Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song is a curate’s egg. The juicy bits come from the committed and well-rehearsed performances, the joy of witnessing music and dance on a Mumbai stage, and the effort to understand the present by looking back at the past. Shanbag has also made projecting bawdy humour onto the body politic into a fine art. But a multi-strand narrative such as this one invariably has its weak moments, which spoils some of the taste.
Shanbag’s recent work takes a scrapbook approach to productions. The stage veteran combines text, song and dance to explore social and political issues. Plays like Cotton 56 Polyester 84 and Sex, Morality and Censorship locate historical events in individual stories. Stories and a Song’s seven chapters present a potted history of classical and folk music with a liberal, feminist spin. The play leaps across the centuries (sixth century BC till the present day) and sticks with classical and popular music.
Except for the opening recitation of a sixth-century Buddhist verse, the stories are designed as contests between nationalities, sensibilities, musical forms and wills. In the schematic view of this production, reformers meet their match in courtesans; a nautch girl puts a British officer in his place; an Indian singer demonstrates the differences between Western and Hindustani music to an English memsahib; a composer remixes a classical singer’s composition. As if to emphasise the point, the play ends with a raucous recreation of “kajri akhadas”, in which two groups of singers pit their vocal skills against each other. The exception – and the most nuanced story – is “Chandni Begum”, based on a Qurrat-ul-Ain Hyder’s novel and about the efforts of a musician’s family to survive changing tastes in music.
The energy from the stage rarely flags; the actors have a ball. But information seekers will be disappointed with an experience that focuses purely on engaging the senses. For instance, you get only fragments of knowledge about the colonial treatment of nautch girls. The encounter between the memsahib and the Indian singer is played for laughs, but there is actually a fascinating moment here between oral, improvisatory traditions and harmony-based musical patterns.
Of course, it’s too much to expect a two-hour-long production to shoulder the burden of presenting a history of Indian music. We left the production without learning anything new about the history or evolution of Indian music. But we were humming its tunes for the next two hours.
By Nandini Ramnath on August 19 2011 6.07am