Theatre Talk Theatre

On the art of making music for drama

A scene from the play, ‘Piya Behrupiya’

A scene from the play, ‘Piya Behrupiya’  

Well-known composer Amod Bhatt shares how the legend, B.V. Karanth, helped him find his life’s calling

Amod Bhatt is one of the few composers in the country who specialises in theatre music and has worked with some of the best directors during his career of over 30 years; the Sangeet Natak Akademi honoured him for his achievements in 2014.

Born into a family steeped in classical music, Bhatt was learning the tabla and vocal music, when an unexpected opportunity came his way.

“Bharat Bhavan had been established in Bhopal, B V Karanth had joined in the mid-1980s and started the Rangmandal Repertory. Karanthji’s work is soaked in music. He said he could not conceive of a play without music. He wanted to form a music team and was scouting for talent in Bhopal. An acquaintance took me to meet him, and when he learnt of my background, he offered me a job. I joined after I graduated. Some of the most famous directors of the time were working there on great plays like Hayavadan, Ghashiram Kotwal, Mitti Ki Gadi, Skandgupta — a combination of musical and realistic plays. Barry John, B.M. Shah, John Martin and so on directed plays at Bharat Bhavan, Peter Brook and Fritz Bennevitz visited, there were writers and artistes teaching students about literature and art. It was a heady time and working with Karanthji developed my theatre sensibilities — with every play I learnt more. When there was a programme organised to honour poet Shrikant Verma and later, when P.L. Deshpande was given the Kalidas Samman and one of his plays was staged, I was asked to do the music. So the journey started then.

“When Karanthji worked on the music for his plays, he would sometimes leave a piece incomplete and ask me to complete it or improvise on it, so he gave me responsibility quite early. He also asked me to teach the actors. This kind of training is not possible in the gharana tradition, where the guru tells you to sit behind him, listen and learn for years, before you can attempt something on your own, and that too after taking permission of the guru. Even today that’s how it is in gurukuls, whereas in theatre, opportunities were offered and paths opened up. When I completed or polished Karanthji’s music and he approved, my skill for composing music developed , which I built over my foundation in classical music.”

Folk tradition

Karanth also brought the richness of Indian folk music to the plays done by the Repertory, which exposed young Amod Bhatt to folk traditions from all over the country. “There were performers from various regions so I learnt folk forms such as nacha, mach, pandvani, bhavai and nautanki. I did my own research too, particularly in Manipuri singing patterns and traditional instruments. I remember, George Lavada had come from France to direct a production of Phaedra; he said he didn’t want any Western instruments, and I was asked to work only with Indian instruments. So I used harmoniums and a variety of Manipuri percussion instruments. It was new for him, both he and Karanthji loved the music. Because he believed in a collaborative process, it was possible for me to experiment with so many styles and dimensions of music.”

Eventually, Bhatt made his way to Mumbai in 1996, to work in films and television, and did the title music and background scores for several serials (he won an award for Upanishad Ganga), cut a couple of albums. He had barely settled in, when theatre directors like Nadira Zaheer Babbar, Waman Kendre, Jayadev Hattangady, Atul Tiwari, Salim Arif, Atul Kumar (his Piya Behrupiya went all over the world) asked him to work on the music of their plays. “So my focus was divided again. I may not have done too many films, but my real achievement is when Gulzarsaheb appreciated the work I did in setting his long poem on Mumbai to music. One thing I always insist on, I will not compose a tune, and then expect the song to be written to fit it.”

Inevitably, Bhatt started getting offers from drama institutions in Mumbai and elsewhere in the country, as visiting faculty, to conduct workshops and teach theatre music. “So many doors opened for me; everybody I worked with gave me a free hand and trusted me. I learnt the art of teaching actors how to sing in a play for which I devised several exercises. They may be able to hold a tune, but they have to merge it with the character and the scene. Just like they work on physical training, they must also train their voices and understand music. Even if the play is not a musical, the actor must be able to relate to the background score. Though I had come to Mumbai to compose for films, I did not make too much effort in that direction... in the end theatre won,” says Bhatt.

(The writer is a critic and columnist)

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Printable version | May 22, 2020 11:10:10 PM |

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