Dr VK Narayana Menon (left) with Dr Jamshed Bhabha (right) on a site visit for the NCPA © NCPA Archives

A journey in milestones

The NCPA celebrates the golden jubilee of its contribution to the cultural life of Mumbai, and India. Chairman Khushroo N. Suntook on his memories of its founding, the personalities who nurtured it, its thriving present and the road ahead.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Jamshed Bhabha created the National Centre for the Performing Arts, willing it into existence, just as he would later create the campus we occupy today, on land patiently reclaimed over eight years. Under Dr. Bhabha, the NCPA was a place of culture where quality was paramount and where any shows which were not of the highest order in their genre were not countenanced. He gathered around him a distinguished council, which included Mr. J.R.D Tata, Mr. Ratan Tata, Mr. Keshub Mahindra, Mr. Yehudi Menuhin and others of their ilk. Several eminent persons headed the NCPA in the first few years of its existence – Dr. V.K. Narayana Menon, Mr. P.L. Deshpande, popularly known as Pu. La., and Dr. Vijaya Mehta – but always under constant guidance of Dr. Bhabha.

P L Deshpande © NCPA Archives

He brought in some fine artistes in many genres, but the number of performances did not do justice to the capacity.

Just as the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre neared completion, a devastating fire brought it down, but undeterred, he rebuilt it and inaugurated an improved theatre with a performance of Western classical music played by the Royal Northern Sinfonia. It is odd that our national centre should hold such fascination for Western classical music, but it was the taste of both he and his brother Homi, who was a huge influence on his life in every way. When Dr. Bhabha passed away, his entire collection of records comprised great Western classical music.

Marat Bisengaliev and the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra’s first performance at the NCPA © NCPA Archives

When I joined the NCPA almost immediately after my retirement from the Tatas, I had a series of meetings in the newly appointed office that he conferred on me, and I was fascinated with the traditional approach that I encountered in this wonderful institution. Content and occupation of the theatres was not what it should have been, and so, I started concentrating on this aspect. Since the events largely reflected my taste for Western classical music, it was not fair to the other genres. I felt it was best that department-wise heads of genres be brought in from the finest talent available. I appointed Dr Suvarnalata Rao, the already existing authority in her field, to move unfettered in her area of expertise. She has achieved an enormous amount – having created 11 gurus, 33 shishyas, 19 scholars, covered 21 schools, with 1,700 pupils imbibing Indian music – and although not as prominently known as the Western music school, especially after the creation of the Symphony Orchestra of India, of which I am not ashamedly proud, her impact on a larger population is undoubted. With each genre forming its own sub-committees with experts in the field, today, Dr Mrs Rao has Padma Bhushan Mr. Arvind Parikh, Mr. Shekhar Sen, Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (who has recently joined us), Mrs. Nilima Kilachand, Mrs Mala Ramadorai and Ms. Chhaya Ganguli, all eminent in the world of Indian music, guiding the path of this genre.

George Stuart (left) and Vivian Liff (right) © NCPA Archives

Similarly in Dance, Arundhati Subramaniam led the team at the start, followed by our very eminent young head, Swapnokalpa Dasgupta. At present, the development of Theatre which, in fact, was the prominent genre during the days of Dr. Mehta, has been revived, and is progressing under the able guidance of eminent director, Mr. Bruce Guthrie.

Photography and archiving, as well as the magnificent library donated to the NCPA by my dear friends, Vivian Liff and George Stuart, are added treasures to the NCPA and if this does not comprise a house of culture, I do not know what does.

Fortunately, it has been Dr Bhabha’s legacy which has now allowed us to move forward.

In the past, for the theatre spaces to further come alive, the need to create a platform which would both produce and receive performing arts was felt. It was not until 2004 that the opportunity, which would lend credibility to such a fine institution, presented itself by way of the creation of the Symphony Orchestra of India and the rest is history.

The difficulty in maintaining standards as opposed to filling the halls with shows which sell tickets but are not of high quality is a battle you have to field with your financial colleagues. However, my remit from my old mentor Dr. Bhabha, is clear: “Do not fill my halls with anything less than quality performances.” Not easy to explain in executive meetings, but nevertheless worth fighting for.

Dr Vijaya Mehta © NCPA Mumbai

I am blessed with a wonderful Council and cooperation from them is a feature of our success. Professional staff is taking root and my admiration for the wonderful folks who have been with the NCPA for more than 30 years is undiminished for their discipline and loyalty to the institution.

In this moment, in as much as we look back, I am driven by optimism as I look at the fertile ground we have tended for our children. The NCPA is a hub of teaching, delivering the best traditions and practices to the next generation. Whether in Western music, where our gifted students are already performing with the orchestra, or our initiatives for Indian music, where we continue to challenge the minds of thousands of children – the road ahead is bright.

As we construct the artistic values we hope will stand from generation to generation, it is always foremost in my mind that we rely on the good will, patronage and support of a great many people. To all of them who have been on this journey with us, I am ever thankful. These performing arts enrich us in our daily lives, give light and purpose to our mission and pass on to the next generation all that is good and worthy. For those of you who haven’t come to share some time with us, to see a live performance or witness great works, you will find the exercise most rewarding. We are guardians of this great space, so that you and your children may have ready access to these treasures for many years to come.

Khushroo N. Suntook © NCPA Mumbai

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2019 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.