanta ji was his constant companion through these efforts, and her eyes would not miss any cultural aspect of their lives and life styles, and consequently the path breaking evergreen mini-series “Himalayan Darshan” made by Serbjeet Singh for Doordrshan, and all subsequent films, are a priceless record of life in the Himalayan region and bear a distinct contribution from Shanta ji. Shanta ji proudly wore her pahari clothes and jewellery, and sang songs of the people of the region. She always had a soft spot for the artistes of the region, who were in modern India, languishing for patronage.
After his death Shanta ji wrote a biography of Serbjeet ji. I don’t know whether she eventually did anything about publishing it, for it would have given us a close up view of a man with extraordinary talents, but that it exists I know, for sure, for I called upon all my resources, to help her retrieve it from a crashed computer, unable to see her despair at loosing it.
Starting off in the 70s writing on dance “accidentally”, as she would describe it, for the Economic times and then the Hindustan Times, she broadened her base of writing to include writing on Cinema as well as issues in the arts in general. She wrote with a strong pen, fearlessly and sharply. It is quite remarkable that she acquired an international standing for her vision in the arts, with the UNESCO hand picking her for several initiatives. She gained global recognition in the fields of Cinema, where she was invited to festivals as prestigious as the festival at Cannes, and in Dance, where she strode like a colossus, the one writer who “broke the south Indian monopoly of critics”, a fact that actually tickled her. Seeing a fellow Punjabi and a young dance critic in me- also a journey that began accidentally- she was always supportive, and encouraging, as she was for all young people in whom she saw talent.
Not for her the small details of performance. She was a bold person with her face turned forever to the sun, and her writing was positive, forward looking and prone to see the bigger picture. I remember the insightful talk she gave on the image of Nataraj, quoting profusely from American Scientist Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics’ that referred to the electron field created, when an atom was bombarded, as corresponding to the image of Shiva Nataraj. I remember it as a transformative moment of my life. Shantaji had effortlessly brought cutting edge science and the oldest images of dance, together, in one thought. It explained at once, why at CERN there is a statue of Shiva. That was the scape of her vision and her ability to capture the bigger picture in a few words.
Shanta ji and her husband had a beautiful home in the Chamba hills in Banikhet. The place was hard to access, with the last bit, being a flight of steep stairs hewn in the hillside. But it was magnificent, with a stream flowing at the bottom of the garden in which was located the resplendent cottage with old Oak and Deodhar trees surrounding it, the sanctuary of the yellow billed magpies, graceful pradise flycatchers, and brilliantly coloured woodpeckers and minivets. Its birdscape was straight out of a Moghul painting. This was the venue for several editions of the artiste residencies organised by the India chapter of the UNESCO supported NGO, APPAN — the Asia Pacific Performing Arts Networks, that Shanta ji, in her capacity as Chairperson, carefully put together, to enable Indian and Asia Pacific Region artistes to meet and learn more about each other’s arts and forge friendships beyond borders. Many such friendships started there and are still going strong, between arts people, who may never have met had they not been helped by the vision of Shanta Serbjeet Singh. She was blessed profusely by the Kudiyattam maestro who was in his eighties when he visited Banikhet, for it allowed him to see the Himalayas, which he would describe frequently in his renderings.
She was greatly inspired by the tenets of the Sikh faith into which she had married. Its inclusivity, egalitarianism and fearlessness spoke to her. It was not surprising that among the books that she wrote, apart from her very insightful and continuingly contemporary writings in the papers, was ‘Nanak, The Guru’ brought out by Oxford University Press to mark the five hundredth anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth. Others included ‘Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor’, published by Ravi Kumar from Paris, which was released by the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, ‘The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique’ , brought out by Sterling Publishers, to mark India’s fiftieth anniversary of Independence, and ‘America and You’, her first book, that went into twenty two editions.
Shanta Serbjeet Singh was on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, the highest body for grading performing artistes for national televison, as well as on the apex Accreditation Committee of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and had served as the Vice Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, in which position she was ex officio Chairman of the Kathak Kendra, the National Akademi for Kathak dance. On that project I worked very closely with her and knew her larger than life vision, her keenness to make things work at full potential and her impatience with professional laziness and shortcuts. She was the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for over all contribution to the field of the Arts and the Sahitya Samman, awarded by the Delhi Government. She knew she was good. Actually, she was better than she realized. It is small wonder then that she went sitting up, with dignity and grace, like a sage- which she was- a sage of the arts.