On Thursday 17th of October 2013, the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities co-organized at the Syndicate Hall a representation of Stories in a Song, an Arpana play directed by Sunil Shanbag, and conceived and researched by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. This production is essentially a collection of seven short stories that incorporate various genres of Indian classical and folk music, while taking the audience through a journey across Indian history, from the pre-Independence era to the present day.
The play began on an emotional note, with the first sketch celebrating the life and faith of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Rendered in the Qawwali form, it was beautifully crafted and set the ball rolling for the rest of the stories. The second sketch had many subtle socio-political strands that came together in the Benarasi Tawaifs’ meeting with Gandhi. The audience was placed at the heart of narratives that questioned and brought to light the many nuances of public morality and true freedom.
The mood of the play was continually transformed, and by the time the sketch ‘Bahadur Ladki’ ended, the audience was in splits with their feet tapping to the music. This popular nautanki performance told the story of a fiery young woman and an exploitative English officer in pre-Independence India. The performances of Namit Das and Ketaki Thatte ended the first half of the play to thunderous applause.
After the interval, the scene was reopened with a delightful sketch on an English woman’s attempts to learn the music of the ‘Indian natives’, to show off at her next soirée. More than a simple encounter between two different styles of music, this sketch brought out the nuances underlying the interaction of two women, who, though they came from different cultures, could connect over their love for music.
The next sketch focused on musical interaction as well, albeit one between modern commercial music and classical music. This story shone a light on the frictions that affect today’s musical landscape. While being a common talking point, when set in the context of the play so far, the condition of classical vis-à-vis commercial music today, does make one ponder. The play then came to a close with the fabulous ‘Kajri Akhadas’, where the ustads of UP appropriated the colonisers’ language and presented a rousing show of vocal prowess.
In many ways, Stories in a Song is a narrative of the journey of the song in the Indian context, from the pre-Independence period to our modern times. While taking us through a range of emotions, the song and its singers provided the audience with a phenomenal night of theater.