February 5, 2021 10:50:50 am
A decade ago, when February was much cooler than today, an audacious theatre experiment opened at the Baaja Gaaja festival in Pune. Titled Stories in a Song, it had music as the main protagonist. The play explored traditions such as khayal, dadra, kajri and thumri from sociological and historical perspectives as a piece of theatre. In most urban theatre of the time —and even now — music is an element that lends a layer, impact or nuance. In Stories in a Song, it was the theme.
Mumbai-based director Sunil Shanbag and the team of the play expected this to be a one-time performance. “The next morning, we said our goodbyes to one another and everybody left,” he said. But, the rousing response of the audience to the play forced a change of plan. “We thought it would be ridiculous not to do more shows. Four months later, we started performing it again, this time at the Prithvi theatre in Mumbai, and it hasn’t stopped,” says Shanbag. On February 5, exactly 10 years after the premiere in Pune, Stories in a Song will open a new season at Prithvi theatre. We look at how it became one of the most critically acclaimed plays of recent times:
Mind of the maestros:
Behind the show are two well-known musicians of the country, Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, who had been collecting anecdotes, stories and narratives from various writing and books on music that they felt could be dramatised. “Though the idea of telling stories about music in India through theatre and music came from us, we were aware that it would have to be a theatre specialist who could actually bring the idea to life,” says Mudgal. Shanbag’s theatre melds political storytelling, performances and music and his most famous production, playwright Ramu Ramanathan’s Cotton 56, Polyester 84, was marked by live music. “You use a lot of music in your plays. Can we do a play about music?” Mudgal asked Shanbag after he had made a musical, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, in 2007. As they began to talk, the director was fascinated. Mudgal had a story to every song she talked about, peppering her anecdotes with historical and sociological contexts. Shanbag came on board, and the process of creating a play about music began.
Stories in a Song unfolds through short narratives exploring facets of the history of music in the country. Among the seven stories in the play, the piece, titled Songs of the Nuns, is based on poems by Buddhist nuns that form, possibly, the oldest anthology of women’s literature in India. Another shows the strength and inspiration that a tawaif in Varanasi received from the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, and a third is based on an Urdu novel by Qurrat-ul-Ain Haider, Chandni Begun, and highlights the struggles of a family of folk performers. In a story about a young British woman trying to learn Hindustani classical music, one glimpses the meeting ground of colonial and Indian cultures — “We have to strip it down to make it simpler,” says the former. “It seems Madam will turn this nagma into a lullaby,” responds the latter. Shanbag says that a few more stories have been added to the play for its current showing.
The actor as a singer:
While live playing and singing have been integral to folk theatre of India, the urban stage, in the early part of the millennium, had, largely, opted for recorded soundtracks. It was a series of auditions that resulted in Stories in a Song finding a cast that could sing and act. “I had already done two plays with live music, so I was also quite confident about being able to work with people who could sing.The actors worked very hard. The singing has become much more skilled over the years,” says Shanbag. He adds that, in 2007, Prithvi had done a festival of musicals. “That’s when I did Threepenny Opera. A few years later, came Stories in a Song. “I would say that these two things helped set off a huge live trend in theatre, at least in Mumbai. Now, we see that a lot of actors are training in live music. Today, it is not as difficult to cast a play as it was 10 years ago,” adds the director.
Age and the Stories:
With its core of live performance and audience participation, Stories in a Song has had more than 100 shows before the pandemic shut down halls. “The first shows of Stories in a Song had seven episodes strung into a single production, but, later, we worked on more episodes, featuring a greater variety of musical forms. Sometimes the actors also change in different shows, but, otherwise, the music remains the same that Aneesh and I had both curated or created for each of the episodes,” says Mudgal. The majority of the cast is the same as 10 years before, which is a testimony to the commitment and interest of the artistes to the show. “The audience participates actively in the show and there is a sense of enjoyment in the way the play is staged. ‘Liveness’ is a very important part of Stories in a Song,” adds Shanbag.
At Prithvi Theatre from February 5 to 7.
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