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One Man's Bhimsen Is Another Man's Miles Davies
Playwright Ramu Ramanathan reflects on the music and songs in some of his plays.




Ramu Ramanathan


I attended Theatre Unit's production of MEDHA AND ZOOMBISH at Prithvi which was directed by Hidayat Sami. Lovely songs by Rohit Das. A camel song which makes you want to get up and dance and Medha's soulful solo with a big-hearted tune.

Besides a gung ho cast, the songs owe a lot to Rohit Das, a child of Mumbai (born in 1987), who jams on a guitar and a sitar. He is a child of the times who idolises on Michael Jackson and Ghulam Ali (whoever is available). And thrives on that adrenalin pumping thing called: life. I suspect if Charlie Chaplin could sing, it would be like Rohit Das.

I flash-backed to 2004. The Little Prithvi Players production of MEDHA AND ZOOMBISH saw two-and-a-half different drafts. And a talented acting crew who used to rehearse from midnight to dawn inside Prithvi Theatre because of a hectic work-schedule. As a result the songs were in shambles. No one could hit the D note. Somehow we huffed and puffed through our forty shows.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I must say what Rajat Dholakia (Juku) created for THE BOY WHO STOPPED SMILING (end nineties) was funky stuff. His approach to designing the sound and live songs was most constructive. Juku who had jammed with Mahendra Joshi during the golden age of Gujarat prayogik rangabhoomi, had no fixed template about how to create music with non-singers.

But one thing he said which I recall was: "a stage song should NOT have more than three notes because that's what an audience seeks. And remembers."

What did you mean? I had asked him. He replied, "Audiences in an auditorium tend to dismiss diametrically different and over-complex musical notes."

It has been a good tip for me.

We had a wonderful keyboardist, Sanjay Pandya who was the architecture of all the 150 shows THE BOY .... did.

Later when I did MEDHA AND ZOOMBISH, we tried to be clever and attempted too many chord changes. Plus the songs didn't work. The play sank under the weight of the high and mighty ragas.

With ME GRANDAD AD AN ELEPHANT .... YAAR, WHAT'S THE CAPITAL OF MANIPUR?... MEDHA AND ZOOMBISH II, we had huge casts of 25+ with 2-3 lead singers and a rousing chorus. So we improvised the songs and music. We played free. The idea was make variations on known classics, bepop, hip hop and even popular ditties. Again, very lucky that I was surrounded by young people who were musically inclined; some of them with classical music background.

Ahlam Khan, Anupama Jayaram, Kamaskhi Vyas (ME GRANDAD ... which had an attractively austere quality about it).

Prajna Rao and Monish Talpade and Tushar Bhor (MANIPUR ... brittle, angsty and jolting urban).

Swapnil Asgaonkar and Akshata Sawant (MEDHA AND ZOOMBISH II ... the pieces had a vivid sense of spontaneous composition, with ensemble passages appearing and disappearing in an informal manner).

Nagesh Bhosale and Ahlam Khan (ANGST ANGST COONTH COONTH BOOM BAM DHANDAL DHAMAAL KAPUT ... street theatre and sloganeering met ditties and folk songs)

Ahlam Khan and Akshata Sawant (SHAKESPEARE & SHE ... Very distinguished and soulful. Akshata and Ahlam cut a striking figure with a harp, their voice plunging deep and soaring high)

All three plays developed a kind of parallel, rhythmically related and appropriately phrased line. The music on stage was inspired by the music they had heard but the nice thing was, these young people had a fascinating interpretation of the original theme in their own way.

What I learnt from these young talent was how to approach a song in a play. When singing in a play, I noticed their acting would become high pitched (voice trainers call this, a false note or a heightened octave) thirty seconds before a song. This used to aid the actor-singer to launch from speech - into the song.

The five rules, they followed were:

1) The song starts thirty seconds before it "actually" starts. Use those thirty seconds not to speak normally. If your pitch is normal, you ruin the opening of the song.

2) Never-ever jump into a song unless you're Jitendra Abhisheki..

3) Many of the actors mumble to themselves before the first note came up, so as to build up energy levels before it's time to utter those words. The simple thumb-rule was: twice that energy (and velocity) when a song is approaching.

4) Ensure the song is conveyed in your singing and NOT in your dancing.

5). And finally, I kept reminding actors, you're a singer but above all an actor. Not a singer-dancer. It seems to me it's a perfectly sensible approach to adopt, for a newbie singer.

COTTON 56, POLYESTER 84 relied on two traditions. Bhakti music and the working class mill songs of Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh.

The play relied on tradition.

That always helps.

For JAZZ the method was different.

I am a hardcore Bandra "chokra" boy who studied in the Jesuit school St Stanislaus. There were three things that defined my school days: The poverty among some of my classmates; their skills with the football; and lots of music. I think the school choir in the St Peter’s Church played some extraordinary music. The process of research for JAZZ helped me link history and art, political and creative freedom among the Goans and East Indians. For me the play helped me re-visit those days; and it was an eye opener.

Now the play is about the difficulty of people like Sebastian D’Souza and Antony Gonsalves and Chic Chocolate, and how they found studio jobs in the larger-than-life Bollywood orchestras because of their skill with harmonies and ability to read western musical notations. Some of the biggest hits in Bollywood have been arranged by these musical unknowns.

Be that as it may, jazz is the darling of the avant-garde. It will always be pedigreed minority art.

With JAZZ the play was constructed around Merlyn being the music composer and the fact that the young Rhys could play the sax so brilliantly. Rhys' influence played a very significant part in JAZZ. It was a merging of Rhys and Bugs Bharagava (and later Denzil Smith who sang the songs) and the rhythms of contemporary forms like hip-hop with earlier jazz conceptions of swing, which has now become commonplace all over the jazz world.

Merlyn tried to develop a new kind of rhythm-dominant jazz sound which related as much to the tightly interlocking patterns of hip-hop and a bit of dance-floor music and the looped sounds of computer music and drum-machines.

And so the tale unfolds.

If you look around in India (and the world), a lot of plays are starting to look back on theatre's musical classical innovations and reinterpreting them, as the Marathi theatre is doing of late. Lots of musical plays from Sangeet Natak, to Lok Natya, to Lavani. I've been attending a few of these plays, and some are fun.

Let there be more music. There is nothing to match the thrill of a high note on the stage.

Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright.


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