It’s a musical, it’s old and it’s not Broadway (Feature)

January 12th, 2009 - 11:36 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 12 (IANS) You could call it India’s answer to a Broadway musical, but a Marathi play that has bowled over people in the capital actually revives the glorious 130-year-old theatre tradition of Sangeet Natak.”Awagha Rang Ekachi Zala”, which was staged here as part of the ongoing National School of Drama (NSD) festival, is a musical play. It seeks to bring forth the conflict between traditional and modern kirtan, a genre of devotional music which is under pressure to adapt to the dictates of time.

But it goes much beyond its theme - it resuscitates the tradition of Sangeet Natak that died a slow death in the 1960s after Bollywood took centrestage. And it is also the first full-length modern Sangeet Natak play to come to the capital in over four decades from its cradle in Maharashtra.

“The last big Sangeet Natak play was ‘Katyar Kalzat Gusli Lagi’ in 1967,” Anant Panshikar, owner of the Natyasampada Tele-Theatre, which produced the play, told IANS.

The company, formed in 1963 by Prabhakar Panshikar, has staged several Sangeet Natak plays.

According to him, “Awagha Rang…” is a trendsetter because it has used the Sangeet Natak (musical) format to connect audiences to Indian devotional changes and the changes taking place within.

“It is a difficult format,” he said.

The tradition developed between 1834 to 1885 in the Mumbai-Pune-Solapur-Kolhapur region since the first performance of “Sita Swayamwar”.

This format - a synthesis of theatre and classical music - was subsequently adopted by several playwrights leading to a spate of musical dramas like “Sangeet Saubhadra”, “Sangeet Sharda”, “Sansaykaloi”, “Bhavbandhan”, “Ekach Pyala”, “Manapman”, “Yayati Devayani”, “Madarmala” and “Matsyagandha”.

“Sangeet Natak boasts of several big names. Dinanath Prasad Mangeshkar, the father of Lata Mangeshkar, was one of the early pioneers of Sangeet Natak theatre. The Balwant Film Company owned by Mangeshkar promoted the genre,” the legendary P. Savkar, who acted in the play, told IANS.

Savkar, who took to the Sangeet Natak stage at the age of five, has seen the growth, decline and revival of the genre.

Sangeet Natak, said Savkar, has no alternative but to change and cull from contemporary music. “The early plays lasted for four hours. But no one now has the patience to sit trough. The modern Sangeet Natak plays are of shorter duration,” Savkar said.

“Awagha Rang…”, which has played for 500 nights across Mumbai and Pune, will travel to Philadelphia in the US in July.

It is the story of well-known ‘kirtankar’ or devotional singer Appa Velankar and his family. Appa, the patriarch who is also a versatile kirtankar, is fighting his son Sopan, who wants to modernise the tradition by adding fusion sounds to it.

His conservatism spills over into his family as well. Appa stops his daughter from marrying the man she loves and orders son Sopan, the new-age kirtankar armed with a guitar and mobile phone, to leave home.

Fate takes a turn. Breezes in Jenny, Appa’s America-born Indian disciple, who wants to learn kirtan. The little girl rings in change and Jenny tries to reunite the Velankar family.

The play, directed by Ashok Samel and written by Meena Nerurkar, is a milestone for several reasons - it marks the comeback of Sangeet Natak and casts a galaxy of versatile Sangeet Natak star-musicians who represent the best of the old and the new.

The score was a brilliant mix of fusion, pop, rock and devotional sounds - all set within the format of traditional Vaishnavite kirtan. The cast included Savkar, Amol Bawdekar, Swarangi Marathe, Jhanavi Panshikar and Suruchi Adarkar.

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