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Ten years of Sunil Shanbag's 'Stories in a Song'

Music, history and politics come together in this significant play, to be staged live again at Prithvi Theatre after a gap of a year

A huge part of planning the show was to find actors who could also sing well. Training them for this play was an experience in itself.
A huge part of planning the show was to find actors who could also sing well. Training them for this play was an experience in itself.

Many enduring works of art come with stories of serendipity. Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song is one such play, which is making a comeback after a year’s gap induced by the pandemic. The upcoming physical show at Prithvi Theatre is significant in more ways than one. It marks the tenth anniversary of this play.

Ten years ago, when singer Shubha Mudgal and tabla maestro-scholar Aneesh Pradhan discussed an idea with Shanbag about a theatrical performance for their music festival, Baaja Gaaja, it was meant to be a one-off performance. Mudgal and Pradhan felt that "if some stories about Indian music, musicians and music making could be told through theatre, it could perhaps make for a very engaging and yet informative experience.” The performance, however, received such a positive response that the team was compelled to have another run at Prithvi Theatre. They haven’t looked back ever since.

Theatre director and documentary maker Shanbag, who has kept himself and his team busy with performances within the studio space and online work as well in these trying times, states that even this tenth anniversary date was discovered accidentally after its Prithvi run was finalised. "This is a play that came together in the most unusual way and has worked for years,” he adds.

Shanbag credits the research done by Mudgal and Pradhan, which offered him a clear vision of what needed to be done. It was put together in five to six weeks. “It’s a multi-layered play. It caters to those who enjoy music. But, added to that are also layers of politics of culture and historical context.”

One of the most loved stories in the play is about an Indian courtesan, teaching Hindustani music to an English lady. For most part, you see the English lady unable to grasp the lesson, only to render an equally evocative piece in Western music at the end, with the two forging a beautiful bond. It breaks several stereotypes and shows “sisterhood”, which is musical and political at the same time.

Mansi Multani, who plays the courtesan in this story, feels this play has altered much for her. “I had sung casually at a gathering and was recommended to the director when this play was being planned. I auditioned and that was it. Sunil’s documentary background really plays a part here. Of course, I am partial to the story in which I play the courtesan. It is so beautiful how two women come together in the end,” she says.

A huge part of planning the show was to find actors who could also sing well. Training them for this play was an experience in itself. “Some of the actors were good singers and had musical training as well. But it’s the discipline of theatre that I found fascinating when we conducted workshops with them to create the music," says Mudgal. "Whether it was a group rendition, or a solo, each actor-singer was eager to learn and rehearse without any hangups.” Such is the love of the actors for this play that according to Shanbag even after 160 shows, they have managed to retain 95 percent of the original cast.

Namit Das, who comes from a musical family, has always focused on acting rather than music. “But this play brought me back to music. And most of all, the play, with its historical context and musical traditions, is magical. After all these years, we have come to this play to be with each other and go back with much positivity,” he says.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has resulted in a huge setback for the theatre industry. Finances have taken a beating for most theatre companies and theatres. Whether it is the news of vaccine or fresh unlock guidelines, theatre groups and audiences are both looking forward to the shows. “It is very reassuring to know that live performances are being revived after a devastating and barren period of almost a year. I hope with all my heart that everyone stays safe and that we are slowly but carefully able to slip back into our pre-covid lives, which were so full of live performances,” says Mudgal.

'Stories in a Song' will be staged at Prithvi Theatre between 5-7 February

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