‘Stories in a Song’: The Saga Of Hindustani Music

Play: Stories In A Song
Directed by: Sunil Shanbag
Duration: 2 Acts – 130 minutes
Conceived by: Shubha Mudgal
Research by: Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan
Cast: Shubrojyoti Barat, Ketaki Thatte, Namit Das, Santosh Tiwari and others
Language: Hindi/ English

I’ve always been someone who’d watch a play in a theatre over a film. So when a friend offered that we go for ‘Stories in a Song’ which was being staged at Prithvi Theatre, I readily agreed.

Only occasionally do you come across a play which is a poetic blend of song, dance, history, culture and literature. And when you do, it is rare that the synthesis of all these elements would result in a spellbinding act.

Conceived and researched by venerable Hindustani Classical singer Shubha Mudgal and one of India’s leading Tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan this two hour saga is a pot-pourri of seven short and crisp pieces that presents the various forms of Hindustani Classical music. It accounts music making in India and stories of the struggles and hardships faced by musicians both real and imaginary. Many forms of theatre in India make an abundant use of music, but ‘Stories in a Song’ takes the help of theatre to tell stories of musical forms such as Kajri, ThumriDadra, Khyal, remixes and more.

Credits: Buzzintown

In today’s time when only a handful of us are exposed to the Indian Classical music scene, this comes as fresh breath of air where in keeping in mind the ‘remix generation’, the play has intricately designed it’s acts so that it can be appreciated by all age groups. For instance, the first tale tells the story of how Mahatma Gandhi called for a meeting of Tawaifs of Benares who were under the siege by social reformers determined to put an end to the ‘evils’ of the tawaif tradition and requested them to mobilise their audience for the freedom march. This act was based on Amritlal Nagar’s ‘Yeh Kothewaliyan.’ 

The play which began on a tad slow note, picks up as it moves forward with the tale of ‘Bahadur Ladki‘ based on Gulab Bai’s famous nautanki. Nautanki is a traditional theatre form popular in the north of India. Driven by music, dance, sattire and sharp wit, the performances in open-air venues attract large audiences. In this tale you see a feisty young girl who dares to confront an exploitative English officer from the colonial times. Namit Das does full justice to the role of the officer, in fact, I am in awe of  his performance. He is not only a great actor, but a fabulous singer too. And after a little more research on him, I’ve discovered that he is the son of reputed ghazal singer  Chandan Dass. His father is also his guru who trained him in Hindustani Classical singing.

Credits: The Hindu

This tales sets the tempo so high that one can hardly wait for the second half of the play to begin.

The later half is presided by ‘Hindustani Airs’, a fascinating encounter between an English memsahib and a native girl, as they indulge in a jugalbandi of Western and Hindustani Classical music. The performance by Mansi Multani and Meher Mistry in this are worthy of all the applause they garnered.

It is the last act of the play which takes us to the world of Kajris, a popular song form from Uttar Pradesh, which has associations with the monsoon. Typically sung and performed by groups of men and women, it is also one of the many seasonal song forms that became part of ThumriDadra repertoire where it acquired a more classical orientation. However, in the Gangetic belt, different styles of Kajri singing emerged under the guidance of Ustads who established Kajri Akhada similar to the gharana system. often a samasya or poetic fragment would be tossed to the competing sides for impromptu literary and musical elaborations and the opposing sides would try to establish their supremacy through it. This was befitting finale to the play, one that was worthy of the stand-up ovation they received.

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One has to appreciate Sunil Shanbag’s direction where in an ensemble cast, he’s brought out the best performance from every member of the cast. Special credits to Namit Das, Ketaki Thatte, Mansi Multani and Meher Mistry for doing fine justice to their role.

It is a play that one must watch for the love of music, culture, theatre and literature.

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