Flirtations With The Worlds Of Music And Theater
The School Music Teacher
In an all-boys boarding school, you were considered a sissy if you had anything to do, even remotely, with institutions like the school choir. As a result, the music teacher was perpetually trying to rope in new talent, even if the talent was suspect. Music was something I enjoyed so I decided to volunteer, much to the teacher’s delight and the chagrin of my mates. All went well, till one day, the music teacher resigned and another was appointed. In the time-tested tradition of all nouveau appointees, one day the entire choir was summoned and to my shock and horror, we were asked to sing solo while our new teacher played the Church organ.
When my turn came, he looked at me and said “OK, now Singh, sing” and pressed a key on the keyboard. “Aaaa” I went, trying to emit a sound similar to the one my ears seemed to hear. The teacher looked quite astonished but decided to hold his peace. "Try again" he said, patience personified. He played a higher note. So I went “Aaaaa”, hoping my voice sounded suitably sopranoish. His expression changed from one of concern to that of one who has discovered a tadpole swimming in the soup. Aghast would probably sum it up nicely. Realising he would run out of choirboys if he was too strict, he decided to give me one last chance. This time a lower note was thrown. "Aaaaaa", I went with gusto, bringing out as much of a bass voice as I could at that tender age. I could see the music teacher cringe. As he was bereft of hair, he could'nt pull any out but I had the feeling he would have if he could have. So it was that I was asked to leave the choir. Imagine the trauma. A volunteer choirboy being asked to go. A bit like one of the Chargers of the Light Brigade being sent home midway down the Valley. But I lived to tell the tale. That was about the only noteworthy brush I had with the world of music.
A Group of Sikh boys
On To Theater
If you know something about the Sikh religion, you would know that Sikhs are required to grow their hair from birth and cutting of hair is strictly forbidden. This practice paved the way for my first interaction with theater. I was nine years old then in the same all-boys' school when I played the part of a girl in a play called "Bus Stop". I was one of those with long hair and a smooth, hairless face and therefore an automatic choice for the role.
As soon as I walked onto the stage in a salwar kameez (a pajama and shirt worn by girls and women), the audience burst into laughter. Somewhat surprised as I had not said or done anything remotely funny, I looked around till my gaze fell on an offending string used to tie the salwar. This string was hanging a bit obscenely below kameez level. Without further ado, I quickly hiked up my kameez, tucked the string in, and started my delivery. This action provoked further laughter. So I grinned back happily and unabashedly at the audience.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Theater caught up with me again during my post-graduation days at Calcutta. We were putting up a spoof which required a person with long hair to act as Cleopatra and another as her handmaiden. Although by then we had a few women classmates, no one volunteered so I was promptly given Cleopatra’s role. While I still had long hair, my face was by then covered with a thick, black beard.
The challenge of a bearded Cleo was easily overcome by providing both my handmaiden and me with a handkerchief each designed to serve as a yashmak – a veil worn across the face by women in the Muslim world. I have a strong suspicion that our beards showed through the veil as again this time, the audience burst into laughter as soon as we appeared on stage.
And if that was'nt bad enough, halfway through the First Act, one of my breasts rolled down onto the floor and nearly exeunted left. I had no option but to quickly bend low, retrieve the offending orange and restore it to its original home. The exposure of Cleopatra's beautiful breast left Julius Caesar tongue-tied and the audience in gales of laughter. Were it not for the clapping, I am sure the prompter's frantic prompts would have been heard across the hall.
The third was at Calcutta again when auditions for the famous play "Tughlaq" were being held. Tughlaq is a renowned drama and a well-known theatre personality was directing it. My friend Paulose Joseph and I were supremely confident that given our past experience and deep, manly voices, one of us would clinch the lead role of Tughlaq. So it was with huge expectations that we made our way to the audition. The Director gave us a passage to read. Before either of us could recite even half, she said "Okay, you", pointing at me, "you can be Guard No 1". "And you" she said, looking at Paulose, "can be Guard No 2". So there we were, at the play opening, holding spears, walking across the stage saying “Jaagte Raho, Jaagte Raho" - Stay alert, stay alert - in the few scenes where our presence was required. So much for making it big on the stage.
Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
Murder He Said
Giving up is something I abhor. So when the next opportunity arose, I volunteered again. This time it was for a play being staged for our company’s annual day celebrations. I was assigned a role which required me to shout at the top of my voice, for some reason now lost in the mists of time.
We used to rehearse at our office located opposite the residence of a senior police officer who had a 24-hour guard at the gate. I recall one practice late at night, when I really belted out whatever it was I was supposed to shout. I think it was “Murder, Murder”.
A few minutes later, we had several armed policemen from the adjoining residence rushing in to investigate. It took a little while to reassure them that all was well and that the scene in front of them – one person lying on the floor, another holding what looked like a pistol and a third shouting murder, was only a drama rehearsal.
I could quite easily have ended up in the cooler that night so I decided discretion was called for. I therefore did the theatrical equivalent of hanging up my boots and have stayed on the other side of the curtain ever since.