In 1947, when India emerged as an independent democracy after centuries of foreign rule, what made news was the new order in the world of politics, business, science and technology and even sports. In those turbulent times, art and culture was the last thing in the Indian psyche. A few women with a strong vision pioneered the growth of arts with a great amount of determination. One side if someone like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay took up handicrafts and handlooms on the other side Rukminidevi Arundale institutionalized dance by founding ‘Kalakshetra’ in Tamil Nadu. It was in those pivotal years that Sumitra Charat Ram created a parallel history with performing artistes in the capital city of New Delhi.
Born into an illustrious family of public servants and administrators and educated in the company of the who’s who of the Hindi literary world, Sumitra brought old world social grace backed with academic excellence to the table. In 1947, ‘Jhankar’; a small circle of music lovers kept the city’s music scene alive. On the eve of Independence, 15th August 1947 Sumitra was one of the fortunate few to witness the live proceedings in the central house of the parliament.
After the princely states dissolved into the Indian union, all the artistes were threatened to retirement and a life of oblivion, losing their only source of patronage. This democratization of arts didn’t provide the much-needed support and encouragement to artistes. In 1951, the first all India music conference hosted by the ‘Kendra’ brought the who’s who of the Indian classical music world together for the first time. She took it upon herself to be a fulcrum of cultural activity and set up the ‘The Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’ in 1952. The Kendra was to play a significant role in restructuring arts education, cultural awareness and ushering in a new life to the world of arts. Under the aegis of the Kendra, India’s and specifically Delhi’s tryst with arts and culture was to change forever.
The ‘Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’ was Delhi’s first institution to take up the magnanimous task of not just patronizing artistes but also utilizing their skills to train the next generation of music and dance lovers. With the who’s who of the Indian classical music and dance world on their payroll, the Kendra strived for excellence with a passion unmatched for by any other institution in the country. Over the last sixty years or more of its existence, the Kendra’s students and alumni have become legends in their own right. Be it Pt. Birju Maharaj or Smt. Kumudini Lakhia in Kathak, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in music, several of the Kendra’s alumni are global names that have gone down in the history of Indian performing arts.
Her vision to bring out the Soft Skill industry almost 70 years ago and change the way of lives of Indians stands the tallest amongst Social Service till date.
In addition to the academic activity of the Kendra were the annual events that marked the cultural calendar of the capital city. The ‘Shriram Shankarlal Music Festival’ for music has been the country’s pioneering event for Hindustani Music. After the revival of the ‘Ram Lila’ that has, by now, performed hundreds of shows, the Kendra’s youth wing keeps its artistic activities alive.
Through the course of all this was Mrs. Sumitra Charat Ram’s indomitable will, moving spirit and undying passion for arts. She was the true Renaissance woman, both for the world of performing arts as well as for the city of New Delhi.
No other figure stands taller than hers in the patronage of arts in modern India. Her phenomenal contribution in nurturing the growth of Indian classical performing arts in the twentieth century is an eye-opener for all and sundry who are even remotely connected with Indian Performing Arts. November 17, 2014 marked the birth centenary of this great visionary. Her spirit lives on as she would have had she been alive….at nearly 101 years, her name carries more weight than anyone ever in the history of post independence Arts and Culture in India.