‘Transforming mythology into dance drama is complicated’

An interview with Shobha Deepak Singh, the creator of one of Delhi’s most famous and mega Ramlilas.
Shri Ram has for almost seven decades captivated audiences who wait for an enactment of the all-time epic story of Rama and Sita this time of the year.
Shri Ram has for almost seven decades captivated audiences who wait for an enactment of the all-time epic story of Rama and Sita this time of the year.

Padma Shri Shobha Deepak Singh, who has been at the helm of Bharatiya Kala Kendra, one of the oldest and reputed cultural institutions of Delhi, for over 52 years, says the story of Ramayana is a timeless one and the mega dance drama production, Shri Ram, is her “life’s calling”. This year, the last performance is on November 5. With its impressive star-cast, movable sets, elements from classical dances and music, stunning costumes, masks, and jewellery coupled with the use of new technologies, Shri Ram has for almost seven decades captivated audiences who wait for an enactment of the all-time epic story of Rama and Sita this time of the year. Singh, 80, who belongs to the illustrious Charat Ram family, recounts her journey to transform and enrich this tremendous cultural treasure into grand productions.Excerpts:

You have undergone training in stage direction under Ebrahim Alkazi, kathak from Shambhu Maharaj, sarod from Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and then from Pandit Biswajeet Roy Choudhury. How has this helped you?
When you are guided and nurtured by Gurus so revered, you are not learning the discipline alone; every facet about you is evolving and blooming. All of these experiences have helped me to develop a unique and innovative approach to dance drama based on mythology. I have successfully combined traditional Indian dance and music with modern theatrical techniques to create large-scale productions that are both visually stunning and emotionally resonant.

Is it complicated to transform mythology into a dance drama form?
Transforming mythology into dance drama is complicated because mythology is often complex, sacred and often controversial. When interpreting mythology into dance drama, I ponder upon the overall theme, main characters, significant events, and cultural and historical significance of a particular instance. I also strive to be creative and faithful to the source material and make it relevant to our time and relatable to our audience.

Since Shri Ram has been running for over 60 years, how did you keep audience interest alive?
It enthrals me to state that the very fact that Shri Ram has come along so far as almost seven decades itself stands as testimony to how we have evolved through this long journey. While we have stayed anchored to the traditional aspect of the epic, we have embraced new technologies like video projection, sound design, and lighting to create a more immersive production, allowing us to keep the audiences hooked.  

You have been part of Delhi’s cultural scene for so long. What changes have you seen over the years in the cultural landscape?
Delhi has always been culturally rich, and its cultural landscape has evolved dramatically over the years. From giving access to only the elite, it is now more inclusive, with new cultural spaces and platforms emerging all over the city. I am blessed to have witnessed a flourishing past, a beautiful rising gradient of transition and a more than welcoming response to the adoption of modern arts and technology to this cultural canvas.

What role do you expect from the government to encourage and promote theatre and dance drama in the capital city?
I believe the government has been promoting performing arts in the capital very satisfactorily. I wish for funding for dance drama and theatre as the cost of production of a well-executed show can sometimes easily surpass the budgets of our Hindi movies! Offering tax breaks can help reduce our prices, too. Building more performance spaces will help. School students should be made aware of performing arts but not as an extracurricular topic. They should be able to choose the discipline not just as their passion but as a profession. The landscape needs to feel rewarding to them.

What is your observation about the changes in the aesthetic sensibilities of present-day audiences?
Present-day audiences are more open to new and innovative art forms, they appreciate diversity, focus on authenticity and experience, and are more socially conscious. This is reflected in the types of art that are popular today, such as contemporary art forms and art that reflects the experiences of marginalised communities.

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