Arpana Theatre’s Stories in a Song comes with its own definition- a collage of music, theatre and literature. And then it pushes its own periphery of performance- to encompass history, culture, human nature. Musically conceived by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan and directed by Sunil Shanbag, this menagerie of six narratives represents theatre as a conduit of critique and change. Flanked by the pakhawaj, dholak, table and harmonium; the live sounds and rhythms infuse an authentic setting to every era, act as the travelling troubadour and create characters out of actors by adding the additional dramatic layer.
While confessedly, the word cannot illumine the stage, here’s glimpsing through the stories that outlived their stage life:
Mahatma Gandhi and the Tawaif Sabha:
The conventional figure of the sutradhar underscores the marginalized position of the prostitutes and just when the audience anticipates a story of redemption, the fourth wall and the falsity of representation are simultaneously ruptured- the character on stage interrupts the sutradhar and claims ownership of her own story, in her own voice. This directorial choice tells the audience that the intention to get the tawaifs to the centre of stage and history is for real. For those in the audience who could not grasp the meaning of every word sung by the tawaif (Ketaki Thatte), the facial expressions and gestures sufficed to invoke the premise of the song-narrative. The sensual appeal of the tawaif is at once transformed into her performative body rather than her sexual one. The interaction with the Mahatma is narrated onstage by the tawaif as an offstage incident in the past- this fluid transition in time and space further engages the audience in the imaginative process of the traditional story-telling tradition.
If the characters and sutradhar exchanged places in the previous one, here the fictional stage dramatizes fictional characters from Qurat-Ul-Ain Haider’s novel Chandni Begum. Art meets reality and reality ruptures art…the line has blurred. Here, music ceases to be a mere medium, in fact, it assumes the significance of a theme. The hypocrisy of the Socialist revolutionary ideologies and propaganda add the shade of sarcasm while underscoring the socio-economic constructs for a genre of music to thrive. What was astonishing to see was the development of the character of Bela (Trisha Kale) and the times, within the extremely short stage span through the nuanced singing she undertakes. The song at the wedding has sly undertones of boldness, the mother’s song assumes a nostalgic sentiment of a time when women and marriage were best companions. The same song emerges as the feminine voice of resistance to preserve and redeem her lost dignity at the hands of materialistic lust wanderers.
When the sutradhar adheres to contemporary Bollywood cinema as the child of nautanki, it shows the production’s self-conscious place in the historical continuum of lineage. The rendition of the Ganesh Vandana reiterates the now forgotten sacrosanct relationship between the artist and his art, between aesthetics and its spiritual force. Comprising entertainment in the form of humour, this segment showcases the effective amalgamation of spectacle and scrupulous social awareness. While the acting prowess of the Sippaiya (Namit Das) is par excellent, it is the acumen of the writer and director to establish the adaptive nature of language. The genre belongs to North India, the English dialogues beckons to the colonial authenticity of the character. The foreign language of the classes is accommodated and appropriated within the native genre of the masses. Ironically, it is the indigenous characters that mock the British accent- the uproar from the audience further makes them an equal participant in reducing the colonial Sippaiya to a comic caricature.
For a narrative that is admittedly musical in nature, it is a sublime spectacle to unravel the story of spring through the choreography of color and lights. The blue light with a tinge of yellow casts the right melancholic mood for the mourner at the shrine. Basant is personified through the characters of the female singers- their bright yellow dupattas further deepening the brightness of their multi-coloured velvet kurtis. The fresh flush of yellow light flooding the right center of the stage along with the subdued movements and subtle teasing of the women characters infuse the stage with a transcendental mood. It is elevating and solacing at once- this yellow spirit when handed over to the sutradhar who wraps it around himself- truly creates Basant as a lived character.
Whose Music Is It?
This segment plays with the duality of atmospheres to communicate the difference in two worlds and worldviews. The contrast between the ideal and the commercial, the juxtaposition of the Indian with the Western is showcased through the visible distinction between the costumes and dialogues of the Classical singer and that of the playback music director. For the former, the stage is barren, the colors earthy and dialogues frugal; for the latter, the stage is strongly lit, accentuated with reverberating sound beats and an infusion of dialogue. Caught between these two, the narrative expresses the basic human desire for fame and acceptance.
The ultimate rendition reverts to the unifying art form- theater. Although a competition of and between musicians, the transactional communication between the actor-singers and the audience takes place through the unadulterated art of acting. This segment demonstrated the significance of reaction in theatre. For most part, the focus is on the lead singer/s but it is the consistent reactions of the non-singing actors that added meaning to the musical tete-a-tete. The mock questioning of the validity of stories and rumours raises an interesting question of doubt and trust in the mind of the audience. The collective interest however, is clearly established- in the element and intention of dramatic quality. Be it the loud colors of the jackets or the pronounced body language of the actors; this last genre reinforces the loud, unabashed and dramatic quality of Indian regional theater and its indelible impact.