Karadi, the ‘bachelor bear’, comes alive in a full length musical for children ‘Once Upon a Bak-Bak Tree’

Karadi, the ‘bachelor bear’, has told children stories from 1996. Stories of forests and valleys, animals and trees, Gods and little children, superheroes and human beings. Through rhymes and poems, the singing bear has opened children to a distinctly Indian world, gently nudging them into the English language without overtly teaching them. From the audio books, Karadi now finally comes alive, in a full length musical, to be staged in Kochi today, called Once Upon a Bak-Bak Tree.

The Karadi Rhymes was always meant to be on stage, says Shobha Viswanath, director of children’s publishing house Karadi Tales. “When the first audio books were released, we found that many schools were using the entire soundtrack for their annual day plays. All that the children had to do was enact the stories while miming the Rhymes. That’s when we realised that this could be staged, but we envisioned a film, not a play!”

From book to play

The idea came to fruition when Chennai-based theatre production house, Evam, took up the Karadi Rhymes and scripted the 12-22 minute songs into a play about Jack and Jill hunting for Mother Goose, when Karadi steps up and takes over. “While we loved that script, the jokes were too subtle, and the story not active enough, so it was scraped.”

Evam then worked with all the stories that Karadi had told, picked The Lion and the Mouse and The Monkey and the Crocodile, bound them by a skeletal narrative, and merged many of the Rhymes with them to make Once Upon a Bak-Bak Tree. The musical unfolds beneath an ancient story-telling mango tree, called Bak-Bak, who tells of unusual friendships to a boy whose kite gets stuck in its branches. In the original production, Usha Uthup sang live many of the songs such as ‘Chai Chai’. She had originally recorded them for Karadi Tales’ audiobooks.

In Kochi though, Anuradha Sriram takes Usha’s place. The production also features the live music of Just Murali on the drums and Nishant on assorted instruments such as the guitar, accordion, harmonica and whistles.

Rhymes such as ‘The Kite Song’, ‘The Mango Song’, ‘Neem, Peepal, Banyan’ and ‘Chai Chai’, were penned by Shobha, originally to ease children into English through a culture that they could identify with, rather than through impersonal western rhymes.

Karadi Path, the offshoot of Karadi Tales, has shaped the rhymes into an organic language-learning syllabus for children, and they are the primary sponsors of the musical. Once upon… is in keeping with this vision in that it too “immerses the child in an environment that nurtures and fosters learning the language”.

But its primary aim is just good, quality entertainment, that doesn’t talk down to children, nor moralise to them, says Shobha. “Writing for children isn’t like writing for adults in that it ideally shouldn’t have a complex plot, nor sub-textual hints or puns in language. Most of the humour is the ‘slipping-on-a-banana-peel’ kind, and its success is in perfect comic timing. As an adult I may not find it immensely funny, but that could be because when we grow older, we lose that visceral, innocent, immediate laughter we had as kids,” says Shobha.

For adults too

Previous shows of Once Upon.. at Chennai and Coimbatore have been as much a hit with the adults as the children, says Shobha. “For the children, they’re singing and dancing along because they recognise these rhymes. For the parents, they are the active agents who have introduced these rhymes to their children; it’s not something they’ve picked up off the television. So the mothers and grandmothers have often learnt these songs before the kids.” From Kochi, Once Upon.. will travel to Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai before it returns to Chennai. With each new show the script gets tighter, says Shobha. “We hope to make this an annual event, and next year we may make a light-hearted play drawn from Karadi’s mythology stories!” Once Upon a Bak-Bak Tree will be staged at JTPac, Tripunithura, today at 5.30 p.m.