Monday, September 02, 2013

On drama and life

Stories in a Song

Last weekend, Bhoomija Trust and Evam Entertainment brought to Chennai the 85th staging of Sunil Shanbag's "Stories in a Song". I have a critique. I have an analysis. I have detailed notes. But I would just rather throw them all to the wind and tell you that none of these can adequately represent what this production brought to an unfortunately sparse audience at the Music Academy. Not in a long time have I had initial skepticism and my nitpicky detail-ripping tendencies thrown awry by the sheer force of unbridled joie de vivre. They sang, they danced, they nearly caused me to burst a ventricle in my fast beating heart.

Over two hours, this production pranced through episodes of musical history in the subcontinent, unearthed through research into oral and written historical archives and then reinterpreted as slices of musical life. Over two hours, singers, dancers, and actors whirled through a Sufi shrine, a Lucknowi mansion, a music studio, a colonial house, and a tawaifkhana (in simplified terms, a brothel, but then not quite just a brothel). They performed stories of change, of love, of improvisation, and of adaptation. And the voices, oh the voices. Such melody, such force, such talent. Such musicality.

The production began with the inside of a dargah, a Sufi Islamic shrine. A covered tomb arose in the centre. Three musicians graced the right of stage. I awaited the simulacrum of Nizamuddin. And I was not disappointed. Five women in buttercup yellow dupattas wafted onto stage singing praises of the season, namely spring or Basant. And then unfolded through a qawwali the story of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau. Of an episode during the course of their friendship, and a tale outlining the vicissitudes of sorrow and joy. One must sorrow it claimed, but one must also be equally open to joy. For happiness will come uninvited; in the wind, in the air, in song, and in spring.

This is the only plot spoiler I'm willing to offer, the rest will have to be empirically experienced.

At the beginning of the performance, the director Sunil Shanbag explained the ethos of this production, a collaboration between himself and the musicians and composers Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. This production, in his explanation, is meant to showcase the hidden stories behind forms of Indian music, folk and otherwise. It is a laudable and beautifully executed effort. The performers were fantastic and to them goes all credit for holding together the songs in these stories. Of particularly noteworthy mention are Namit Das and Ketaki Thatte; sheer magic. Nishi Doshi as Bela made me wonder how I do not know anybody called Bela, and how everyone should know someone called Bela; besides Bahadur's love interest that is. The episodes chosen are telling; they showcase periods of intense change, issues of difference, and questions of cultural encounters. The forms of music chosen; qawwali, kajri, nautanki, Hindustani classical to name a few offered a marvelously robust and sublime sense of the musical landscape in these parts of the world. A special mention is due for the accompanists who were seemingly effortless in the jumps they made between myriad musical and life forms.

Here is the small puzzling gap though, the gap between what a work of art says it does and that which it does. At the beginning of the production, one expects stories and a historiography. What one gets is the poignancy of body, movement, and voice. This is an intensely visceral production and the viscerality overpowers the text. It's all sinew. And in contrast, the stories in the texts appear sparse and patchy. The transitions are abrupt and some of the tellings themselves expose a misplaced nostalgia and a rudimentarily purist version of an undiluted, popular, heartfelt past. They render neither its protagonists, nor their lives, anything beyond caricatured carriers of a vanishing history. Also, one deduces a rather reduced version of various "Indian" classical music forms; the production veered geographically northward and seemed to be dependent on the repertoire of its composers and performers rather than on a representative notion of Indianness.

These critiques aside, what the production does tell us is perhaps far more important than the selectivity of the histories it channels. Some days I walk through life to my own background score. I expect backup singers and full orchestras. And I am renewed. Stories in a Song is my story as much as ours. It says that everyday life can only be redeemed through song and dance, and we are only possible as singing and dancing subjects of our own lives. And for this, bravo.