“Seven notes to describe the universe, seven characters that populate the world of the stage,” is how Sonalee Hariderkar, 45, describes the essence of the play The Music in our Blood. “While they each inhabit their own lives, which intersect through the course of the play, they are all pitted against the enormous corpus of Indian musical tradition.”
The Music in our Blood, which Hardikar has written with Shubhra Prakash, 35, revolves around a young woman in search of two grand pursuits – her own sense of self, and her place within the Indian musical tradition. The play begins in 1980s Brooklyn, where Prema, an Indian woman has arrived after escaping a rigorous life of musical training in her family in Benaras. The writers describe Prema as being between two worlds – tradition and modernity, the known or the unknown.
As she contemplates her place and relationship with the Indian classical tradition, Prema, played by actors Monica Sharma and Ariaki Dandawate, is both juxtaposed against and challenged by her mother Archana. While the latter is symbolic of classical rigour, Prema is what the writers call “a rogue element to tradition”.
“The current version that we are performing was written in a bootcamp workshop at my home in the Bay Area, where we worked for about six hours a day, five days a week,” said Hardikar. “I conducted an initial four-day workshop with the actors, to establish a common vocabulary between them, and spoke to them about the musical cultures we would be addressing. The play has a lot of realms and requires tuning into them all.”
The writers met in San Francisco Bay area in May 2017, when Prakash approached Hardikar with an initial version of a script she had written with New York-based actor-director Marcus Yi. For Hardikar, who has acted in and directed plays performed in village repertoires in India, at international festivals and the Goodman Center in Singapore, this was a special script because of the new approach it took to a musician in the classical tradition. For Prakash, a trained Hindustani classical musician who has acted in and directed contemporary presentations of classics such as Romeo and Juliet, Devdas and Chokher Bali, writing a play that brings the human struggles of a musician to light was a profound reflection on her own life and experiences.
Prema, the protagonist of The Music in Our Blood, meets many people and encounters several perspectives in her journey to break away from the rigid traditions she has known, but also comes across a man who changes the path she chooses – German composer and musician Walter Kauffmann. A Jewish refugee who lived in Bombay and Calcutta, Kaufmann is widely known for the theme he composed for All India Radio.
Born in Karlsbad (now in the Czech Republic), Kaufmann had lived and worked in Berlin and Prague, before he realised that Europe was becoming unsafe for Jews. He arrived in Mumbai in 1934, and stayed for 14 years, during which time he was introduced to Indian classical music. Though he initially found it “alien and incomprehensible”, it became part of his own training, and himself.
While in Bombay, Kaufmann played with Edigo Verga, and Mehli Mehta (Zubin Mehta’s father). He wrote seven books about music, created music for a documentary titled Information of India, and composed the theme for AIR. While Kaufmann built an impressive career during his time in India, he was also an evangelist for music in the subcontinent, merging styles, studying elements and advocating for music to cross boundaries in order to create a sense of belonging for those, like himself, who had been displaced.
“Samara Weiss, a playwright, suggested Walter to me as a character, after which I read the book by Amrit Gangar, and [I introduced him] as a character in the play,” said Prakash.
“It was pure joy to read through Walter’s notes, to imagine him feverishly documenting and collating his new experiences in India,” added Hardikar. “We found his child-like excitement at each new thing, at each new discovery in Indian music [fascinating].”
Despite his “European stomach”, Kaufmann’s dedication seeps through the times, making him a personal hero for them both – and evolves into a character written into the play. When Prema and Walter meet on stage, her inner turmoil is soothed by Walter’s calm enthusiasm for the new and unknown. Prema’s confusion, which stems from the limbo between tradition and innovation that she finds herself in, is brought into perspective by Walter, who introduces her to the idea that where she previously saw oppression and challenges, she could eventually find opportunities and growth.
“Kauffman is [a] man who has had everything conceivable taken from him, and [yet] he does not quit,” said Michael Gentile, one of the two actors that play the role of Kaufmann. With his resilience in the face of the Holocaust and the Second World War, Gentile believes that Kauffman, “in his own small way, saves a piece of humanity in the middle of the great catastrophe of the 20th century.”
“He’s also someone that exemplifies the immigrant identity for us,” said Prakash. “And he’s a musician. So, there’s so much of him I understand. How can you [transfer] a feeling of your own into the space you are in? How can you understand music in different contexts? How does the art change when it goes somewhere else? Walter did this in Bombay, in his contribution to the Indian canon, and through him, Prema reflects, ‘If he can, why can’t I?’”
Power of music
Though The Music in our Blood revolves around Prema and Kaufmann, other characters add to its richness and while the play holds a tight narrative exploring many themes – modernity, tradition, motherhood and human relationships – music adds another dimension to it.
“Our composer, Lakshmikant Bongale, is just unbelievable” said Hardikar. Bongale’s compositions are rooted in the Hindustani classical tradition and he has used ragas, thumris and khayals derived from and based in Indian folklore. In an interview, he has said that as he composed for the play, he aimed to keep the voices of these women alive in order to reflect the essence of their own lives and the way they see the world.
“I have always felt theater should exist with music, and even in the traditional (Indian) folk arts, that’s how it is,” said Prakash. “In our play, it took us time to understand how to communicate and navigate between the musicians and actors, between a tune and a dialogue, but the musicians were well aware of how the music breathes through the play.”
The 2018 set of shows open on June 11 in New York City and while The Music in My Blood received praise for its 2017 shows – performed in the Scott Fitzgerald theatre in Rockville, Maryland, and in New Jersey as a big production – the playwrights hope that it will take a new form this year because its characters and the questions it raises are universal.
“Seeing Prema’s journey was so relatable to me,” said Isha Chaudhry, a viewer and Bharatanatayam dancer at the Natya Darpan Festival in New Jersey, where the play showed in March. “It reminded me of my teacher [and] our relationship. I realised what was important about learning something traditional but to keep it evolving.”
“I’m from Benares, and my mother too was a classical musician.” said Isha Vyas, one of the co-sponsors of the same festival. “The play touched me and made me emotional at various levels.”
“Is art sacred; is it for us or the divine; for consumption or entertainment – the characters in the play face these questions,” said Prakash. “Some have their answers. Others are finding them.”