By Vikram Phukan
This weekend, auteur-of-sorts Sunil Shanbag opens his new show at Prithvi Theatre. In Stories in a Song he isn’t quite plumbing the depths unraveling the cultural strands that make up the rich tapestry of Hindustani music. Instead he serves us bite-sized morsels through a montage of seven loosely interwoven theatrical set-pieces.
The show was conceived by noted classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal and percussionist Aneesh Pradhan for the recent Baaja Gaaja festival in Pune, where the music aficionados in attendance weren’t really expecting theatre after a kind. The stage seemed configured typically, the accompanists were a familiar bunch, but where a ‘lite’ evening of semi-classical airs would have sufficed, something rather more inventive was put out on stage by a fifteen-strong ensemble of actors.
The actors were repositories of oral traditions, anecdotal memories, and those little archival tidbits that tend to usually fall between the cracks. The history of music, mammoth as it must be, isn’t one that most people have on the tips of their fingers. The mythology just doesn’t exist. Here, there was an attempt to scratch the surface and look at the way Indian music has been disseminated over the ages, what it has engendered, how it has been created, or parodied, and what these stories ultimately tell us about ourselves. At the end of its two-hour running time, the production began to feel suspiciously like a full meal rather than just a selection of light entrées.
Whether it was in the recitals by Pali nuns from the 6th century BC ‘backed’ by an almost atonal wall of chanting, or a nationalistic mujra performed by a progressive tawaif, or even a colonial-era nautanki with all its burlesque appeal; the production wouldn’t have worked without the energy and verve brought to it by its actors. These weren’t parts that required getting under the skin so to say, but the situations had an inherent humour, a certain touch of satire and a measure of playfulness that could only be delivered by actors who matched the colors of the music with the flavor of their turns.
Making the most of a rather under-par paach chuhon waali sound setup (as a member of the audience described the microphones on the floor of the stage), the actors carefully sidestepped the blind spots in the aural space before them, and sang through the gaps in mellifluous fashion. As it were, it was an exercise in musical minesweeping. Of course, at Prithvi Theatre it will be a completely acoustically delivered performance.
All of it added to the sense of improvisation and spontaneity that informed the proceedings on stage, as if the edifice of the performance had been propped up with bare hands and nimble feet, and what we had before us was not carefully pre-meditated artifice but something more organic and impromptu, more like a kind of ‘found theatre’, a quality the show will do well to hold on to in subsequent performances.
Amongst the actors, Ketki Thatte was resplendent both as the fiery courtesan of Varanasi who silences a set of anti-nautch social reformers by adding a roster of patriotic songs to her repertoire; and as the eponymous girl in the nautanki, Bahadur Ladki, who spiritedly fends off the advances of an lascivious British officer. The full-bloodedness of her parts extended itself to her singing and to a lively lavani she performed with characteristic aplomb.
Namit Das, star of films like Wake Up Sid was probably the most recognisable face in this mêlée. He possesses a solid singing voice and grabbed enthusiastically each opportunity to play to the gallery, whether it was by mimicking frogs in the rain, or by performing a kajdi in English, or by playing the unfortunate British officer from the nautanki to great comic effect.
Slapstick singing is Mr Das' forté and he fostered a rather jingoistic crowd with his act, and it took some effort and precision on the part of Pia Sukanya, as an Englishwoman struggling to notate a piece of Indian music, to veer her portrayal of the ‘outsider’ away from broad caricature to a realm in which such cultural exchange isn’t merely high camp and amusing, but actually edifying. Bursting into an operatic aria from a 19th century chamber recording (incidentally, the Jewel Song from Faust—which Tintin lovers would remember as Bianca Castafiore’s signature aria) fetched her a deserved share of the applause, and surprisingly, the Occidental music fitted right in.
Elsewhere, Gagan Riar was a female impersonator (the nachya) in the nautanki with just the right lachak in his stride, and then as quickly, shed the foppish airs to acquire the swagger of a music director who steals tunes without compunction. Add to the mix the deadpan delivery of Gopal Tiwari, the gravitas of Shubrojyoti Barat, the statuesque stage presence of Mansi Multani and the poignant old-world charm of young Nishi Doshi’s singing; and it was truly an evening with all the right ingredients in place to entertain well and give us a kind of theatre that wasn't path-breaking perhaps, but still very much disarming in its alacrity.