Brilliantly staged new genre of theatre: Stories in a Song, at Ranga Shankara


When I heard that "Stories in a Song", created by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, was going to be staged at Ranga Shankara, I was very keen to see what it would be about; because it promised something new. Both performances were sold out!

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The performance had been staged earlier, when it was created for Arpana, for the Baajaa Gaajaa music festival at Pune in 2011.

It is very interesting to watch a practically new genre of theatre…one in which the music takes the centre stage, instead of being an accompaniment and an accent to the main performance, as it usually is. Music, and musical anecdates, as the storyline of a theatre performance, has not been handled…and this is rather surprising in hindisght, considering how vigorous our music systems are. Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, along with the director, Sunil Shanbhag, have addressed this lacuna, and created a collage of 7 different anecdotes, some apocryphal, from the annals of different kinds of Indian music.

The seven pieces are:

1. Mahatma Gandhi and the Tawaif Sabha : A tale about Mahatma Gandhi who asks for a conference of the Tawaifs of Benares, when the latter are faced by the opposition of social reformers who want to end the "evil" community and its music. From Amrit Lal’s "Yeh Kothewaliyan".


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Two scenes from the first tableau. Photo: DM

2. Chandni Begum: Qurrat-ul-Ain Hyder’s evocative novel is drawn upon, to tell the story of Mogrey Master and his family of folk performers, who struggle to keep up with changing mores and times.

3. Bahadur Ladki: Tells the story of a courageous young dancer of the Nautank folk theatre (which comprises all-night performances in open-air venues) who confronts a manipulative English officer. The piece is based on "Bahadur Ladki" by Gulab Bai.

4. Sufi Basant: Written by Aslam Parvez, this tableau uses the background of celebrating Basant Panchami, and involves the Sufi sanit, Hazrat Nizamuddin, and his famous disciple, Amir Khusrau.

5. Hindustani Airs: By Vikram Phukan, it shows the fictional encounter between an Angrezi Mem who wants to learn, document, and take back the "Hindustani Airs", and calls in a nautch girl, Khannum Jaan, to find a meeting point for their musical modes.
6. Whose Music is it? : A funny yest touching scene of how a song, and its creator, are exploited and used, as tradtion is overtaken by innovation, and plagiarism rules, along with commercialism.

7. Kajri Akhada: From Arjundas Kesir’s "Kaji Mirjapur Sarnaam", it shows Kajri, a popular song form of Uttar Pradesh, associated with the monsoon, which slowly melted into the Thumri/Dadra genre. The form was fostered in "Kajri Akhadas" along the lines of the "gharana" system.
I’ll give the names of the cast, because each one of them was exceptionally good. They had to act, they had to sing classically-based music, and dance, too….and except for one fumble of the dialogue (in the 3.30pm show) they never faltered.

Shubrajyoti Barat, Gopal Tiwari, Ketki Thatte, Namit Das, Santosh Tiwari, Mansi Multani, Nishi Doshi, Trupti Khamkar, Makarand Deshpande, Shailes Hejmadi, Gagan Riar, Saurabh Nayyar, Avantika Ganguly, Pia Sukanya, Trish Kale, Ajitesh Gupta. The women had that raspy edge to their voices that gave credibility to their roles as nautch girls or tawaifs.

The musician sitting on the side of the stage, who also performed extremely well, were, Amod Bhatt and Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium, Sada Mulik on the dholak or pakhawaj, and Jayesh Dhargalkar on the Tabla. Many of the cast also gave vocal and production support.

The costumes certainly deserve praise. Well designed, bringing out the "tameez" ethos of those days, the women’s costumes sparkled, and the men’s were elegant, and yet there were the sequins and the gold and the little touches of garishness that made them all the more authentic. Kalyani Kulkarni, take a bow. The choreography by Purva Naresh, and the translations by Anil Deshmukh; the simple yet effective set design by Vivek Jadhav, and the light design by Hidyat Sami…even the assistant director, Natasha Singh….each of these contributed in no small measure to the resounding success of the show.

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A scene from the "Kajri Akhada" piece. Photo: DM

And…resounding it was. The comic timing was excellent, and the audience roared with laughter at some of the little touches (such as Isabella Harding suddenly noticing the musicians only at the end of a long session with Khannum Jaan), and the anecdotes. Particular mention must be made of Namit Das, who quite stole the show with his mobile, expressive face and eyes.

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Namit Das. Photo: DM

The only slight criticism I have to make was that all the forms of music were of the north Indian classical or folk genres, and there was no representation of south Indian music at all. However, this is a very minor point…and it did not detract from the impact of the show.

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The cast taking a bow at the end. Photo: DM

The audience burst into applause at several junctures…a sure sign of the success of the show. And definitely, the quality of the stagecraft, the lavish production values, and the overall professionalism of the show was something we deeply appreciated. The smiles on the face of the audience as they left said it all…they had enjoyed themselves, enjoyed the music, and were leaving, happy in spirit. "It was one of the best shows I’ve seen," said Bobby Srinivasan, of J P Nagar, and I heartily concurred.

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The cast after the play. Photo: DM

If ever "Stories in a Song" comes back to Bangalore…a very strong recommendation not to miss it!





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