After the initial lull in the performing arts space last year due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, one can now witness a spate of activity within theatre. The digital medium has become the new stage, with plays being streamed live in our living rooms. Aditya Birla’s theatre initiative, Aadyam, decided to film some of their earlier plays and put them online as ticketed shows on particular days.
The most recent one, which they have ‘staged’ online, is Purva Naresh’s Bandish 20-20,000Hz, a scathing comment on how we have destroyed intrinsic aspects of our culture after attaining freedom. The story revolves around the felicitation of two yesteryear singers by a local politician in a small kasbah in Uttar Pradesh on the occasion of 70 years of Independence. One was a nautanki singer in her heyday, and the other a baithak performer. Ironically, the celebrations meant to recognise their contribution to music, comprise hip-hop songs and dances, not folk or classical music. And it is the hip-hop performers who become the centre of all preparations for the evening.
The contrast is for all to see. While Champabai and Benibai, powerfully performed by Anubha Fatehpuria and Nivedita Bhargava respectively, are brought to the venue in rickety rickshaws, and made to wait for several hours, unattended, the hip-hop generation is driven there in a luxury car, and pampered thoroughly. Accompanied by a retinue of hair-stylist, make-up man and manager, Moushumi, played by the versatile dancer-actress-singer Ipshita Singh Chakraborty, who will shake a plump leg for the local bigwigs, throws starry tantrums which the supplicating bureaucrat-in-charge, essayed very convincingly by Harsh Khurana, caters to. From organic fruit juice to farm fresh salad, she gets it all, while the veteran singers subsist on tea and biscuits.
And then, there is a crisis. The young man, Kabir, who was to sing at the function, essayed with panache by actor Hitesh Bhojraj, suddenly becomes persona non grata as it is discovered that he has performed in a neighbouring country, for which he is being trolled thousands of his Indian fans. His presence at the venue now becomes a security risk, and he is asked to stay away. However, he insists on singing, or being paid double his renumeration for not performing.
Confusion continues to multiply with a power outage. With no recorded music to lip-sync to, Moushumi cannot perform her item numbers. Champabai, the irrepressible nautanki singer, eager to express her talent, offers to sing instead; but is snubbed by the bureaucrat, who has quite forgotten that she and Benibai are meant to be the stars of the evening. “You are here to receive samman patra, on the occasion of azadi, not to sing,” he chides. To which her man Friday, Munnu, played with gusto by Danish Hussain, retorts, “Yeh ghulami bhi dekhe hain, aura aazadi bhi.”
And so, the play unfolds, juxtaposing today’s sham culture with the skills of a bygone era, when Benibai’s rendering of thumri, bhajan, todi, had royalty vying for her attention, and Champabai enthralling large gatherings with her folk numbers, singing live. While Champabai graduated to singing poems of Leftist poets, Benibai, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement, composed stirring lyrics like Charkha chala chala ke/ Lenge Swaraj lenge.
The play looks at what has happened to these artists after dreams of Swaraj were fulfilled Prudish yardsticks made Champabai and Benibai cultural outcastes; with even All India Radio banning many of those who once held sway on its haloed premises.
Naresh, a multi-skilled musician herself, has drawn upon various sources, like her late filmmaker mother’s archival collection, Pran Nevile’s The Nautch Girls of India, and the Gandhi Sangralaya, to flesh out her story. The sharp, satirical narrative is interspersed with dances and songs, that are not just delightful but thought-provoking as well. The lyrics by Kaifi Azmi, Naresh Saxena and nautanki singer Gulabbai, set to music by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, make Bandish a deeply-layered play.
The satire and music are so intricately interwoven, that it is difficult to fathom whether the story was woven around the songs, or vice versa. Naresh, who is partial to musicals, clarifies that though she has, in the past, written stories around songs, in the case of Bandish, it was the story, inspired greatly by her grandmother, Beni Kunwar, and singers like Gulabbai that propelled the play. “Playing on the word bandish, which means both composition and bondage, I wanted to denounce the curbs on artistic freedom after Independence,” she explains.
Filming the play has had its own challenges. “The biggest challenge,” she points out, “was filming the various locations and timelines that the play traverses. On stage, this is achieved by lighting techniques, actors’ body language and change of sets. But shooting such a play in an auditorium is difficult," she elaborates. "A camera needs space to move around, especially for wide shots, which you can’t do in an auditorium. So, we shot with multiple cameras and shot large chunks at one go, calling for cut only when a scene ended naturally, to ensure that the organic flow of the play was maintained. This required a lot of detailed planning.”
Detailed planning is what viewers also have to do if they want to be glued to their computer screens for two-and-a-half hours, by ensuring a fast internet connectivity, a cup of coffee beside them, and more, before entering the ‘auditorium’, as you cannot pause the show and resume at will.
Bandish will be streamed online on Insider on 30 and 31 January, 2021