Sparkling musical interludes and old-world diversions

From ‘Bandish 20-20000 Hz’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

An overhanging giant punkah is the ornate visual centrepiece of the mise en scène of ‘Bandish 20-20000 Hz,’ Purva Naresh’s latest play. It certainly signals the nostalgia-tripping the play would likely to indulge in but it is also a relic of imperialism — it was unseen punkhawallahs who would work it behind the scenes. It seems appropriated more for vintage effect than social commentary even if the play flits between pre-Independence India, when national pride burnt bright on the anvil of the freedom struggle, and a contemporary situation in which a toxic kind of nationalism is rearing its head.

Time warp

Two doyennes of Hindustani music, classical vocalist Beni Bai (Nivedita Bhargava) — a recurring figure in Naresh’s plays, alongside faithful retainer, Munnu (Danish Husain) — and nautanki artiste Champa Bai (Anubha Fatehpuria) become emissaries from the past, perhaps past their prime, but resolutely holding on to their legacies. They meet backstage at a cultural event marking 70 years of independence, in which they are both to be honoured. The green room in which they are stationed could well be a traveller’s sarai, where time appears to stand befuddlingly still, even though the irate stage producer (Harsh Khurana), managing affairs on stage, would like us to believe otherwise.

From ‘Bandish 20-20000 Hz’

From ‘Bandish 20-20000 Hz’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In this ‘waiting room,’ Naresh effects a time-warp, taking us past decades in a few seconds as we visit the characters in their salad years. She offsets these old-world diversions with Beni’s dementia, an abyss that swallows whole a chequered life, and the ‘first world’ preoccupations of latter-day singers — Kabir (Hitesh Malukani) and Moushumi (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, who also stands in as the younger self of both older women) — who become ciphers of a suspect modernity, lacking the heart and soul of eras past, while still eager to sit in and learn.

However, these juxtapositions frequently end up as pat and perfunctory. When a pervasive grapevine brands Kabir ‘anti-national’ for singing in a ‘neighbouring country,’ Champa waxes eloquent about when she was banned by the British for her lascivious numbers laced with patriotism. A veteran of the Kolkata stage, Fatehpuria is in good form throughout, providing the play with several evocative moments. While given to a flavourful colloquial tongue, she is not as raw and earthy a presence as her nautanki bona fides might suggest, but her refinement allows her to also stand in as a surrogate for Beni, who is consigned to silence except during the musical set-pieces in which Bhargava takes centre stage. They are not counterpoints as much as they are kindred spirits.

One can marvel at Fatehpuria’s investment in an affair marked with frequent longueurs, in which the drama is rather thin on the ground. Yet, it almost makes sense because the venture is really a rigmarole masquerading as a play, and it needs an astute narrator to string together anecdotes from Beni’s and Champa’s lives, which in turn announce the melodious numbers, composed by Shubha Mudgal, that suffuse the play with vintage cadences of an aching beauty.

Music and comedy

It is in the musical interludes that the chamber piece shines. For Bhargava’s rendition of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ‘Ja Kahiyo,’ Naresh executes a piquant throwback to when Beni was a regular at All India Radio, before cultural sanitisation elbowed out courtesans like her from the airwaves. Top-notch ensemble singing is in evidence in ‘Victoria Rani,’ a paean to the eponymous queen, and its remedy, the patriotic ‘Charkha Chala Chala Ke,’ as well as in ‘O Man Lagi’ that provides a soaring musical crescendo. And, in Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Nuqoosh E Hasrat,’ we get a ‘jugalbandi’ of contrasting musical styles.

Purva Naresh

Purva Naresh   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Welcome comic relief is provided by Husain’s Munnu, with the choicest lines. He is amusingly guttural at times, but the sophisticated dyed-in-the-wool raconteur in Husain frequently surfaces. He uses Munnu as the launching pad for quips rather than the turf of nuanced characterisation, giving us little sense of the endearingly compromised masculinity and humanity that makes Munnu such a character for the ages (so memorably essayed by Imran Rasheed in Naresh’s Aaj Rang Hai). Saddled with broad strokes as Moushumi, Chakraborty Singh nonetheless brings a competence of delivery when standing in for the younger Beni or Champa, quite interchangeably, but it is a performance held back by an occasional lassitude of demeanour, as if she isn’t wholly convinced of her characters’ impetuousness.

‘Bandish 20-20000 Hz’ scores well in terms of language and sensibility but its thematic inadequacies catch up with it. Naresh is unsettled about the state of the country, but does not really confront our notion of nationhood head on. The harking back to idealised early patriotism, collocated with modern conflicts in which oppression is shown most simplistically, doesn’t bring us any closer to the ‘desh bhakti’ that could actually become an antidote to intolerance.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 7:11:01 PM |

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