He hated violinists. He used to say, ‘Why are a violinist’s fingers like lightning?” As he delivers his lines for the camera, 64-year-old actor Shauket Baig’s lined face brightens with animation, the cigarette he holds in his right hand sends wisps of smoke across the black and white scene. “Answer? Because neither strikes in the same place twice,” ends Baig, with a sardonic laugh.
Boy band: (from left) Mario, Verga and Mehli Mehta (father of Zubin Mehta) of The Melody Trio, playing at Mumbai’s Taj hotel in March 1937.
Humour and nostalgia blend perfectly in Jazz, the latest production by Denzil Smith’s Stagesmith, in which playwright Ramu Ramanathan turns back the clock on the lives of Mumbai’s jazz musicians. Jazz will debut at Mumbai’s Prithvi Festival.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, Mumbai’s film companies, music halls and hotels offered employment opportunities for Anglo-Indian and Goan musicians who were well-versed in Western classical music and, most importantly, in jazz. Some of the most famous among them include Anthony Gonsalves, Chic Chocolate—well known as India’s Louis Armstrong—Sebastian D’Souza, Mickey Correa and Frank Fernand.
A big part of the migrant musicians’ story is their connections with Bollywood, where many of them worked as arrangers to supplement their otherwise meagre incomes. “Lots of Hindi music in that era was arranged and played by Goan and Anglo-Indian musicians, and you can see that influence in the Bollywood music of that time,” says Ramanathan. “They were unsung heroes,” he says.
Musicians like Gonsalves even taught composers such as R.D. Burman and Pyarelal, while Chocolate worked swing arrangements into compositions of music directors such as C. Ramachandran and Madan Mohan.
Naresh Fernandes, the editor of city magazine TimeOut, researched the stories and lives of these erstwhile musicians, and his work forms the basis of the story directed by theatre veteran Etienne Coutinho. “I have been interested in this story almost all my life and especially since Jerry Pinto and I worked on the anthology, Bombay, Meri Jaan,” says Fernandes. “It’s also the story of Goan migration to Bombay.”
Writer Ramanathan has taken those tales and worked out a fictional storyline about a musician and his student. The musician’s life story is told in multimedia—through video projections and on stage—and includes vignettes drawn through the eyes of the women he loved and the men he was mates with.
Another aspect of the play is an exhibition of photographs of the city’s jazz era at Zenzi, a suburban lounge bar, on 15 November. “This is not a linear story. It is told through different platforms and all the characters, including the main one, go unnamed; the references are simply to ‘him’ and ‘me’,” says Smith, who also plays the lead. The other main character, that of the student, is enacted by Rhys D’Souza, erstwhile jazz man Sebastian D’Souza’s grandson.
Families have played an important part in this production. Since most of the men of that era have died, Fernandes and Smith depended on the descendants of the musicians and newspaper clippings for much of their material and research; many family members, Fernandes says, had no idea of the significance of the material they had.
With the end of the golden era of Bollywood music came the end of these musicians. “The orchestras began to crumble when synthesizers came on the scene,” says Fernandes. “Suddenly composers realized that they didn’t need 150 people to do a song, and many of the musicians, who were already fairly old by then, went on to join wedding music bands and became instrumentalists.”
Baig, who plays a friend of the lead character in the video projections that will accompany the stage show, also has a similar tale of peripheral connections with Bollywood. He has been a singer, entertainer and comic on the Hindi film scene for decades, and when he was a young lad, Gonsalves and the guys were at their zenith. With this play, Baig and the old jazz boys will have another turn in the sun.
Jazz will play in Mumbai at Prithvi Theatre on 6 November and at the Bandra Festival on 22 November. For ticket details, call 022-26149546.