Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time (Parts I-VIII)
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time (Parts I-VIII)
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, June 21, 1987
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—I
He was hailed as “Nat-Samrat”, the King of Thespians. His was a fabulous career that spanned an almost unbroken period of four decades during which he ruled supreme on the Marathi musical stage as much by his striking presence, as by his uncanny histrionics and emotion-soaked music.
His genius lay in enacting a variety of feminine character roles on the stage. Equally varied were the musical plays in which he played his part as heroine — be they mythological, historical, social, political or humorous. But whatever the role, he did it with such grace and realism that the identity of the artiste and the art was total and complete.
Hisfanfollowing covered regions far beyond Maharashtra.Apart from Marathi-speaking stage-lovers representing almost all strata of society it covered significant sections from communities as diverse as Gujarati, Parsi, Sindhi, Bengali and even Telugu from down South. Among his ardent aficianados were rulers of old princely states and lesser landed gentry, who would vie with common connoisseurs, in crowding the venues of his celebrated musicals.
National leaders of the eminence of Lokmanya Tilak down to the eminent octogenarian communist politician like S. A. Dange took time off to see his shows. So did a whole lot of intellectuals, writers, musicians and critics from Maharashtra as well as from the rest of the country.
So abiding was the impact of his thespian art on his audiences that he set new vogues in feminine clothes, hairdos and mannerisms. The ruling princes were tempted to renovate and remodel their apartments after witnessing the setting and stage decor in his mythological plays. While even off-stage, he became a model for his male admirers from the middle class in choosing their formal and informal dress.
There was a time when this “Nat-Samrat”, in the hey-day of his career, earned an annual average income of Rs. 1.60 lakh for a decade. But he died a pauper, because he spent more than he earned in the service of his Muse. In fact, his life and career is a grand, inspiring saga of his guest for excellence – the kind of quest that finds no parallel in the annals of any art anywhere in the world.
This incredible “Nat-Samrat” is Bal Gandharva, who was known as Narayan Shripad Rajhans in real life. It is heart-warming to know that he is not only remembered fondly and reventially two decades after his death, but is being commemorated through a year-long celebration of his birth centenary all over Maharashtra and elsewhere from Friday next (June 26).
The celebrations have been planned on a grand scale, with the initiative of the state government. It is understood that the programme is scheduled to include the staging of the glorious line-up of old and new musical plays, construction of theatres, holding of symposias and seminars, high-lighting his contribution to the Indian dramatic tradition, and publication of books.
In so doing, the state government and other agencies involved in putting through the celebrations programme will honour themselves even while commemorating the thespian’s greatness. Doubly so, if one recalls the last days of utter penury and abject incapacitation from which the “Nat-Samrat” suffered, till merciful death relieved him of his existence at 79, on July 15, 1967 at Pune, where, incidentally, he also took birth.
He had been struck down by paralysis 15 years earlier but it took the powers that be 9 years to grant this “generous” gesture. Even so, the authorities took another three years before they raised the pension amount to another “princely” sum of Rs 750. So much for the official patronage to art and culture!
Public adulation, however, came to Bal Gandharva in profusion all along – right from his debut on the musical stage in 1905. His unanimous election as president of the historic celebrations organised to mark the centenary of Marathi drama in Bombay in 1994 was truly the climax of the admiration and esteem of two generations of his audiences.
It was 11 years later that the thespian received the President’s Award for his contribution to stage-acting, and Padma Bhushan in 1964. As always, each symbolic awards and recognitions do little to mitigate the travails and tribulations of the kind great men like Bal Gandharva are destined to undergo.
Both during his life-time and after his death, a whole lot of writers and critics have written on Bal Gandharva, dealing with various aspects of his many-splendoured genius. The writers include such knowledgeable men as Vasant Shantaram Desai, K. D. Dixit, Keshavrao Bhole, N. S. Phadke, to name only a few.
All these writers had the privilege to see the thespian acting on the stage in his prime. Some of them were also close to him for several years. Naturally, their writings about the maestro carry a ring of authenticity. And what is more, most of the writers have been objective in their evaluation of Bal Gandharva.
Yet, it is an irony of our times that all the writings are in Marathi. It is not as if Bal Gandharva belonged only to Maharashtra. Granted – and rightly so – that he symbolised the golden era of the Marathi musical stage, he was a universal thespian who belonged not only to Maharashtra but to the whole of India and the world at large. His pre-eminence in his art is such as would rightly belong to a world luminary.
It is sad that many of the Marathi writers, who are also well-versed in English, should have so completely failed to understand and appreciate the need to make the thespian’s achievements known to those outside the Marathi-speaking domain. The state government and agencies organising his birth centenary celebrations will do well to bring out a definitive biography of Bal Gandharva in various languages. Who will deny that he was one of the all-time greats in his field? Like lives of other great men, hasn’t he left behind his foot-prints on the sands of Time?
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—II
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, June 28, 1987
Lives of great men (as much as those of lesser mortals) are conditioned by the environment in which they are born and die.
Broadly speaking, the story of the life and career of a supreme thespian like Bal Gandharva has to be understood in the perspective of the life and time sin which he was born and grew up like a colossus and died in tragic conditions wrought by adversities, old age and ill-health. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that his story is the story of the tradition of Marathi musical drama–with all its ups and downs, ecstasies and agonies, and its fluctuating fortunes.
It is now an accepted fact that Marathi drama owes its origin to the genius of Vishnudas Bhave, who introduced his maiden show in 1843. But it was 37 years later, that is, in 1880, that the tradition received a new clan with a musical character, when Balwant Pandurang alias Annasaheb Kirloskar staged his first song-studded play, “Shakuntal”, his Marathi version of the immortal Sanskrit classis, “Abhijnana-Shakuntalam” of Kalidasa.
