Stories in a Song spills out of the boundaries of play, concert, education, and entertainment

When a production proclaims itself to be ‘a collage of music, theatre and literature’, it’s hard to ignore the intrigue inherent in it. And Stories in a Song does justice to both – its title, and tagline. Sunil Shanbag’s latest offering is a mélange of seven different pieces, strung harmoniously together. Itis a powerful series of performances that takes you actively and passionately through a part of the history of performing arts in India. To call this production a play is to not do it justice, and to call it a musical is sacrilege. It is something that will be as at home in a concert ground as on a theatre stage, which is where a full house turned up to watch it in Ranga Shankara.

The challenges in presenting such a piece were, as director Shanbag noted in an opening speech, numerous. To find actors who could sing (and who were not swallowed up by the film industry) was no mean task, but find he did. Each actor outshone the other (and in the last piece, deliberately so) in soul and song; Namit Das as the English officer, particularly so. Not only did he raise the bar in terms of performance, he also raised it with his vocal cords and got a round of applause as his reward.

The applause was as forthcoming during other parts of the production as well. Writers Aslam Parvez, Ashok Mishra, Purva Naresh, Vikram Phukan and Anil Deshmukh went beyond the obvious and chose incidents and situations that were, in their individual capacities, delightful nuggets of infotainment and, in their collective capacity, a tapestry of image and sound. Bahadur Ladki, Hindustani Airs and Whose Music is it? especially drew cheers and laughs in equal measure. Not surprisingly, the most well received pieces were those featuring a clash of cultures, whether international or intra. Post-independence India has come a long way if she can laugh at her colonial times with no misgiving. And laughing at oneself was something that the troupe did too. The sheer camaraderie and bonhomie on stage betrayed the sincerity with which the production was created and executed.

Conceived by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, Stories in a Song was a unique journey that dipped its toes into different eras and cultures. Stellar cast apart, the music was resplendent. From Sufi to kajri, Stories in a Song was an aficionada’s playground and a beginner’s school. The Hindi dialogue that interspersed the songs was lively and witty, appealing to even the little ones in the theatre space. And after two and a half hours, the cast and the crew got the standing ovation that they deserved.

Stories in a Song isn’t your typical theatrical outing. And because it spills neatly out of the boundaries of play and concert, education and entertainment, it destroys the binaries in the process. It can’t be critiqued by theatrical, musical or literary standards alone, but it raises important questions common to all: of ownership, identity, censorship, morality and voice. As the tawaif protests in the second segment, she can tell her story herself. And how well she does it!