Theatre Review: “Tansen” by The Trialogue Company

It’s not common to have plays about music, or musicians; so when Ranga Shankara announced that the Trialogue Company, a Delhi-based theatre group, would be staging “Tansen” on 1st June, ’19, I was very keen on attending.

The introduction on the Ranga Shankara website was also tantalising. Dhrupad, Khayal, and Kathak to be part of the production…that would be very unusual indeed! So off I went, with my friend Jayashree (who also learnt classical music from me…we did form a fairly critical duo in the audience.)

Even before the play started formally, the strains of the tanpura and the semi-humming, semi-singing caught our attention, and I hardly chatted with my friend as the music took hold of me. And when the two singers introduced themselves, and the accompanists, to the audience, they started a production that kept the audience spellbound for the duration of the performance.

As they told us, the play is about the search, both internal and external, that every creative artiste goes through…the journey for that elusive something that will, in satisfying the search, terminate it too. In this case, the search was Tansen’s and the dichotomy was “ibadat” (worship) and “ishq” (love) and the ability to know one from the other, even as one turns into the other.

Tansen, born in a Hindu family as Ramtanu to Parvati and Makarand in Behat near Gwalior, is brought up by Gaus Baba, a fakir who sends him to Brindavan to learn music from Swami Haridas. He journeys into the forests for a musical riyaaz before being spotted by the King of Rewa, Raja Ramchandra Baghele, where his musical expertise gains widespread fame. His music gains the attention of Emperor Akbar and Raja Ramchandra is forced to send him to the Moghul court where his melodious aptitude earns him the title ‘Miyan Tansen.’ However, his ego supervenes,and he loses to the young musician, Baiju Bawra.

But through the journey of the ibadat of his art are woven the threads of ishq: His first love, Taani, plays an important if episodal role in his life; and later, he meets and marries Hussaini. His love is punctuated by questioning and guilt; it forms the fabric of his evolution as a musician, too.

The play was studded with many songs; in the Dhrupad and Khayal formats, and there was one sequence where the musicians had the audience singing musical phrases along with them, in an interactive session. Ridhima, apart from essaying several roles, stood out as a kathak dancer, quite apart from her singing and her acting skills. The percussion (in the performance that I watched, the same person played the tabla and the pakhawaj.) and the harmonium accompanists showed that they, too, were acccomplished musicians.

The set design was very simple; three raised platforms, the centre one being occupied by the two vocal singers, and the two side ones by the players of the percussion and the harmonium, respectively (I am giving all the names at the end of this write-up.) The characters moved in choreographed sequences across the stage, and, once or twice, into the audience space as well. The narrative flowed smoothly, with three of the cast members slipping in and out of various character roles.

The costume design was both elegant and true to the ethnic and historic sensibilities of the play. Flowing robes, beautiful colours alternating with white; a series of beautiful dupattas for the young woman in the various roles she played, and turbans for the men…all the cast were barefoot, but we did not miss the “jootis” at all. The bare feet and the ghungroos, indeed, were essential for the dancer to beat out the rhythms during the Kathak interludes.

The sound system contributed a lot to the punch of the play; whether “sotto voce” singing or loud-throated warbling, whether the “bol” or the note-phrases, they all carried across the acoustic-rich space of Ranga Shankara, carrying clearly right up to the last rows. The intensity or softness of the sounds or the music helped build up the tension of the narrative, as Tansen gathers in temporal power, turning from Tanu to Mian Tansen, wrestles with his personal dilemmas, and yet allows his “I” to eclipse his humility.

The lighting design was also executed flawlessly. Whether general lighting, or highlighting of one or more characters, whether it was the blood red of passion or the colours of quietitude, the lighting “choreography” did not falter.

A big bow to the performers themselves. There was any amount of both rehearsed dialogue and improvisation, quite apart from the lyric-heavy music; even when the characters referred to the improvisation, they were following the narrative in that the ending of the play was referred to, and the denouement started from that very point. The physical movement, the rise and fall of the melodies, the various ragas expressed in the khayal and dhrupad compositions…they floated the audience along on a musical river of delight. As actors, the cast held the audience in the palm of their hand, and often elicited exactly the response that they wanted, from them. Their comic timing was also fine-tuned and the laughter from the audience was spontaneous and sustained.

The singing was excellent. Of course, the quality of the singing must, of necessity,be better when the singers are seated, than (as happened with the young woman dancer) if they are moving, or dancing; so Ridhima’s singing did occasionally fall short of the high standards that the others in the cast themselves set. But it was more than adequate for the purposes of the performance, and one could not help admiring the wonderful combination of talents in her…dance, music, acting, and a beautiful stage presence, with a mobile, expressive face and graceful movements. Sangeeta, natya and nataka combined well.

The play built up to the point where the arrogance of Tansen is subdued by Baiju Bawra; and as the denouement happened, and Tansen began to hark back to the earlier years, and love, of his life, the ending was satisfactory and well-marked. The audience gave the performers,both cast and crew, a standing ovation.

I must also add a word of praise for the excellent brochure that Trialogue distributed to all the members of the audience, and where a small piece of paper was attached so that the patron could fill in personal contact co-ordinates and a feedback about the performance. As either a member of the audience or a reviewer, I did not have to wonder about names, or their spellings; and the contribution of each member of the group was clearly stated. Trialogue, take a bow for your professionalism in every department.

The creative spirit of Sudheer permeated the play: playwright, actor, singer,musician, designer, director…to me, the play seemed as much about Sudheer as about Tansen!

Any nits that I have to pick? I was not very sure of the reason, or the efficacy, of the puffs of smoke that were released from time to time! And somehow, to my cliche-ridden mind, it was disappointing never to have a tanpura on the stage at all. Yes, I agree, these are small nits….

In all, one of the very good pieces of theatre that I have watched recently, and I do hope Trialogue comes again to Ranga Shankara, with this, and other productions.

Tansen, by Trialogue
120 min. (without interval)
Language: Hindustani/Urdu, with a few other languages interspersed

Mohammed Faheem
Ridhima Bagga
Sudheer Rikhari
Sudip Chowdhury- Tabla, Tanpura and Percussion
Roman Das – Pakhawaj and Tabla
Daksh Raj Sharma – Harmonium, vocals and percussion.
Rashmi Dutt – Sitar (recorded)

Playwrights: Mohammed Faheem and Sudheer Rikhari
Inspired by Girish Chaturvedi’s novel, “Tansen”
Choreography and Costumes: Ridhima Bagga
Music: Sudheer Rikari

Music Credits:
Tero gun gaawe : (lyrics and composition) Pt Vinay Chandra Maudgalya
Moorat mann bhaaye: (lyrics and composition) Gundecha Brothers
Sur mein rame tu hi: (lyrics) Gundecha Brothers
Har shai pe tera noor hai : (Composition) Pravesh Mallick
Jaagiye Gopal”, Shubh mahoorat, Laal Gopal, Aavan keh gaye : Traditional Dhrupads and Khayal compositions

Stage Management and music operation: Deepak Rana
Lights: Rahul Chauhan
Design and Direction: Sudheer Rikhari
Special thanks to: Parvatiya Kala Kendra
Supported by: Sri Ajay Rao

June 1, 2019, 3.30 and 7.30pm

Tickets: Rs.300

You can read another review which talks more about Trialogue and the creation of the play


The Trialogue Company’s YouTube Channel:


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