With musicals, spoken word and comedy, 2016 was a year of experimentation
It was a year of new experiences for Mumbai’s cultural landscape, with artistes and event organisers working hard to showcase acts that pushed boundaries. In particular, three forms of performing arts — musicals, experimental stand-up comedy, and spoken word poetry — gained a stronger foothold in the live and alternative entertainment space. And the burgeoning audiences were proof that Indians are increasingly accepting and approving of the innovation.
Music to the ears
Last year, Disney’s Beauty and The Beast (BATB) stunned audiences in Mumbai with its impeccable performances and grandiose sets. But, that apparently wasn’t enough, and the Broadway-style musical — the first ever to be produced in the country — was staged again in May this year to almost sold-out shows in Mumbai and Delhi. The production was initially an effort to test the waters in the live entertainment landscape in the country, but it surprisingly turned out to be a big hit. The risk paid off, and it was even reported that Siddharth Roy Kapur, the then-managing director of The Walt Disney Co (India), was planning to take the musical to cities such as Pune, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore. A second musical is also supposed to be in the pipeline, and will probably be staged in 2017.
BATB’s success was followed by the Broadway interpretation of Mughal-E-Azam (1960) in October. Feroz Abbas Khan’s musical by the same name was another extravagant affair that received rave reviews, and its forthcoming shows will be staged next month.
These large-scale shows demonstrated that Indians enjoy the format of musicals. The shows, of course, were exceptionally well-marketed and produced, and Bollywood’s biggest celebrities supported them. But their success laid to rest any scepticism that musicals cannot do well in India.
The past year saw a lot of internationally-acclaimed plays and performances being premiered in India. The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has been hosting live screenings of operas, plays and ballets that were staged at venues such as the National Theatre Live, London (UK) and the Metropolitan Opera, New York (USA) for a long time now. But in 2016, plays such as Battlefield (British theatre director Peter Brook’s drama based on the Mahabharata), Red Rabbit White Rabbit (Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s solo play, which does not require a director) and Hotel Paradiso (a masked play by the German theatre group Familie Flöz) were staged for the first time in India. The world-renowned dance and percussion group, Stomp (who have performed at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics and the 1996 Oscars), also had their first show in Mumbai this month. And while his was not a premiere show, master conductor Zubin Mehta, along with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), spent his birthday in Mumbai and had a series of performances in April.
Taking a chance with comedy
If you had visited any of the several independent performance venues in the city — especially The Hive, Khar (W) (temporarily closed now) and The Cuckoo Club, Bandra (W) — this year, you would have noticed that stand-up comedy no longer just involves comedians presenting jokes to an audience. Improvised and sketch comedy seem to be passé now, as genres such as ‘comedy under pressure’ (where the comedian is constantly heckled by the audience), ‘comedy in the dark’ (stand-up comedians crack jokes in total darkness) and ‘dark comedy’ (black humour) have taken over. When it comes to improvisation, comedians are being asked to crack jokes on subjects that the audience gives them on the spot.
Speaking about why stand-up comedy lends itself to experimentation, Sharin Bhatti of The Hive and The Cuckoo Club says that the performance art is “a form of storytelling and expression” that can be presented in many ways as long as it’s funny. “Comedy can also be part of everything — meaning other forms of art. Hence, its purpose is to constantly evolve,” she says.
Spoken like a poet
In November, Mumbai hosted what was possibly one of its biggest poetry festivals ever. A culmination of a mammoth exercise in translation over a period of two years, the Poets Translating Poets (PTP) festival, organised by the Goethe-Institut, also known as the Max Mueller Bhavan, Kala Ghoda, brought together 51 poets from Germany, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and showcased 280 translated poems in a wide variety of languages, including Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Bengali, Kashmiri, Odia, German and Marathi.
But the PTP festival was only the finale of a fruitful year for poets in the city. Spoken word poetry is also being experimented with these days, and besides hosting shows, venues have also been encouraging artistes to present their work along with live music, and even recite it in completely dark rooms. These are called the ‘blind poetry’ sessions.
Experimentation aside, spoken poetry events are on the rise. Popular spoken word poet Rochelle D’silva says at least 15 to 20 poetry events happen in Mumbai every month, as opposed to the two or three events that were held when she moved to the city in 2014. “Spoken word poetry is growing more popular. One of the biggest reasons it has caught on, in my opinion, is because spoken word is so accessible. It is conversational and talks about subjects that are tangible and relatable to an audience,” she says. The audience for spoken word poetry has also changed. D’silva says, “I remember a time when the only audience at a poetry gig was other poets who were hoping to perform, and sometimes, the rare friend or family member who you brought along. Today, there is an actual audience that shows up — people who are interested in poetry and want to hear what you have to say.”