News that a grandson of Bismillah Khan sold four of the Ustad‘s shehnais to two goldsmiths in Benares for Rs 17,000 will surprise nobody.
For decades, the maestro’s large family lived off his genius and, now that the Ustad isn’t around, the rodents are attacking what little he left behind.
But more surprising – or, maybe, not at all surprising – is the lackadaisical attitude of the Varanasi MP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, to preserving, protecting and promoting the legacy of an amazing jewel of his constituency.
Having made more trips to Benares than its honourable MP, I wrote about this a couple of years ago in a diary in Outlook magazine:
“There are many pit-stops to tank up on humility in the race-track of life, but there is no better address than C.K. 46/62, Sarai Haraha. The place conforms to every known stereotype of a poor Muslim ghetto. The dirty lanes are not wide enough for two 56-inch chested men to cross each other without one of them having to perforce turn around to say ‘adab’. The cackle of screeching kid emanates like piped music from every shack and shanty. Bicycle-mounted knife-sharpeners do roaring business in front of wall-mounted urinals. The odd goat flees its suitors who in a short while will be its slayers. Ice-candy sellers invite the glare of youngsters vrooming on bikes to impress their beaus.
It boggles the mind, no, make that it blows the mind to think that Ustad Bismillah Khan perfected his inspiring music in this cacophony of sights, smells and noises. In another country, in another city, the home of an emblem of our syncretism would be a shrine, preserved and protected to remind two-bit stars what true genius is. That it doesn’t depend on who you were born to, where you grew up or who you sucked up to. But Modi is too busy calling a skills-development programme for the minorities ‘Ustad’ while the real one is in the backyard crying out for attention. “He goes around the world trying to build bridges,” says a tourist guide. “Here’s one ready and waiting. He just needs to tell his driver, ‘gaadi mod lo’.”
Actually, it is not that difficult to make the course correction. I counted 14 pictures of Bismillah Khan with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on the wall of the Ustad’s ‘living room’.”
The accompanying video shows how empty all our slogans of preserving our “culture” and “heritage” are on the ground – and how the Ustad’s craft was in spite of the narrow-mindedness of politicians of every hue.
In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen
A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.
Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.
These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.
The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.
The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.
“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.
The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.
The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.
Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”
This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.
Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.
This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.