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Screen + Sound + Stage
July 20, 2014

Melody, Jigs and Theatrics

Text by Nittal Chandarana

Has the Indian musical theatre come a long way, or does it still have miles to go?

  • Stories in a Song, Sunil Shanbag, Melody Jigs Theatrics, Theatre, Music, Musical, Indian
  • Beyond Bling, Music, Indian, Theatre, Melody Jigs Theatrics, Indian, Musical

A little bit of song and dance never hurt anyone. For me, it’s the best part of any show I watch. Indian theatre is opening its doors to the power of music and introducing a melody here, a verse there, leaving its audience with a powerful emotional aftertaste. With the ongoing spate of musicals produced by the theatre world, there is a gradual need of artists who can don all three facets of showmanship – acting, singing and dancing. Oftentimes, a beautiful Voice becomes the lead, acting takes a backseat. Maybe an average dancer makes it to the ensemble. The choreographer writhes; sleepless nights.

Groups have begun experimenting more and have started investing time and a great amount of research in coming up with solid, original scripts. The easier route is to merely pick up something which has been performed across all media but it goes on to become a watered-down version of the original. It is difficult enough to come up with a novel script – everyone loves quoting Wilde and Shaw – but a musical, it’s a gamble.

Sunil Shanbag’s Arpana is known for Indianising the Bard’s work, inducting music in it and completely changing the face of this piece of classic literature. However, the musical that stood out for me was Stories in a Song conceived by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. Seven short pieces blend in a beautiful medley, tracing the history of music right from the era of the thumris to our present-day dance remixes while also giving us glimpses of our country through the ages. What’s astonishing is that there is so much talent unnoticed by the so-called mainstream mediums of showcase. Stories in a Song had a motley crew of erudite actors who could double up as professional singers. This play flirted with kajris, saw a Gora Sahib try to get even with a gaon ki gori, brought forth the struggle of a family of folk performers and revealed the development of a beautiful relationship between a British opera artist and an Indian songstress as they tried to learn each other’s craft.

Master Phoolmani is another gem I came across recently. It had a bold theme: a man in touch with his feminine side, embodying female sexuality with pride. A constant intonation of homosexuality ran through the darker moments of the play. Note: the moments were melancholy and dark. Not the homosexuality. Two out-of-work Bhangwadi actors float in and out of the fantasies of two bachelor clerks. Bhangwadi is a form of Gujarati musical theatre. So great is its popularity that Mumbai had an auditorium named after it where this folk form was performed exclusively. The theatre has closed its doors but the street still retains the name. The cast brought Bhangwadi to life and gave some of the most beautiful renditions of Gujarati songs interspersed in the storyline. Some songs were performed as many as three times preceded by the audience enthusiastically screaming for an encore. Chirag Vora played the pivotal Phoolmani, putting a near-genius craft into his performance. Utkarsh Mazumdar was the most endearing actor with impeccable stage presence, Director Manoj Shah played the villainous master inciting fear and anger equal parts and Parag Jhaveri with the honey voice, so in tune with the harmonium. It was painfully beautiful. That the Gujarati theatre-going audience allowed such a play to flourish was itself astonishing. That there were 300-odd members of the audience singing along unabashedly inside the theatrical walls of Prithvi (Theatre, Mumbai), made it an altogether fantastical feat.

Regional theatre finds it easier to imbibe music in its storyline. It has its roots in our folk forms. English theatre is at best, an adaptation of sorts. Original scripts are few and far in between. Beyond Bling premiered in 2013; an original English language musical with witches, literary heroes, spoilt teenagers and at the heart of it all, a boy searching for his father. There were a couple of adaptations by Ace Theatre Productions that played to packed houses – Sound of Music and Grease come immediately to mind. Here’s hoping for a surge in the system; a passionate outbreak of song and dance.

You can catch a show of Arpana’s Stories in a Song on July 25, 9pm, at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai

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