If theatre came to town, my parents made sure I saw it. And once I experienced it, I inevitably fell in love. I liked watching plays and I loved being on stage. Though there was one other love that rivalled theatre and that was music. It was the early 90’s when I saw my first live orchestra performance in Kolkata, being conducted by the vice principal of my school. I am seeing this man wave his hand and magically sync all the different instruments on stage like a theatrical piece and simultaneously both light bulbs flashed in my head. People take it for granted that if a character walks on stage and does a particular action, music will naturally accompany it. It was only much later in life, when I decided to do music for theatre, that I realised it takes so much work to get that sync and creativity.
When I turned 18, I got the chance to act with The Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatic Club, the longest running dramatics club in India. I did this for three years, acting as the lead and in the last two years there, I started singing small pieces on stage and handling the music for the shows. I knew what I wanted to do. I moved to Mumbai to study audio engineering and I started executing sound for Ashwin Gidwani Productions that mainly did commercial theatre in big spaces. Later I got to work with brilliant directors like Mahesh Dattani and Rehaan Engineer. Just being in rehearsal spaces and feedback sessions with them was where I learnt the most.
However, I couldn’t survive by just doing music for theatre. I started creating music for advertisements and movies to sustain myself. I believed theatre would come back to me when it had to come back. And it did. I was in the thick of doing clichéd work, when a guy called Manish Gandhi called me stating he is part of some competition where 300 plays are competing and they needed someone to help them with the music. I right out said no. I didn’t want to take up any random work. Surprisingly, he calls me back six weeks later saying they got selected as one of the four plays out of those 300. I thought, they must have some kind of talent to be in the top four. And I think I had also gotten tired of making music from a laptop. I was absolutely done with that format. So, I agreed to meet with them.
They showed me a run-through of their play that was more than 100% in effort. Manish, the director and Shweta Tripathi, who was the producer for this piece, sat down with me right then to mark out the cues. Their earnestness bowled me over and I dedicatedly started working with them. I made music on page 1 of the script, then page 2 and then page 3 before I stopped and asked myself wouldn’t this be too much? I made them read out the play again and played the pieces simultaneously on my piano. It worked. I looked at Manish and Shweta and said you know what, this is going to work only if I play live on stage with you guys. And without hesitation they just said sure! In 3 weeks, we scored 90 pages of the play and I went on to do my first live music performance in theatre.
The play was called Cock by Mike Bartlett and was part of the line up for Thespo that year. But I didn’t know that then. In fact, Thespo actually kind of changed my life. I bumped into Quasar and got linked with QTP and other productions that did alternative theatre at Prithvi. And after playing live, I was more selective with the plays I picked, as I liked being on stage. It is how I ended up working with Sunil Shanbag and then Aadyam.
I love the fact that I have had the luck to work with directors who allow me a certain artistic leeway to create music. But the process does change with every piece, cast and crew. Personally, the scope of music work in the play is a deciding factor. I wouldn’t go for a piece that has two cues which I just plainly need to execute whereas I would go for a play with two cues but they’ve asked me to surprise them. This thought process led me to work on Choiti Ghosh and Sananda Mukhopadhyay’s Material Theatre for the Extremely Little. They wanted me to make music for a piece with no dialogues that was to be delivered to kids aged 6 months and above! It was too interesting a challenge to pass on. I had happened to come across research that stated that playing advanced harmonic music to a child in their first 18 months develops their ear fantastically, even to the point of perfect pitch. So, I created the most complex music of my life for a show with an audience of infants!
I may have branched out to corporate work during my life, but creating music for theatre has always had its own charm. Especially if I get to do it live on stage. One big scale live project was Aadyam’s Detective Nau Do Gyarah. The big music pieces in it were fun to do as the band jammed live on stage but the more exciting and challenging part was playing the underscore pieces that the audience is not meant to register. I play one note, I am giving a count behind my back to the double basses and the drummer is tapping on the stage so that we don’t distract from the main scene. All this while the audience is none the wiser. I think those parts are thrilling, because we are in live performance with the scene itself. If the actors lower their register, I can adjust and play lower or vice versa. I can trick the audience to think that the actors are following the music and not the other way around. A sync that is just right gives the piece this beautiful choreographed feel that enhances the experience and I enjoy bringing in just that.