Music and theatre

November 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

When S.G.Kittappa was the uncrowned monarch of the Tamil stage, during the early decades of the twentieth century, no one could visualize a Tamil play without music. Even the first social play in Tamil (1879), ‘Pratap achandra Vilasam’,  written by Rama swamy Raju, offered a multi-lingual music menu, Tamil, Telugu, Hindustani and hold your breath, English! We have no record whether this play was ever staged, but there is an apocryphal story  that the  play was never allowed to be  performed, as the portrayal of the hero bore close resemblance to one of the well-known zamindars, who lived in Cindadripet at that time.

It is said that whatever may be the play, whether it was ‘Valli Thirumanam’ or ‘Harishchandra’,  Kittappa unfailingly made the stage entry singing  Saint Thygaraja’s  Telugu  sahitya, ‘Everini’. The audience would not have pardoned him if he didn’t. In those days,the first question that was put to any kid aspiring for a theatre career was, ‘ Can you sing?’.

Bharata muni, the author of ‘Natya Sasatra’ would never have imagined a theatre without music and dance. In fact, ‘Natya’ in Sanskrit and ‘Koothu’ in Tamil, synonymous with ‘theatre’ in English,  included music, dance and play. ‘Muthamizh’ should actually mean, ‘isai, nadanam’ and ‘natakam’. ‘ Cilappadikaram’  by the Chera prince, Ilango, a Jain ascetic, is known as , ‘muthamizh viraviya pattudai seyyul’, which means ‘an integrated literary genre comprising, music, dance and drama conveyed in the conventional poetic form’.  Classical and folk forms of music and dance are the characteristic features of this remarkable epic.

It is unfortunate that in the modern Tamil theatre, music and dance are banished in the plays dealing with social themes. One may ask whether it is possible to sing and dance in a social play.

Why not?

When Bernard Shaw wrote ‘Pygmalion’, a serious satirical play dealing with grammar and phonetics, he would have never imagined that when it was metamorphosed into a  popular Broadway musical and later into a film, re-christened  as, “My fair lady’ , it would  fetch him  an Oscar!  (And Shaw is the only writer who got Osacar and Nobel Prize till date!  ‘The King and I’, a roaring Braodway musical in the fifties of the last century is basically about the clash of

two cultures, the West and the East. Music got integrated beautifully with the seriousness of the theme in both plays as they were presented on the stage giving an impression, as if music was  an intrinsic part of the basic thematic concern!

We have developed a rigid opinion that music can go well only with the mythological plays and not with plays that deal with social themes. The social reformist plays of the forties during the last century, nearly most of them being party-oriented  spat fire and brimstones in the name of dialogues that music would have been  considered totally inappropriate  In such a thunderous exhibition  of verbal extravaganza.  Later, they were replaced by family themes, middle class sob stuff in which the hero or the heroine  tore emotions into shreds by loud declamations and body hysterics.

And later, for a change, the theatre-going middle class urban crowd  wanted to laugh their heads off in theatre, instead of shedding tears, which initiated ‘ Bob Hope,  Here comes Lucy’- like shows, that guaranteed jokes  every second.. Such plays gave little scope for the musical idiom to be displayed  on the stage. And the horror was, in the name of background music, cinematic versions of sound and fury  totally  unrelated to what was happening on the stage, created noise pollution all over.

Can one call ‘ Cilappadikaram’ a mythological theme? It is about a merchant prince, his chaste wife and a royal courtesan  It is also about the miscarriage of justice by a blundering king. It is a human story, which would be in the modern parlance, a social theme. But how the poet narrates this theme  as an happy blend of music, dance and above all, as drama , no single aspect of it appearing as a digression , would provide an amazing experiencer  if only one were to read  the epic and visualize!

Years ago, I saw a Manipuri play on a social theme. I had this impression earlier that  it was impossible to write a realistic play for the Manipuri stage. And it was a pleasant surprise to me to see that the play ,which was about economic  exploitation, conveyed through music and dance( with excellent choreography to back it up)   had also a scene portraying drawing room discussions on Marxian dialectics( a subtle satire on Marxian intellectuals) !  It did not seem unnatural but appeared to be a part and parcel of the scheme of things that what made the play stand out!





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