To thine own self be true, writes William Shakespeare in Hamlet. The building of Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre (SRC) stands to celebrate that. Recognised across the world as an exemplary precedent of brutalist architecture, a style that salutes raw concrete, the Shivnath Prasad-designed iconic building arrived on the scene in the late 1960s. “My mother, Sheila Bharat Ram, was keen on dramatics and was closely associated with the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre. She was an aesthete, who wanted a theatre, since Delhi didn’t have the space to stage plays. SRC grew out of the Indian National Theatre movement of the 1950s,” says well-known musician-businessman Vinay Bharat-Ram. Vinay, who tutored under Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Annapurna Devi, with his wife Panna Bharat Ram, helmed SRC from 1975.
At the time, Lucknow-born Prasad had returned from his studies in the UK. Though hugely influenced by Le Corbusier, SRC shows Prasad’s rational approach (he thought of the building as an artist) in the way he worked with volume and form. Structural engineer Mahendra Raj had modified Prasad’s initial design, which gave the building its cantilevered, floating effect. Sculptural in its geometry, SRC’s drum-shaped auditorium hoists the rectangular mass of rehearsal spaces with cross-shaped columns. The ground and first floors are in the cylindrical half of the building which is in a triangular spot in Mandi House. Every space in the building keeps alive the dual spirit of finished yet unfinished, real yet imaginative — the proscenium stage, designed by theatre veteran Ebrahim Alkazi, or the basement, which once hosted the most exciting plays in the city.
Actor Saksham Shukla, part of the Shri Ram Centre Repertory Company, says, “SRC is built in such a way that one doesn’t need mics during a play. The stage has the right depth. Once, we had performed K Madhavan’s Hamlet here, and our props were primarily boxes, both horizontal and vertical. We had different sizes, about six-seven of them, one was as tall as an almirah. They were in shades of grey, and because of the lighting, we could play with light and shadow effect, enhancing the drama. The stage design also allows for that closeness with the audience, which one doesn’t find in other places. It can hold an intimate play and a large production with equal ease.”
The new melds with the old as the stage continues to have the traditional iron pulley for its curtains and props. The 40-ft high space above the stage, while adding to the charm, is used to breed bats, says actor-writer-director Sohaila Kapur. “Once there was this mystery thriller being staged, and almost on cue, a chirping bat flew across the hall, sending shivers down our spines,” she says.