The resounding clash of the cymbals competes powerfully with the chaotic flutter of flaming orange across the stage. The darkened hall does not betray its audience, mesmerised and silent. This is the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi, one of the city’s most popular proscenium spaces. The ongoing dance-drama in Manipuri, directed by the renowned Ratan Thiyam, is about to conclude.
This is just another day in the environs of what is popularly known as the Mandi House Circle. It takes its name from the building that houses what was once India’s only television network, the state-owned Doordarshan. Easily one of the busiest traffic roundabouts in the heart of New Delhi, its hustle and bustle comes not only from the continuous flow of traffic and humanity that passes through its seven radials but also from the intense enriching activity that the several pioneering cultural institutions housed along its wide tree-lined avenues engage in. In fact, it derives its unique character from the masses of hungry readers, writers, artists, students, connoisseurs and the like who participate in and contribute to this very vibrant artistic and cultural macrocosm of India.
The Mandi House area was specifically earmarked as a socio-cultural space when the initial master plan was being designed for a new capital of India. It has lived up to the expectations of its planners by promoting our unique national essence in the constant research, dialogue and exchange that take place between our languages, literatures, art forms and practitioners.
The three national akademies – the Sahitya, the Sangeet Natak and the Lalit Kala – each actively engaged in the preservation and promotion of our letters and literatures, the visual arts, and dance, drama and music, are housed in the Rabindra Bhawan complex that flanks Mandi House on one side. The architecture of the building was undertaken under the personal attention of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who engaged Habib Rahman with a detailed brief of what the complex should look like in order to reflect what it intended to do, that is to be a premier symbol of the culture of new India. Today, the Rabindra Bhawan is considered by many as one of the finest examples of Indian Modernism while the Akademies have established a model reputation with their archives, audio-visual libraries, publishing programmes, exhibition spaces, auditoria, bookshops, and the much talked about Awards which do sterling work in recognizing and felicitating work being done as much in genres and languages which are established and popular, as in those which need recognition and support.
Adjacent to the Rabindra Bhawan are three other cultural institutions – the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, the Kamani Auditorium and the Little Theatre Group Auditorium. The Kendra, which began as an exclusive sponsoring body soon became an established college of dance and music with a permanent dance-drama group and a repertoire which focuses on the best representation of Indian religion, mythology and folklore. The Kendra’s imperative is to not only prevent these forms from extinction but to reinvent and rejuvenate them constantly. The Ramlila, a Kendra staple presentation which excites the young and old alike year after year, is an example of the success of this college. The Kendra Trust also manages the Kamani Auditorium which has hosted continuous theatrical and other performances from across the world since its inception.
On the other side of the Mandi House building is the National School of Drama. Set up in 1959 as a constituent unit of the SNA, it became an autonomous body in 1975 and has today the status of one of the finest theatre training institutions in the world. Nestled in the beautiful sprawling bungalow that is the Bahawalpur House, its enviable list of eminent theatre personalities who form the faculty, train students in every aspect of theatre, its theory, nuances and performance. The NSD has kept the spirit of India alive by actively encouraging its students – who come from even its remotest corners – to adopt as their own the several tongues that India speaks. Its little theatre spaces and practice halls reverberate with a mix of languages and silences, with history and topicality, where debate on social subjects competes with individual and political concerns. In fact, this continuous engagement with causes and effects, that takes place within its boundaries, spills over outside onto the pavements and chai stalls that dot its outside boundary walls. The Bahawalpur house also hosts the venerable Kathak Kendra, a national dance institute of international repute dedicated solely to the preservation and spread of Kathak, a classical dance form which has its roots grounded in Indian history and indeed epitomises the growth of its culture.
Across the circle from the National School of Drama is the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, another of New Delhi’s coveted auditorium spaces as well as a Centre conceived to dedicate itself to the enjoyment and celebration of the artistic experience of the performing arts. Over the decades the Centre has opened its spaces not only to experimental theatre practices but to a consistent course development to expose young children to several ways of understanding theatre in India.
On a parallel road from the Shri Ram Centre is the Triveni Kala Sangam, equally well known for its architecture by Joseph Stein that allows for easy access between its numerous halls and niches as for its courses in painting, dance, music, pottery and photography. The Triveni Kala Sangam has at least six different gallery spaces with one dedicated to works in glass, ceramics and terracotta and another that brings the garden into the spirit of the works on display. Equally popular, perhaps more so, is the lovely terrace cafeteria which sees a constant flow of artists and like-minded folks, a space that symbolises the name Triveni, the dynamic confluence between the arts and its practitioners.
The Sangeet Bharati, the FICCI Auditorium and the National Museum of Natural History, housed further along the circle bring the design and work of this premier cultural space of New Delhi to a beautiful close.
So when you are done dipping into those fascinating books and feasting on the bold canvases, your eyes still dancing to the puppeteer’s tunes, you will hear the tinkle of anklets fade at the Kathak Kendra, bringing to an end another strenuous practice session. Now, the lawns of the National School of Drama will awake to the twitter of eager participants waiting to savour the newest offering on signs and silences presented by its Repertoire Company. You can surely return home proud and reassured that the nascent conversations will continue in the times to come.
Maulana Azad perhaps best summed up the need and nature of this cultural radius in his inaugural speech for the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953: “India’s precious heritage of music, drama and dance is one which we must cherish and develop. We must do so not only for our own sake but also as our contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind.”
This indeed epitomises the glory that is the Mandi House Complex.
Chandana Dutta holds a PhD in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has been Editor of Indian Horizons, a quarterly journal on art and culture published by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi. She set up the publishing outfit Indialog of which she was the Chief Editor and has worked as Assistant Director for the publishing wing of Katha, a pioneering non-profit venture in the field of translations. She has translated various works from Bengali and Hindi into English.