Songbirds At Play

When strong sentiments call for strong language,the dictionary of Hindi abuses comes in most handy.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published: September 5, 2012 1:31 am

When strong sentiments call for strong language,the dictionary of Hindi abuses comes in most handy. It packs in a punch even when you serve it with Sufi music — as the audience at Piya Behrupiya,The Company Theatre’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,have witnessed. In the play,two characters trade insults to the beats of a qawwali. “The audience loves it and its form that we have played around with,” says director Atul Kumar about the sequence that has had critics laughing all the way from the Globe theatre in London — where the play was performed as part of the World Shakespeare Festival earlier this year,to Delhi — where it was staged a few weeks ago. Besides the qawwali,the play contains 18 songs.

The other play that featured in the World Shakespeare Festival was theatre group Arpana’s Gujarati production,Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon,an adaptation of All’s Well that Ends Well. Director Sunil Shanbag has presented this “problem play” as a musical with live accompanists and actors with a wide vocal range who give folk numbers a life of their own. It is fitting that two of India’s most successful productions this year are musicals.

From groups such as Asmita,which uses songs from IPTA to Poorva Naresh’s Aaj Rang Hai,in which the protagonist sings Indian classical music,to Bijon Mondal’s Andha Yug,which had a music band on stage playing 16 songs; directors are turning to music and lyrics to elevate the impact of the plays. The chorus in Bhanu Bharti’s Andha Yug,for instance,performed in a unique style that was between singing and recitation.

“A fair amount of musicals are emerging in the theatre calendar. The question is,how long will it hold?” says Shanbag,a veteran of musicals such as Cotton 56,Polyester 84 and Sex,Morality & Censorship.

Musicals have always been a part of Indian theatre,with songs being used either in place of dialogues or to complement it. The era of cost-cutting,however,made groups realise that musicals were more expensive and more difficult to mount than dialogue-and-action-based productions with a small cast. Bharti recalls that he had to pull off his 2006 musical,Aks Tamasha,after a few performances because retaining musicians was a problem. “It is difficult to get singer-actors,and even musicians who will come for rehearsals regularly. Musicians are in demand for recordings,yet we need them for rehearsals to ensure that the music holds together with the rest of the action,” he says.

Piya Behrupiya was Kumar’s first experience with musicals and he recalls the heady excitement of making one. “There are a million things to take care of — women’s scales against men’s scales,action and singing,heavy movement and inability to sing,entry and exit in a song and so on,” he says.

Mumbai-based Mondal is among the young directors who seem sold to musicals. “When we ask ourselves how we can create a meaningful play and reach out to a young audience,it strikes us that music could hold the answer,” he says,adding that in Andha Yug,which unfolds during the Mahabharata war,he did not tamper with the text. “Instead,we created lyrics to heighten the impact. When Krishna dies,the band sang bujh gaye sabhi nakshatra/ chha gaya timir gahan/ aur bhayankar lagne laga/ yeh bhayankar van. The audience was floored,” he recalls. Hence,across India,the demand for actors who can sing is rising.

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