Indian theatre music takes in more from the world

January 8th, 2010 - 2:15 pm ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, Jan 8 (IANS) From Bal Gandharv, who gave the Marathi stage a definite musical genre in the early 20th century, to eminent music director Bhaskar Chandavarkar, who fused traditional Indian music with western jazz and folk, Indian theatre music has acquired a more global face.

“Traditionally, music has always been important in theatre. An actor had to be a musician and a dancer on the stage as Indian audiences were used to hearing dialogues musically. Now, over the last 100 years, theatre music has changed with the inroads of technology and western sounds to become more universal,” veteran Bhopal-based stage director and art filmmaker Bansi Kaul told IANS.

However, despite the changes, Indian theatre music, unlike Bollywood, has managed to retain its indigenous flavour because of slow cross-cultural assimilation, the director said.

According to Kaul, instead of painting different locales in a play, “music in theatre was used as an interlude to convey switch of time, place and ambience”.

“Poetry and songs were thrown into theatre so that the audiences might see it more aesthetically,” he said.

In the early decades of the 20th century, many folk forms of theatre were identified as oral. “For example, the ‘Maanch’ theatrical tradition from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh was meant to be heard, not seen,” Kaul said.

Rabindranath Tagore carried the tradition forward with his 3,000 musical compositions, many of which were used in his dance-dramas and musical plays. During Tagore’s lifetime, some were staged at Santiniketan university he set up in West Bengal’s Birbhum district — in an area also known as a centre for wandering minstrels called Bauls.

The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which came into being in 1942, set the trend with its music-based mobile performance bands.

“The association created a legacy of songs that inspired the struggle for independence and borrowed heavily from the West - especially from the civil rights movement in the US,” Kaul said.

Almost all leading theatre personalities like Mohan Upreti, K.N. Panikkar, Utpal Dutt, Habib Tanvir and Panchanan Pathak were attached with the IPTA at one time or the other.

“It was primarily because theatre music in India, unlike movie music, was message-oriented. Music over the years became a separate language running parallel to the text on the stage,” Kaul said.

While Sheila Bhatia gave India its “first Hindustani opera” in the 1950s with productions like “Heer Ranjha”, in the 1970s Bhaskar Chandavarkar “globalised” theatre music with his score in Vijay Tendulkar’s play “Ghasiram Kotwal”. He fused folk, jazz and blues.

Music and theatre have been inseparable in India since ancient times as they were the only means of mass entertainment.

It got a fillip in the Middle Ages when Vaishnavite saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu used the Jatra form of folk theatre to sing praises of Lord Krishna. Around the same time, a similar musical tradition developed in the Bhavai folk plays of Rajasthan and Gujarat performed in honour of Goddess Amba.

Natyanaad - a series of nine stage music performances at the ongoing National School of Drama’s 12th Bharat Rangmahotsav - is stringing together the history of music in Indian theatre.

The annual festival opened Dec 6 with an opera-style performance of stage music directed by Kaul.

Natyanaad-1 featured two narrators and 30 musicians, who rendered songs composed and sung by Bal Gandharv, Tagore, Mohan Upreti, IPTA, Bhaskar Chandavarkar, Habib Tanvir and B.V. Karanth.

According to Kaul, Bal Gandharv can be called the torch-bearer of modern theatre music in the country and also the first composer to introduce women musicians on stage.

“In 1880, when Anna Saheb Kirloskar set up a theatre company and performed Kalidas’s ‘Shakuntalam’, the lead vocalist of his ensemble was a young man called Narayana Shreepad,” Kaul noted.

“One evening, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak came to watch one of Kirloskar’s performances. At the end of the show, an overwhelmed Tilak hugged the young singer and christened him Bal Gandharv,” Kaul said.

In 1937, “tired of singing a woman’s part”, Bal Gandharv introduced the famous dancing girl and theatre actress Gohar Bai Karnataki of Bijapur to the Marathi stage - opening a new chapter in Indian theatre.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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