Song, dance & history

Song, dance & history

in the theatre

Song, dance & history

William Shakespeare, who regaled Elizabethan audiences more than 400 years ago, is now entertaining Indian theatre-goers in Gujarati and Hindi. Sunil Shanbag has been taking his adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well across the country, performing in these two Indian languages.

Originally written in Gujarati, for Globe to Globe Festival, London, when 37 plays of the bard were performed in 37 languages from around the world, Shanbag’s play Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon had the Gujarati diaspora in UK flocking to London to watch and hear Shakespeare in their mother tongue. It was the same back home in India, when Shanbag took his play to different Gujarati-populated towns and cities. Shanbag then decided to stage the play in Hindi as Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon. This too has been running to packed theatres.

As in the original Shakespearean play, Shanbag’s story is about a young girl determined to marry a man who is not at all keen on marrying her. Shanbag follows Shakespeare’s plot but sets it against the socio-economic ambience of the Gujarati mercantile community of 1900, and so you have his heroine pursuing her lover from Saurashtra to Bombay to Rangoon. Charming glimpses of these places in the 1900s are woven into the dialogues, with the details of Bombay, before it became an overcrowded metropolis, being especially interesting.

We met Shanbag, who learnt the craft of theatre under the legendary Satyadev Dubey, started his own theatre group, Arpana, in 1985, and has produced a large body of work, to know more about his style of theatre. Excerpts:…

What made you set a Shakespearean play against a Gujarati background?

Though I put up this play at the behest of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, London, the play was meant for the Gujarati community in UK. However, I did not want to just translate Shakespeare into Gujarati. I wanted my audience to identify with the story. Being a history buff, I thought of re-playing a bit of their own history to them and I was lucky to find a writer, Mihir Bhuta, who is equally passionate about history and understood my concept and the cultural context immediately.

In the 1900s, many ambitious youngsters from Saurashtra came to Bombay, a flourishing port that had given rise to merchant princes dealing in opium, precious stones and oil. From here many of them ventured out to China, Burma and other foreign lands. This is the background against which I set my play, with my protagonist Bharatram migrating from his hometown to Bombay and then to Rangoon.
What was very encouraging was that apart from the Indian audience at Globe, the international audience, too, enjoyed the colonial background of the period, with references to the British Governor and the medical system, and the transition of small-town folks from dhotis to waistcoats and trousers, styled according to the fashion of the times.  

The play is studded with song and dance…

Yes, it is a musical based on the Bhangwadi style that has an urban musical tradition and was popular during that period. It was organically suited to my subject. Uday Mazumdar, who has a very good understanding of Gujarati music, composed the songs. Also, inspired by Bhangwadi, we had painted backdrops instead of sets to establish the different locations. The particular style of storytelling, the painted curtains, the use of verse, the live musicians on stage, the songs…all these elements of Bhangwadi theatre suited my subject very well. And they fitted in perfectly with the Shakespearean need.

Your partiality for history and musicals was evident in another play, ‘Loretta’.

Loretta was set in Goa and we used the Tiatre form for this play. What struck me about Tiatre as a form was its power to provoke audiences with socio-political satire and yet celebrate a way of life.            

Tell us about ‘Stories in a Song’.

Stories in a Song came out of conversations I had with Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan after they saw my production of Mastana Rampuri urf Chappan Chhuri, which was a fresh adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. They were excited about what actors brought to rendering of music on stage and wanted to see if we could push this further. The plan was to use a contemporary musicology approach to understanding Hindustani music; and to understand society through the filter of music. We created theatre pieces based on research that Shubha and Aneesh had already done. Shubha composed the music and we created an ensemble of very talented actor-singers to present the show.

In 2007, your penchant for history was seen in ‘Cotton 56, Polyester 84’ that traced the deterioration of the textile industry in the then Bombay. What drew you to this subject?

The idea for this play was by playwright Ramu Ramnathan. He had spent over a year researching the experience of mill workers and their families. When I heard he was working on this project, I asked if I could direct the play and he kindly agreed. To me, Mumbai’s essential character is largely coloured by its strong working-class culture; and the textile mill workers are very much a part of this. And yet, if you look at our bourgeois theatre, there is hardly any work depicting the city’s working-class experience or history. I felt this play was a great opportunity to do this.