Posts Tagged San Jose Mercury News

Vrindavan: A Grand Musical — Play Review


How does one take a known and tragic tale of the widows in Vrindavan, and transform it into a splendid work of art, full of humor, fun, mischief, and devotional songs in colorful costumes?  But that is not all.  The brilliance of “Vrindavan” show by NAATAK (awarded “Best Live Theater in Silicon Valley” by San Jose Mercury News), is that the playwright and director Sujit Saraf has created the show, without losing the grim reality of the widows’ dire existence.  “Vrindavan – A grand musical” is BRILLIANT, BOLD, and BEAUTIFUL.

Thousands of widows cast out by their families in India, or simply finding themselves alone in the world, have for centuries, been making their way to Vrindavan, childhood home of Lord Krishna.  Some travel hundreds of miles (a vast majority from Bengal), to get to Vrindavan, leaving behind whatever ties they had, in the land they had known, and make their home in this foreign place.  They devote themselves to singing Mira and Radha-Krishna’s devotional songs, and get paid some coins for their effort.  Gradually they forge new ties, not just with the divine, but also with fellow devotees.  As they live with each other, they form friendships and watch out for one another.  Their memories of old home fades, as they begin to see this new place as their home, where they find acceptance, camaraderie, and warmth, which the society denied them.   

Every now and then, shakeup ensues from society, because these ostracized widows are an eyesore, they live in extreme poverty, and are often considered inauspicious.  Sometimes government may want to clean up the city or enable the widows to live in less crowded and cleaner space, or a politician may come in with a grand vision of sending the widows to their original home cities, to be closer to their families.  They don’t see that these widows, cast out by society, in Vrindavan, have found their home, and their family.  With one another, they laugh, engage in pranks and make the best out of the card life dealt them.  

Saraf tells their story with such deep respect and empathy, not just giving them a voice but giving their imagination, a colorful outlet.   The widows have come to Vrindavan, to give themselves to living a life of devotion, and see themselves as Krishna’s devotees, Mira and Radha.  Juxtaposition of widows attired in white, with Mira and Radha’s colorful devotional “bhajans” is mesmerizing, both in terms of the contrast, and in seamless blending of the two.  

Saraf manages to pack the punch about the grim life of the widows in the five concluding minutes of the play, and that too without dramatics or fanfare.  The low key ending is loaded with such depth and substance that it hits you in the gut.  While Saraf brings the grimness of the widows’ lives front and center, towards the end of the show, he also gives the widows such courage, strength and dignity, that members of our society (where widows are accorded such treatment) are gently but surely nudged towards introspection, and may feel inclined to hang their heads in shame.

This massive production is a result of dedicated effort from a huge cast and crew, all giving their best.   Sets director, Asheesh Divetia, and props designer, Savitha Samu, with their teams, have helped Saraf create this magic, with amazing attention to detail, and superb engineering.  Kudos to production designer Snigdha Jain, and producer and consumes director, Soumya Agastya, and their teams, for their efforts in this bold performance.  Finally, hats off to dance director, Guru Bandana Sen, assistant dance director, Dipanwita Sengupta, and music director, Nachiketa Yakkundi, and their teams, for beautiful songs and dances that make this show come alive.  Get your tickets for this not-to-miss show, seeped in Indian culture, traditions, music, and dances, with superbly timed and beautiful supertitles (thanks to Vineeta Singh), at www.naatak.com .

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Joseph Haydn (Chamber Music) by Saint Michael Trio at Villa Montalvo Arts Center


This trio of super talented ensemble, entertains and enthralls, delights the audience, and delineates the music of diverse range of composers and genres.  In addition to the classical masterworks, they perform jazz and even rock tunes.  The artists (Daniel Cher, Russell Hancock, and Michael Flexer) make the concerts informative, educational, interesting, witty, and funny.

I attended the performance titled “Haydn on Trial”.  Franz Joseph Haydn, one of the most prominent and prolific composers of the classical period (1732-1809) has also been accused of being simplistic, mechanical and at times, also trivial.  Rising to his defense, the trio performed various pieces of Haydn’s music, interspersed with interesting commentary.  Speaking as if to a jury, Russell Hancock made a strong case to get Haydn acquitted, from the unfair accusations.

Haydn was one of the first composers to write ...

Haydn was one of the first composers to write a pitch change as well as a written out solo for the timpani in a symphonic movement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joseph Haydn pioneered the sonata form of music that would dominate the world of classical music, for over 200 years.  Unlike Bach whose music is precise, controlled, and mathematical, Hayden’s music is a story-telling enterprise.  Hayden introduced narrative aspect to the music.  After the stage is set, the tension is built up to introduce additional themes (like characters in a story), then it is developed further, eventually leading to reconciliation, and finally there is coda or the end with recapitulation.

Haydn was a prolific composer.  He has written 104 symphonies, 54 piano sonata, 24 operas, 76 quartets, 31 concertos, 16 masses, 3 oratories, and 30 songs.   Haydn needs to be compared to the context and the constraints of his time.  Haydn spent nearly 80% of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family, at their remote estate, in Austria.  He did not enjoy the kind of liberty in composing his music, like Beethoven, for instance.  Haydn wrote pieces requested of him.  Haydn was instrumental in the development of chamber music, such as the piano trio and he is also widely recognized as the pioneer of Symphony and String Quartet.  Haydn was born on the border of Austria and Hungary and he brought the Hungarian folk music elements into his music.  Haydn was also a friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a teacher of Ludwig van Beethoven.

St. Michael Trio performed fantastic pieces of Haydn’s compositions and made a brilliant case on behalf of Haydn.  They proved unequivocally that Haydn if not held to contemporary standards, was a brilliant composer, who also introduced “surprise” elements into his music.

Russel Hancock (Piano), Daniel Cher (Violin), and Michael Flexer (Cello) performed beautifully, presenting the music in highly engaging and interesting manner.  Each of the artists hold high profile careers in the private sector and balance their professional roles with their passion for music.  They are artists-in-residence at Menlo College, perform frequently at Stanford University, and are artists-in-residence at the Villa Montalvo Arts Center.  What San Jose Mercury News says is right on the money, “If these guys were a company, I’d buy stock”.  For further information or for tickets to their performances, go to http://www.saintmichaeltrio.com .

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