In his 2008 book, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, art historian and academic Sven Speiker writes: “Archives do not simply reconnect us with what we have lost. Instead they remind us… of what we have never possessed in the first place”. Flipping through the pages of Shobha Deepak Singh’s Theatrescapes, one is instantly made aware of the vacuum in the archival of Indian theatre, which her work has attempted to fill. “To me, archiving is of tremendous importance.
Ten years from now, people shouldn’t ask who’s Ebrahim Alkazi, what did he do? Even today, most people in cities don’t know who Heissman Kanhaiyalal is,” she says, referring to the founder-director of Kalakshetra Manipur, best known for his version of Draupadi.
“One day, when my archive is complete, I can open it to visitors so that they can come and see how two different directors treat the same story,” she says. The director and vice-chairperson of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra is also the official photographer of the cultural centre and has shot over 3 lakh images, documenting the performances and productions since 1969. At 71, Singh shows no intention of slowing down.
Singh was about six years old when her father gifted her a Rolleiflex camera. She taught herself to take pictures and spent hours photographing her siblings and family, the lawns of the house she grew up in, and the guests who stayed there. A decade later, Singh would train her lens on the actors on stage at the Kendra and since then, has never looked away.
Theatrescapes is a fitting tribute to the stories that have graced the Indian stage. From Amal Allana’s Nagmandala and Himmatmai to Feroz Khan’s Mahatma vs Gandhi, to Ratan Thiyam’s King of the Dark Chamber, Singh only needs to look through her contact sheets to tell you how iconic each of those performances were. “I will never forget Manohar Singh play a woman in Allana’s Begum Barve, or Naseeruddin Shah in Ratna Pathak Shah’s A Walk in the Woods. He gets completely under the skin of the character, it’s a real treat to watch him,” she says.
The book, curated by Alka Pande and published by Niyogi Books, is divided into nine parts, based on Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra. Singh shortlisted about 200 photographs for each of the nine rasas (approximately 1,800 pictures), then further brought down the number to about 250 photographs in total.
Singh remembers a time she used to “chuck out” the negatives after she had printed out the pictures. “I didn’t realise the importance of it. I used to give away the pictures to the dancers who had asked for them. I started cataloguing and preserving the negatives only a few years ago,” she says. “The best of it is gone.”
Even today, often during theatre performances, you can spot her on the fringes of the stage, attempting to get the most of the light that shines down on the actor in the darkened hall. The septuagenarian never uses the flash, and remembers a time when she had to take pictures at Siri Fort, amongst 100 people. “I didn’t see any woman with a camera then.
I don’t think anybody wanted to carry around a heavy camera and lens,” says Singh. “Somehow, I made my way to the front, and actually stood on my camera box because I’m short and couldn’t clearly the stage. It doesn’t matter if it is the aisle or the wings, I can go anywhere if I feel that would help in getting a better picture,” she says.
As an independent archivist, Singh has witnessed the “dramatic” changes Delhi and its theatre scene have experienced. “It’s not all bad,” Singh is quick to say. “But I recall Alkazi’s productions from 40 years ago, they were so beautiful. And today, directors like Ratan Thiyam combine dance, music and theatre, merging the boundaries of different art forms. And like him, others have brought in shades of grey, which actually add to the experience,” she says.
When she’s not managing the productions at the Kendra, Singh works on her next photography book, Musicscapes, the third title in her “scape” trilogy, the first being Dancescapes (2013). “Through a photograph, one can re-live the moment immediately after and before what you see in the picture, how can I let that go?” n