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Feature: Performance piece

Feature: Performance piece
The Tata Theatre has five separate seating areas

Feature: Performance piece

Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) is now in its fifth decade, having just installed Meyer Sound systems into its two main theatres. Caroline Moss reports

Facing out across the Arabian Sea on Nariman Point in South Mumbai, the NCPA was the first multi-venue, multi-genre cultural centre in South Asia when it opened in 1980. It was built to fulfil the vision of two men: Dr Jamshed Bhabha, a committed supporter of the arts after whom one of the largest performance spaces in the complex is named, and JRD Tata, a prominent member of the Tata industrial dynasty which is known for its patronage of the arts.

The origins of the NCPA go back to 1966, however, when the two men opened the Bhulabhai Desai auditorium as a temporary venue while land was reclaimed from the sea that would provide a permanent home. Bhabha and Tata had a vision of providing India with a world-class performing arts centre that would fulfil the dual role of preserving and promoting India’s rich cultural heritage and providing a platform on which to stage productions from around the world. Arts patronage had been shrinking since Indian independence as the country embarked on building a new future. Bhabha grasped the importance of securing funding to ensure India’s cultural traditions were able to continue and thrive, simultaneously providing a suitable venue for hosting international performances.

Meyer Sound's Sandeep Braganza with NCPA's Nayan Kale and Ashwin Jyoti
Meyer Sound's Sandeep Braganza with NCPA's Nayan Kale and Ashwin Jyoti

When the land reclamation project was complete in 1974, the NCPA moved to its current location. Here, the extent of Bhabha’s success is evident. An ever-growing range of cultural programmes ranging from traditional Indian classical performances through Western classical music, opera, jazz and drama to newer genres such as EDM events, are staged regularly in the venue, which incorporates five theatres in addition to galleries, libraries, reception spaces and restaurants. And the NCPA is home to the country’s first and only professional orchestra – as well as being the only Indian venue able to accommodate it – the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), which was established in 2006 by Mr Kushroo Suntook, the current chairman.

The two largest theatres are the 1,010-seat Tata Theatre and the 1,109-seat Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Both of these theatres were designed by leading acousticians to support opera, classical music and theatre without the need for amplification, and, indeed, the venues have become known for their acoustic qualities. Times have changed, however, and the arrival of contemporary concerts and musicals has brought a demand for sound reinforcement. The venue had been hiring in systems from local rental companies, which was not only costly but brought issues of inconsistency and cluttered sightlines. The search began for a solution that would provide consistent audio quality with a minimally intrusive visual profile. The chosen solution would need to support the varied performance schedules of each theatre, while maintaining an aesthetically pleasing appearance. It was also important that the system commissioned could produce an uncoloured sound, and a further consideration was that local technical support would be readily available if and when required. Ultimately, a decision was taken to install both theatres with systems from Meyer Sound.

The NCPA was familiar with the US brand as systems integration company, Image Engineering, had installed a Meyer Sound Acheron cinema system into a small space in the venue in 2016. ‘Image Engineering showed me a theatre at the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai and I went and experienced it there,’ says Nayan Kale, general manager, technical, of the NCPA, who has worked at the centre since 1982. Kale was impressed with the system’s performance in the low-ceilinged space, previously a storage area. In addition, Meyer Sound had also been encountered by the SOI on some of its overseas performances. Image Engineering supplied and installed the system, with the company’s Nainesh Vora handling project management, while London-based Richard Nowell was project consultant for both theatres.

Orchestra performance in the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre
Orchestra performance in the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre

The older of the two venues to be installed is the Tata Theatre, which opened in 1980. Designed by postmodernist American architect, Philip Johnson, with an acoustic design by renowned US acoustician, Cyril Harris, it is used for staging a wide range of music, dance and drama and cultural programmes for state guests and visiting dignitaries. Specialising in Indian classical and chamber music and drama, artists to appear at the Tata Theatre over the years include Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, Ustad Vilayat Khan and M S Subbalaxmi. The design brief for the theatre, embraced by architect and acoustician alike, was to ensure that every individual musical instrument played in any ensemble could be heard and appreciated throughout the auditorium. Additionally, the external structure of the Tata Theatre complex has been acoustically insulated from outside interference such as road traffic and sounds from construction and maintenance activities by separate pile foundations down to the rock base.

Harris designed the Tata Theatre in a semi-circular thrust configuration, which keeps the audience close to the stage in order to interpret the subtle facial and body movements and footwork that are an essential part of Indian classical performances. His ceiling design consists of alternate concave and convex tetrahedrons, which together with the wall panels ensure an even distribution of acoustics over the entire auditorium. Constructed from high-density compressed plaster, these tetrahedrons were individually cast by hand and manually lifted up into their positions.

‘Cyril spent six months here attending shows around the city to understand the requirements of Indian classical music,’ explains Kale. This research informed his design to bring the audience close to the performers, as well as achieving a lower reverberation time that would normally be provided for performances of Western classical music. ‘We decided to go for a 1,000-seat auditorium with no amplification,’ says Kale. ‘Sightlines were very important, so, instead of a proscenium, we went for a fan shape.’ Consequently, the distance from first to last row is just 15m, half that of the Jamshed Bhabha theatre, which is almost the same capacity.

