Point of View - Priti Bakalkar reviews Sunil Shanbag's 'Stories in a Song'


First weekend of June, pouring rains, mad traffic jams, tired me from a long drive back in Mumbai after a lovely weekend at Alibag and 5p.m. show of Sunil Shanbag’s latest play, “Stories in a Song” at Prithvi!

I had heard about the basic concept of the play and found it really adventurous so I was looking forward to it. Therefore, in spite of the hardships listed earlier and the fact that I had to travel for more than an hour to get back home, I decided to watch the show.

The play is supposed to be thought up by Shubha Mudgal and comprises 7 pieces built around musical traditions from northern India. As I settled down in the theatre, I saw a small orchestral arrangement to the side: a harmonium, a tabla, a dhol etc. etc. The show was delayed a bit because of the mad rains that day.  Eventually, after not so long wait it began.

The first piece, Songs of the Nuns, was the most melancholy among the seven pieces and also somewhat failed to catch the attention of a tired me especially in the nice, cozy, cool air conditioning of Prithvi. I started dozing off. My apologies to the actors, but honestly, throughout that piece I was thinking to myself “is this what I have dragged myself across waterlogged roads”? The piece was based on poems of Buddhist Nuns, the story of which I failed to understand.

The second piece took us to a brothel from the monastery. The story had something to do with Mahatma Gandhi and the Tawaif Sabha. The tawaif in this piece recounted in speech and song, an encounter between the tawaifs of Benares and Gandhi. I fought to keep myself awake through this piece too. I was about to decide to leave instead of disrespecting the actors with my suppressed yawns, when the third piece started.

It was adapted from Chandni Begum, an Urdu novel by Qurrat-ul-Ain Haider. Chandani Begum, beautifully portrayed the struggle of the family of folk singers and their attempts to persuade an influential newspaper editor to print some promotional material for their attractive daughter. They were unashamedly exhibiting the daughter or using her as a bait to get a forward push to their struggling careers. Nishi Doshi, as Bela, the attractive daughter in her 1950s sari and flower-pinned chignon, captured my attention completely with her old fashioned singing. Namit Das as her enthusiastic brother was quite funny but not so effective. By the end of this piece I was completely awake and I was happy that I had stayed.

The fourth piece, titled Bahadur Ladki, was my  favorite of all the seven. It was adapted from a work of the same name by Purva Naresh. It used nautanki - a folk theatre form involving singing, dancing and parody - to tell the story of a courageous girl who in colonial times confronted a wicked British officer played by Namit Das. He was electrifying. In spite of playing a leery, villainous character, he took the largest and loudest applause of the audience. It was just fantastic performance by Namit.

The fifth piece, Hindustani Airs, was based on the conflict between the western and Indian musical traditions. It was apparently very fashionable in colonial times to collect and transcribe “native” music. Pia Sukanya was fabulous as Lady Isabelle Harding, a “gori mem”, eager to learn a “Hindu” melody from certain Khanum Jaan played by Mansi Multani. It was fun to watch the two women of two different cultural background and social status. However, after watching the high energy performance in the fourth piece, this piece did manage to match up the same energy level.

The next performance, titled Whose Music Is It? – was one of the weakest pieces. It was a very loosely scripted story about a dedicated singer whose music gets commercially exploited by an unscrupulous, profit maniac music director/ music company owner behind his back. It was disheartening to see the graph of the evening going lower.

That was until the final story, Kajri Akhadas. Namit Das, Shubhojit, Gopal Tiwari and the rest of the cast captivated the entire audience with their jugalbandi singing. The audience sang along with the actors, they laughed at and with them. The fact that all the actors were such talented singers made it an exceptional experience and icing on the cake was English kajri by Namit, once again! He stole the show with his voice and what a voice! It was the perfect way to end the evening. Definitely worth the trouble through the mad traffic jams and mucky, muddy roads of Mumbai.