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Rhythm & Raga

Tropical Musical

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It's expensive and a logistical nightmare. So why do Indian directors love musicals? It's rocking, they chorus.

In India today, the term 'musical' has two connotations. The pure musical comes from the Indian tradition of folk theatre, where there is no difference between songs and dialogues. The other is the Western concept, where there is a distinction between spoken dialogues and song. Each has its own adherents, although the former, which borrows heavily from our folk traditions, is almost entirely embraced by Hindi or regional theatre. But all practitioners of the musical, whether in English, Hindi or any other language, face major problems today.

First of all, there are not enough actors to participate in musicals, which need special training and stamina. The multi-talented and skilled ones prefer to join either television or the movies, which have more or less killed musical theatre, feel directors Feroz Khan (Eva Mumbai Ma Chaal Jaiye), Sunil Shanbagh (Cotton 56, Polyester 84, Mastana Rampuri Urf Chappan Chhuri, Sex, Morality & Censorship), Swanand Kirkire (Aao Saathi Sapna Dekhen) and Mahesh Dattani (The Alchemist). The ones who are left are unable to perform all the three arts of dancing, singing and acting, sometimes simultaneously, on stage.

The other hitch is the lack of good sound technology, an important requisite for musicals. Most Indian auditoria are ill-equipped, feel the Mumbai directors, who invariably use live music in their shows. However, Dr Anuradha Kapur, director of the National School of Drama and the theatre group Vivadi (Umrao Jaan, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Centaurs), disagrees. She feels that most Indian auditoria have a sophisticated sound system and her Umrao, which was complicated in terms of including both live and recorded music, had no problems at all in any of the spaces it was performed in.

Shanbagh also cites the huge costs of mounting musicals as the other deterrent. Most Mumbai-based musicians are employed profitably in the film industry and quote prices which theatre cannot afford. Shanbagh and Utkarsh Mazumdar (Jagine Joun To Narsainyo — Ek Musical Gatha, Master Phoolmani) concur. Mazumdar has also faced a lack of discipline from professional musicians, whom he calls 'lazy' and 'averse to rehearsals'. Shanbagh says the problem can be solved by hiring folk musicians, but urban theatre practitioners lack the networking required for this. He himself tackled it by contacting two folk musicians and a lavani dancer for regular work with his group.

Rahul DaCunha (Jesus Christ Superstar) says it costs almost Rs 50 to 60 lakh to put together a musical. Feroz Khan had to wrap up his enormously successful Gujarati musical, Eva Mumbai Ma Chaal Jaiye, which travelled to the US, because of the huge costs. Lilette Dubey (Dance Like A Man) wrapped up her Jaya — The Victory, a rock musical based on the Mahabharata, after 40 performances, because of the escalating cost of the set. Dr Anuradha Kapur and Neelam Mansingh Chaudhury (Nagamandala, Kitchen Katha) agree that musicals are expensive propositions.

In fact, lack of sponsorship is the other crisis faced by most directors. Kirkire says he cashes in on his name to get sponsors and shows. He is an award-winning film lyricist (Parineeta, Munnabhai, 3 Idiots) and supports his plays through money earned in films. Sponsors want to reach out to a wide audience, which is not possible in theatre because of the lack of auditoria and the high cost of maintaining a play over the years, he says. Most auditoria in India are commercialised, preferring to hire themselves out to seminars and conferences, rather than theatre. "We don't respect our arts," grumbles DaCunha.

I faced a problem which is endemic in Delhi and smaller towns as well. The local actors are mostly amateurs. They lack the discipline and the will to work hard, joining theatre only as a stepping stone to modelling or films. I have managed to keep Mahim Junction on track for two years only because of changes in the cast and the fact that it is travelling internationally, which attracts actors.

A number of directors, particularly those associated with the NSD, like Amal Allana (Himmat Mai, Erendira, Nati Binodini), Anuradha Kapur, Neelam Mansingh Chaudhury and Asmita Group's Arvind Gaur (Ghashiram Kotwal, Ramkali), have circumvented this problem by working with a core group of loyal actors, who are repeated in every show. This bond reflects in their productions, which are well rehearsed and have good production values. Perhaps one director who has found the magic solution to all these problems is Ratan Lahkar of Kohinoor, Assam's popular, rural mobile theatre. "We have never asked anyone for money," he says, with justifiable pride. "Our group is self sustaining… the money for the shows and the payments to our team come from our gate money," which, according to actor Seema Biswas, who cut her teeth here, can run into crores of rupees in a season lasting eight months. The good payment also ensures discipline and dedication amongst the cast and crew who travel for months on end, performing throughout Assam.

Despite these problems, all the directors interviewed say they would love to carry on doing musicals, but in a uniquely urban-Indian idiom, distinct from both the Western musical as well as Indian folk styles. All of them continue to experiment in the hope of discovering (or should we say 'inventing'?) it some day.

"Musicals are pure entertainment and have the power of bringing common people to the theatre, but one has to do something meaningful," says Swanand Kirkire. He has a new musical on the anvil and is looking out for a sponsor for the sound technology. Sunil Shanbagh echoes the 'meaningful' part and continues adapting and writing new musicals in his trademark urban-rural genre.

Rahul DaCunha is all for shedding our "colonial complex" and developing home-grown, Hindi-English musicals, that resonate "with our own rhythm". The key is to go 'big' on ideas and the music and not the sets or special effects, he says. He is currently writing a new musical about young immigrants to Mumbai and the problems they face in the city.

Amal Allana of Theatre and Television Associates and chairperson, NSD, feels that we are poised on the brink of creating an urban 'folk' tradition, which "has the potential to evolve into a generic form of popular theatre". But she cautions against it degenerating into a commodified 'ethnic' Mardi Gras type of carnival for foreign consumption, "because that is when art stops and mockery begins".

Neelam Mansingh Chaudhury, a Chandigarh-based director, is experimenting with music as language and an interpretative tool on stage, in Punjabi musical theatre.

Gujarati director Utkarsh Mazumdar continues to work with traditional Bhangwadi Theatre because of its interactive style, which ensures intimacy with the audience.

Feroz Khan echoes the preference for intimacy and declares that along with that quality, cutting-edge content and form will help the Hindi musical to survive. Lilette Dubey is working on an English musical that is rooted in India but tells universal stories. She is working with writer Ramu Ramanathan on a new script, besides attempting to revive Jaya.

Playwright Mahesh Dattani is contemplating writing a musical that focuses on bhaav (sentiment) rather than elaborate musical orchestrations. "It is imperative that we develop our own urban sensibilities in musical theatre instead of borrowing heavily from western musicals or our own traditions," he says.

For Sanjna Kapoor, who runs Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, all these possibilities translated into reality when she tried to revive the musical in her festival in 2006. Of the 12 plays that she chose, nine premiered brand-new scripts, in different languages, and all of them provided live music. The festival offered varied fare, from an adaptation of the American musical Fantastiks and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, to folk musicals and new, contemporary works. She was also amazed at the tremendous bonhomie exhibited by all the participants, who even shared actors.

For Shanbagh, it was a great initiative because it encouraged a spurt in musicals in Mumbai and helped introduce indigenous forms. But would Kapoor repeat the feat? No, she declares firmly, it's too exhausting, but yes, Prithvi would certainly support those who would want to.

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