The Tata Theatre’s distinctive acoustic design posed a definite challenge when it came to installing a permanent audio system. The sound needed to be distributed evenly, without disturbing the tetrahedron shapes that define the theatre’s acoustics and ambience. ‘I didn’t want to have to puncture the ceiling very much, so we needed to determine the exact location and the correct dimensions of each speaker to be installed,’ says Kale.

Meyer Sound Leopard line array system in the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre
Meyer Sound Leopard line array system in the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre

Meyer Sound’s MAPP prediction software was invaluable in designing the system prior to installation. AutoCAD drawings of the theatre were sent to Meyer Sound in California, whose design team worked on determining an accurate prediction for the theatre. ‘MAPP allowed us to design the system with a huge amount of precision,’ says Sandeep Braganza, Meyer Sound’s Mumbai-based sales manager, SAARC. ‘Of course, we have total conviction when it comes to MAPP, and this turned out to be a best case example; we were not even an inch off from the software prediction when it came to the actual installation.’ It was so accurate that Vora and his team from Image were confident in planning their cable runs throughout the heritage building in preparation for the speaker installation.

The system has been divided into five, with one UPQ-1P self-powered wide coverage speaker and one UPJ-1P self-powered speaker with Vario rotatable horn covering each of the seating sections. ‘We divided the system into five zones based on the seating layout; it’s as good as having a discreet system for each block,’ continues Braganza. ‘This has achieved a very even response; something which wouldn’t have been accomplished using an L–R system, which was what the rental companies had been bringing in.’

The system also has the distinction of adding no colouration of its own, providing the blank sonic canvas that was so important to the NCPA for both venues. ‘As our performances range from jazz to rock to pop to classical, it was important to go for a system that doesn’t have a tone,’ says the NCPA chief live sound engineer, Ashwin Jyoti. ‘Engineers have so many options on the console now that they can colour the sound as they wish.’

The Tata Theatre system, which has been provided in a custom colour to blend in with the theatre’s décor, has been suspended from a bar installed around the front of the stage to minimise drilling into the ceiling. Additional front-fills have been provided in the shape of five UP-4slims. A Galileo Galaxy 816 provides system control and alignment, while an RMServer handles remote monitoring and Meyer Sound’s IntelligentDC power supply, MPS-488HP, routes DC power to the system.

A classic L–R Leopard compact linear line array system has been installed into the more contemporary Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, which opened in 1999, and remains the only Indian theatre that can accommodate a symphony orchestra. Built in the traditional proscenium style, the entrance to the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is adorned with an elaborate Carrara marble staircase, which was removed from a nearby palace and donated to the NCPA.

NCPA International Jazz Festival 2018 in the Tata Theatre
NCPA International Jazz Festival 2018 in the Tata Theatre

The original construction of this theatre had just reached completion in 1997 when a fire broke out, destroying the new venue. ‘We started rebuilding the next day, and we did a much better job than before the fire,’ remembers Kale. ‘Lots of wood was used in the original design, but a different acoustic designer, Dr S Rajagopalam, came on board and used much less wood.’ Despite this major setback, the Jamshed Bhabha theatre still managed to open its doors in late 1999.

The proscenium-style theatre has been installed with 10 Leopard speakers and one 900-LFC subwoofer per side. ‘The length of the auditorium that we had to cover in the Jamshed Bhabha theatre is much greater than in the Tata, so the Leopard line array system ensures good coverage right to the back,’ says Braganza. ‘We worked with input given by Richard Nowell and the NCPA team to figure out some dead spots that we were able to cover in the design process.’

This includes a UPQ-1P per side to provide front-fill, seven UP-4slims for near-fill and a delay system of a further UPQ-1P per side, with delay-fills of one UPM-1XP per side. A pair of UPJ-1Ps provide monitoring at the front of house position, while, again, a Galileo Galaxy 816 provides system control and alignment and an RMServer handles remote monitoring. Power and signal distribution for the Leopard system is via four MDM-5000s, with two IntelligentDC MPS-488HP power supplies routing DC power.

An Avid S6L mixing console has been provided at front of house in both theatres, together with Shure ULX-D wireless microphone systems and a good range of classic handsets such as the AKG C411, Shure SM57, SM58, SM81, Beta 98 and Neumann KM184. There are also around 30 d&b M4 stage monitors in use across the centre.

Nakshatra Dance Festival 2018
Nakshatra Dance Festival 2018

The theatres were operational by October 2018, and the newly refurbished Tata Theatre was able to host the annual NCPA International Jazz Festival last November. ‘The new system made a massive difference this year,’ says Jyoti, who was working on the festival for the third time. ‘Apart from the sound, a lot of the production people noticed that the Tata Theatre looked so much better, without rental equipment cluttering up the stage. It was so much cleaner.

‘Previously, I had to deal with outside vendors to rent in different systems, and field complaints that the sound was too loud or unclear. Now we have consistency; every seat gets a good level of sound. Before, if you were sitting in front of the system you got blasted, while people at the back couldn’t hear.’

‘One of the best things is that the new system reduces set up time,’ adds Kale. ‘Gone are the days of hiring equipment, the transport costs, the set up costs and temporary systems involving unsightly equipment and lots of loose cables.’

Now well into its 50th year, the NCPA isn’t resting on its laurels. A further theatre, which will provide a medium-sized venue for the centre, is in the initial planning stages. And, according to the in-house technical team, there will be no question of not installing a permanent system into the planned new venue.

Staging an annual total of around 500 diverse events, the NCPA is certainly fulfilling the vision of its founder members. One can only assume that Bhabha and Tata would approve.

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