Shallu Jindal believes strongly in destiny. Take her marriage to billionaire industrialist and politician Naveen Jindal. A common friend had introduced the two patriarchs—the late OP Jindal and Abhay Kumar Oswal—and had suggested a “match-up” between their two progeny. But Naveen, who had just come back from the US after completing his management studies and was immersed in his fight to allow citizens the right to hoist the national flag, was not interested. The Oswals thought that was the end of it. But almost a year later, OP Jindal called up Oswal to ask if they were still interested in the alliance. They were. And this time, Naveen was ready. He asked Shallu just one question: “Would you be willing to shift to Raipur [the capital of Chhattisgarh, where Naveen now runs power and steel plants]?” Shallu’s answer was in the affirmative and the two tied the knot in 1994. “It was destiny. Otherwise, in that one year in between, I could have got married to someone else,” says Shallu, who will be celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary in May.
Destiny’s hand was again at play in 1999, when Jindal, now busy as a mother and partner in her husband’s many initiatives, was on a pilgrimage to Tirupati. As she waited for the gates to open early in the morning, Jindal saw famous Kuchipudi exponents Raja, Radha and Kaushalya Reddy, also in the queue. A trained Kathak dancer herself, Jindal had, as a child, once seen Raja and Radha Reddy perform on stage. Since then, “I’d been a fan. I went up to them and introduced myself and said that I loved watching them whenever they performed in Delhi. We exchanged numbers,” recounts Jindal. As the temple doors opened, the new acquaintances spent an hour together performing the puja.
A month later, Jindal got a call from Raja himself. “Guruji” was asking her to take up dancing again. “He said that there was a divine reason behind us meeting in Tirupati and that Kuchipudi was my calling,” says Jindal. She agreed and, within three years, the eager student was giving her first Kuchipudi performance at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre at the age of 32.
It has been 15 years since that meeting at Tirupati and Jindal has no trouble now naming Kuchipudi—and not Kathak—as her passion. “I have decided to dedicate my life to promoting Kuchipudi,” says the 43-year-old, who practises her art for about three hours every day. A strict regimen of good sleep, meditation and exercise keeps the mother of two dance-fit.
The disciplined life, though, is not new to Jindal, who also learned Hindustani classical music as a child. As then, her present teachers also rank Jindal highly. “She is one of the few who have excelled. The only way to do well is to work hard and Shallu is very hard-working,” says Kaushalya Reddy.
Jindal’s pledge to promote Kuchipudi has manifested itself in two distinct ways. One, Jindal, under the approving guidance of her gurus, is experimenting with the dance form. While in traditional Kuchipudi the accompanying vocals are sung in Sanskrit and Telugu—a nod to its origins in Andhra Pradesh—Jindal performs to Hindi and Urdu songs as well. The intention is to contemporise the dance form and take it close to the audience, especially those who don’t understand Telugu.
Second, Jindal is setting up schools for the performing arts. “I want to create a gurukul where students from all parts of the country—especially from the villages and irrespective of their economic status—can come and learn an art,” says Jindal, who is president of OpenSpace Jindal Foundation, besides heading the CSR arm of her husband’s Jindal Steel & Power. The philanthropy arm of the family is a “platform for the development of cultural, artistic, educational and intellectual or any other form of expression”.
A LARGER AUDIENCE
For any performer, appreciation from the audience is the sweetest form of recognition. But Kuchipudi, perhaps more than any other art form, calls for a learned audience. And Jindal is clear that she was not looking for perfunctory claps at the onset or the end of every performance.
“There are moments during the recital which, I know, are worthy of applause,” she says. But when they go unnoticed, all but the most stoical of spirits could be excused for feeling disappointed.
So when Raja Reddy, charmed by renowned Sufi singer Abida Parveen’s ‘Jab Se Tune Mujhe Deewana Bana Rakha Hai’, choreographed a particular routine to the song in 2013 and asked Jindal if she would like to perform to it, the disciple jumped at the opportunity. Jindal would go on to perform to Meera Bai’s bhajans (including a version by another Pakistani great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) and poems by former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam, all of them set to her gurus’ choreography.
It helps that her gurus like pushing the envelope. Raja and Radha Reddy have performed across formats (including 10-minute recitals) and have collaborated with many artists, including the late sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. “Dancers have learnt the trick to reach out to the audience for art to survive and to make it big themselves,” says Kaushalya Reddy.
The experiments have worked. “One, the audience understands her and many more are now willing to come to watch her. Two, Shallu, as a dancer, stands apart from her contemporaries,” says Surita Tandon, her friend of 18 years. A painter who herself has experimented with various forms and now specialises in pop art, Tandon says that what distinguishes her friend is her “humility, despite belonging to one of the richest business families of India. She will talk to a prime minister with the same respect as she will to a valet. ” ART IN THE HEARTLAND
The experimental is just one aspect of the art that Jindal is looking to work on. “I want to promote it,” she says. The danseuse understands that given her social and economic status, she can do a bit more than what has been done till now.
During a recent visit to the Royal Academy of Dance in London, Jindal enquired if the premier institution would want to begin a course in Kuchipudi. “I was told that a curriculum was necessary to break up the education over two or three years. So someone who is interested in Kuchipudi as a hobby can join the beginnner’s course, while a more dedicated student could sign up for the advanced one.”
In contrast, in India, says Jindal, there are a few courses that culminate in certificates but simply don’t do justice to the art of Kuchipudi.
To plug the gaps, Jindal now plans to start the Academy for Performing Arts in Delhi and Kala Sangam in the district of Angul in Odisha, where her husband has set up a new steel plant. The Delhi institute, scheduled to begin operations by the end of 2014, will impart training in various art forms, including jazz, ballet. Kala Sangam, on the other hand, will focus on classical Indian music and dance, as well as local folk arts. Kala Sangam will be spread over 10 acres of land and offer residential facilities for students and teachers, upholding the ancient tradition of guru-shishya parampara. Both institutes will offer scholarships to underprivileged students.
Jindal has been inspired primarily by two institutes. First, there is Sangeet Bhavan, the institute of dance, drama and music at Shantiniketan’s Visva-Bharti University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. “I want to create an environment of learning that is similar to Shantiniketan’s,” says Jindal.
The second source of inspiration is the late Protima Bedi’s Nrityagram, the first modern gurukul for Indian classical dances, founded by the Odissi dancer in 1990, 30 km from Bangalore. “I have heard stories about how girls from neighbouring villages come there and live and learn their art over five-six years. Some stay back to become teachers and others branch out. I want to do something similar in Angul,” say Jindal.
Kala Sangam, which will start taking in students in 2015, will be part of the township at the Jindal steel plant in Angul. Jindal has already got a taste of the place through the CSR initiatives of JSPL in the area. “I hope to give girls in the communities around the steel plant a chance to express themselves,” she says.
(This story appears in the March-April 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)