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Capital's cultural affair began in 50s

Before Independence, New Delhi was far from being the cultural capital of the country that it is today. Manoj Sharma writes.

delhi Updated: Nov 16, 2011 02:43 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times

Before Independence, New Delhi was far from being the cultural capital of the country that it is today. The city's cultural scene was dominated by Western music recitals, attended by anglicised elite of the city, who were besotted with the classics of Beethoven and Mozart; ballroom dances in hotels, clubs and restaurants; and the Regal Theatre in Connaught Place that occasionally hosted Shakespearean plays, performed by the likes of Geoffrey Kendall. Upwardly mobile youngsters of the city flocked to the ballroom dancing classes run by a woman named Dina Rodda in Connaught Circus.

While Regal Theatre and New Delhi Town Hall (where the NDMC headquarters are today) occasionally saw Indian theatre, classical music and dance performances by the likes of Prithviraj Kapoor and Uday Shankar; Indian classical arts were on the periphery of the Capital's cultural landscape before Independence.

"Such was the craze for western dance and music before Independence that Indian classical music and dances were looked down upon in the city," says SS Backliwal, 85, a city-based businessman. His wife, Sharan Rani, a Delhiite, was one of the foremost Sarod players of the country.

"When we came to Delhi in the early 40s, the city did not have any exhibition hall or an auditorium worthy of the capital city. The usual venue for exhibitions was either the New Delhi Town Hall or, after 1946, the abandoned wartime church on Parliament Street, which was later taken over by All India Fine Arts and Crafts society," says DN Chaudhuri, author of Delhi: Light, Shades, Shadows. He came to Delhi with his father - the legendary Nirad C Chaudhury - in 1942.

Residences as cultural centres
Before Independence, in the absence of auditoriums, most classical music performances - called 'music conferences' - were organised either at ancient monuments such as Firoz Shah Kotla and Qutab Minar, or the houses of individuals, who patronised Indian performing artists.

Many such performances began in the evening and ended at dawn. Dr NC Joshi, an eminent surgeon those days, hosted cultural performances at his Karol Bagh residence. Writer Satyawati Malik also hosted eminent writers, performing artists, poets and musicians.

But the Curzon Road house of industrialist Shri Ram, the founder of DCM group, was the biggest venue of Indian classical music and performing arts those days. The house saw evenings of classical music with as many as 1,000 people in attendance. Sheila Bharat Ram and Sumitra Charat Ram, the daughters-in-law of Shri Ram, were instrumental in organising these evenings and played charming hostesses at these cultural events.

Sumitra Charat Ram, started Jhankar Music Circle, a society in 1947. Soon, some of the biggest names of Indian classical music and dance - Siddeshwari Devi, Ravi Shankar, Hafiz Ali Khan, Allaudin Khan, Shambhu Maharaj, Sunder Prasad, Birju Maharaj, Durga Lal, Aminuddin Dagar - were associated with it.

"Most of the country's legendary musicians were part of the extended family of my mother. They often visited our home and stayed with us. In 1947, when India attained Independence, my mother hosted a whole-night soiree featuring several top-class artistes," says Shobha Deepak Singh, 68, director, Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK), which was founded by her mother, Sumitra Charat Ram, in 1952.

Cultural renaissance post Independence
After the country attained Independence in 1947, the city's cultural scene got a great boost, thanks to the patronage provided by Pandit Nehru. He took a keen interest in promoting Indian classical arts. In fact, the 1950s saw the building of several top class auditoriums and setting up of several institutions such as Sangeet Natak Akademy (1952), Lalit Kala Akademy (1954), Sahitya Akademy (1954), and National Gallery of Modern Art (1954), and National School of Drama (1959).

The auditorium of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at Pusa was a venue for music and dance performances from 1948 to 1955, the year Sapru house was built. In fact, Sapru House marked the beginning of Mandi House as the cultural hub of the city. "The capital's art movement started in the mid-1950s in right earnest, with the building of several auditoriums. Sapru House's auditorium had the best acoustic and projection instruments and hosted musical and theatre performances as well as regular screenings of foreign films," says Chaudhuri, who covered many art and cultural events as a photographer in the 1950s and 60s - inarguably, the defining decades of New Delhi as the cultural capital of the country.

Vigyan Bhavan, built in 1956 and the new building of the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS), at Rafi Marg, which also came up in the 1950s, also boosted the city's cultural scene a great deal. The new AIFACS building had top class exhibition halls and hosted major events such as the International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, which saw the works of artists from all over the world being displayed in the Capital. Charles Fabri, a Hungarian, who had moved to Delhi from Lahore, was the most influential art critic in Delhi those days.

Then Rabindra Bhavan, which opened in 1961, attracted artists to the Capital from all across the country. In fact, Pandit Nehru took a lot of personal interest in the design of the building, which was built to mark the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore.

With increasing governmental patronage, many artistes started pouring into the city from all parts of the country in the 1950s to 60s. Legends such as classical singer Siddheshwari Devi, Shambhu Maharaj, Ali Akbar Khan, Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Hafiz Ali Khan settled here during this period. Sumitra Charat Ram and Nirmla Joshi played a key role in bringing many classical artistes to the Capital.

Besides, many artistes came to Delhi to work for the All India Radio (AIR), which under the stewardship of the then Information and Broadcasting minister Dr BV Keskar, employed many artists and regularly sponsored concerts of vocal music in the Capital. Many artistes who came to Delhi in the 1950s and 1960s were settled in an artists' colony called the Ferozeshah Hutments, built by the government.

In 1960s, such was the resurgence of Indian classical music in the Capital, that Godin & Company - the famous music instrument store in Connaught Place, that as a matter of rule sold only the piano - now bowed to the market demand and started selling Indian instruments such as the sitar and tabla.

When theatre became popular in the city
Unlike Kolkata or Mumbai, Delhi did not have any significant presence on the theatre map of the country until the 1960s.

In the 1950s, while the Indian People's Theatre Association brought a number of plays to Delhi, Habib Tanwar moved to the city and Bhartiya Natya Sangh in Shankar Market promoted theatre, it was not until the early 1960s, when Ebrahim Alkazi moved to New Delhi from Mumbai and made theatre popular and more glamorous in the Capital.

Alkazi's production of Dharamvir Bharati's Andha Yug at Firoz Shah Kotla broke new ground. Jawaharlal Nehru came for the Andha Yug premiere in 1964, as did the who's who of the Capital.

Sheila Bhatia came to the Capital from Lahore. She started the Delhi Art Theatre and made Punjabi opera extremely popular in the 1950s and 60s. Her plays Heer Ranjha, Ghalib Kaun Tha, and Dard Ayega Dabe Paon were instant hits.

All these artistes played a key role in the national cultural enterprise, the epicenter of which was the Capital.