The vanishing Indian
  remembering shanta gandhi

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FRIEND, teacher, guru, adopted mother, guide, collaborator, playwright, director, dancer, actor, philosopher. She carried the weight of life lightly and with a sense of humour, passed on.

A truly liberal Indian, a disappearing species, whose mental roadmap spanned Sanskrit literature and classics, history, sociology and poetry through medieval upheavals and the 20th century transitions, drawing on Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English with equal ease and elan. In fact, the Sanskrit base and an openness of mind and ear provided her access to every Indian language and thought. Her eager acceptance of English, even an English husband, laid open the best of world literature and theatre. In short, she lived in many worlds all at once and there was no conflict between them.

Today, as we all become self-consciously aware of our own identity – who we are and who we are not – we seem to have lost the ease of being ourselves. One of her favourite lines was to do things ‘ sahaj bhaav se ’, as they came naturally, not after exhaustive deliberation, premeditation, calculating the pros and cons. She felt most people enforced an unnatural series of thoughts and actions upon themselves, invariably going against the natural flow of their personality and capability. This was the cause for so much confusion and unhappiness, both personally and socially.

Her mind remained eternally young even to the last, even as the body became more and more stationery, more irrelevant to her view of life and perhaps even unnecessary. It was a burden she carried with a distant tolerance, reticently but with respect towards a marvellously engineered body system that could not bear excessive misuse or abuse. Smoking her Wills filter cigarettes, as many as her lungs would allow, she slowly faded away to ‘become an atom' as she always believed we all would one day.

A true atheist who could respect the others' right to believe, but one who remained free of it all, she always saw the gods and godhead as creations of man and not the other way around. She had stories of how and why we created the saptamatrika or the numerous devtas of the Hindu lexicon. Our need to create benefactors was so deeply desired and desirable that we became subservient to our own creations, whereas they were our prime acts of creative imagination fuelled by our desire to be in tune with a larger self and the universe beyond. These are precepts not taught to a person by accident or intent but instead emerge from a finely tuned and intuitive desire to understand what one is living while one is living it. To understand the ‘flow of blood’, as she would put it; to be in tune rather than out of sync with all that is around us.

At a time when India is spewing more expatriates within than without, when exposure to western values and even an education in English has become synonymous with losing one's roots, one's thinking and language, retaining only the visible symbols of religion, community and regional identity, Shantaji's ability to retain, contain and transcend all that was her cultural inheritance rings a bell. She strikes the classic harmonious chord of dissidence that brings culture alive for every generation. A passive absorption of culture has never, in fact, cannot contribute to its continuity and growth. Like food, it needs to be eaten, chewed and digested before we know if we can absorb it or let it pass out as waste. Such was her view – an open exposure to myth, legend, the epics, the poets, the playwrights and the classics.

Her life was a riot of exploration, true to an adventure of the spirit, though she lived it quite plainly, without angst and regret. She broke out of a child marriage by explaining to Gandhiji, her community elder, that ‘she wanted to study’ and was blessed by him, going on to graduate in science. When her engineer father found her becoming too involved in the left-wing student movement in the Bombay of the 1930s, he thought it wise to send her away to England to pursue further studies in medicine. She promised she would do her best. A room mate of Indira Gandhi (Nehru), her school friend from the ‘Pupil's Own School’ Pune, a progressive, experimental residential school started by the Vakils for the children of transferred professionals and the nationalists, she frequented India House, meeting up with Krishna Menon and his young ‘Free India' associates, reading voraciously, discussing the future of India. Before she knew it, she had joined a dance troupe to raise funds for the Spanish Civil War.

A few years were enough for her to be summoned back by her father. Her medical career forsaken, he asked her what she would do with her life. Her English friend Victor Kiernan, who had followed her to Bombay, provided an escape route from the situation (and an arrest warrant from the government) by an offer of marriage. They married at the railway station before leaving for Lahore. He as a teacher of history at a local college and she with her free spirit, befriended artists and writers including Amrita Shergill, the Sanyals, the Chattopadhyay sisters and brother. She danced and performed for many political causes, sometimes even on the streets. She translated the Natya Shastra into English from Sanskrit and wrote for the theatre. Victor, who was conversant with Persian and Urdu, became Faiz Ahmed Faiz's friend and earliest translator. He remained her friend and mentor till the call of Cambridge and his scholarly interests and her restlessness made them go their separate ways nearly eight years later.

She joined Uday Shankar's Almora School of Dance, staying on till it survived. By then she was a full-time member of the Little Ballet Troupe, the dance wing of the Indian People's Theatre Association, partaking in the joy of creating ‘India, Immortal’, ‘Man and Machine’ and the numerous legendary ballets that travelled India with Ravi Shankar, Shanti Bardhan and so many who became the artists of the modern Indian dance theatre. She was by then a card carrying member of the Communist Party, living at the commune in Bombay on Rs 40 a month. Meeting with the great minds of literature and art – Rahul Sankrityayan with whom she shared a love for Sanskrit and Pali, Yashpal, Nagarjuna and the Hindi writers, the Urdu writers Sajjad and Razia Zaheer, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, the Gujarati and Marathi writers of the day – this must have been the best school for anyone to graduate from. But soon she was uncomfortable with the party seeking to overrun their lives, and withdrew to the Amreli tribal belt of Gujarat to run a non-formal school for children, in the process discovering ingenious ways of teaching through music, theatre, dance and story telling.

There she found herself creating ‘a night of the full moon’ performances to which bullock carts of tribal visitors began arriving from nearby villages with offerings of milk and food. She learnt the power of the enacted word in the act of giving selflessly. A few years later she moved to the B.M. Institute of Child Psychology in Ahmedabad, to see if her educational experiment stood on firm theoretical ground. Her grasp and respect for the ‘scientific spirit' remained even as her love for dance, music and theatre took over natural inclination and talent, getting the better of rational judgement.

Called to Delhi in the late 1950s to help set up the Asian Theatre Institute and the National School of Drama as its Professor of Ancient Indian Drama, she brought alive Kalidasa and Bhasa, Mudrarakshas and Bhavabhuthi, as if they were among us today. She penned and choreographed the nautanki ‘Amar Singh Rathore’ and subsequently ‘Jasma Odan’ in the Bhavai style, and was the first to reinterpret the classical and the folk for a contemporary sensibility even as the National School of Drama was still preoccupied with the Hindi versions of proscenium theatre.

As university students in the early '70s, when we were looking for something ‘here and now’ in terms of street theatre, she wrote ‘Mukhda Dekho Darpan Mein’, a look at Delhi through its various work and ethnic groups who had made it their home but were still in search of their cultural roots. We never saw her only as a teacher. In her mid-fifties, she was more a friend, joining us at the discotheque in the evenings with her quaint yet flamboyant dancing, her ready verse and joyous spirit. Always at home with the young, ready to look at the better side of things and to try out anything at least once, if not more often.

From Professor, School of Drama to the Director, Bal Bhavan and National Children's Museum, she was back to working with the young, helping them discover new ideas, helping them make sense of the world, putting things in perspective and showing them how enjoyable all this could be. She never gave up, even in those difficult post Emergency days, when the Janata government sought to discredit her. She returned to Bombay and with a new set of young friends, introduced activity based projects as work experience in schools. Even as she lit up her last cigarette, the projects had spread in Bombay and Maharashtra.

Only a Padma Shri to her name and a Sangeet Natak Academy award in the last year of her life, but a life lived full to the end, packed with all she could take in and give for what she believed in.

Rta Kapur Chishti

* Shanta Kalidas Gandhi: 20 December 1917 - 6 May 2002.