This was only eight years before the birth of Bal Gandharva. And it was only natural that he gradually came under the spell of the new genre, which came to be known as “Sangeet Natak”, while still a child. Few could have perhaps than imagine that Marathi Sangeet Natak, as a new art-form, was destined to become Maharashtra’s unique gift to the hoary traditional of musical drama.
The uniqueness of this genre lay in the way it achieved an uncanny diffusion of Indian classical and light classical music among the people through the medium of stage-craft. This is not surprising, becase Kirloskar, its pioneer, was not only educated man but also a talented playwright and poet with fine acting gifts and a highly refined taste for music. So was his worthy protege, Govind Balall Deval. On the untimely death of Kirloskar in 1885, it was left to Deval to manage the affairs of his mentor’s troupe, Kirloskar Natak Mandali.
There are versions galore narrating how Bal Gandharva got this coveted appellation. But there is complete unanimity, which is also a historical fact, that Lokmanya Tilak, the celebrated national leader, who was also an erudite scholar and connoisseur of the arts, bestowed this appellation on the thespian in the making, while the latter was only 10. A casual Marathi song which the boy sang before the Lokamanya this suggestion moved the veteran so deeply that he exclaimed: “This youngster is indeed Bal Gandharva”. As we know, the words proved prophetic.
Coming of a music-loving Brahmin family, Bal Gandharva was the son of a middle-class government employee. He inherited his passion for music from his father, who was also fond of musical plays. Not surprisingly, drama also fascinated the school-going son. While this resulted in neglect of his studies and brough reprimands from his parents, Narayan received loving encouragement from his paternal aunt.
By a sheer combination of domestic circumstances, Narayan had to move from Pune to Kolhapur and then to Miraj, both neighbouring princely states of the time, in sough Maharashtra. At Kolhapur, the boy was introduced to the ruling prince, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, who was struck by his handsome personality as much as his sweet music. It was through this prince that Narayan came in contact with Deval, whose company was then camping at Mirajl. Sensing the immense potentialities of the boy, Deval offered him a place in his Kirloskar Mandali.
Those were the days of all-male cast, and owners of musical drama troupes, which sprouted all over Maharashtra in the wake of Kirloskar Natak Mandali, were always on the look out for good looking young men endowed with a sweet voice, even though they might not have any professional grooming in music. In fact, even before Bal Gandharva joined the Kirloskar Mandali in 1905 (when he was only 17), it has on its roll senior actors of the caliber of Moroba Wagholikar, Balkova Natekar and Bhaurao Kolhatkar, who were then rightly acclaimed as the “holy trinity” of Marathi Sangeet Natak. They had made waves by their roles in plays like “Shakuntal”, “Ram-Rajya Viyoga”, “Soubhadra” and “Sharada”. Kolhatkar was the foremost actor-singer of the Mandali. His sudden and untimely death in 1901 understandably created a void difficult to fill. In these circumstance, Deval found in Bal Gandharva the right replacement and included him in the company when he met him four years later.
It was natural that Deval cast the handsome, graceful and intensely musical Bal Gandharva in the role of “Shakuntala” in his mentor’s celebrated play, but only after grooming him well in stage-acting and singing. It took little time for the youngster to mature as a talented actor who could convey feminine sentiment and emotion through his acting and music with uncanny understanding. With his debut in “Shakuntal”, he became the rage among stage-lovers. He never looked back ever since then.
It would be true to say that Bal Gandharva’s popularity grew with every new play in which he enacted. For eight years till 1913, when he left the Kirloskar Mandali to form his own troupe, he acted central female roles in plays like “Soubhadra”, and “Mirchchhakatika”, of Kirloskar and Deval, as also Kolhatkar’s “Mooknayak” and Khadilkar’s “Manapman” and “Vidyaharan”, to name a few.
A striking feature of the Marathi musical stage in those days was the proverbial comradeship it achieved between playwrights, actors and musicians whom they enlisted for making their stage ventures a success. Indeed, the preservation and enrichment of Marathi Sangeet Natak was made possible by the association of a brilliant galaxy of playwrights like Khadilkar, Kolhatkar and Gadkari, classical stalwarts like Bhaskarbuva Bakhale and Ramakrishnabuva Vaze, and thespian-teachers like Ganapatrao Bodas. In fact, some of the playwrights, like Kirloskar, Deval and Khadilkar, were also expert teachers in stage-acting. The association of Govindrao Tembe and Master Krishnarao, both disciples of Bakhale and gurubhais of Bal Gandharva, with the musical stage proved to be a asset to the whole tradition.
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—III
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, July 5, 1987
Bal Gandharva was 25 when he set up his Gandharva Natak Mandali with Govindrao Tembe and Ganapatrao Bodas as partners. Barely within two months, the Mandali featured its maiden presentation with “Mooknayak” which the Kirloskar group had already made popular with audiences.
Soon to follow as Khadilkar’s celebrated mythological, “Swayamwar” in which Bal Gandharva played “Rukmini”. In between, the Mandali staged a series of some new plays along with the old ones much to the renewed delight of their fans.
But it was the staging of Ram Ganesh Gadkari’s “Ekach Pyala”, in which Bal Gandharva played the heroine’s role as “Sindhu”, that elicited a tumultuous acclaim from stage-lovers. The theme of the play was based on the evils of drinking which took a young lawyer from riches to rags. The story ends in a tragedy culminating the death of the only family child followed by that of the parents.
Bodas, who played the hero’s role as “Sudhakar”, and Bal Gandharva reached their high-point in character-acting. “Sindhu”, as a singing heroine, matched her music with song in perfect accord with the mood or situation depicted in the latter, as a few else. It would be true to say that in the glorious line-up of several plays which the Mandali staged from time to time, pride of place deservedly goes to its “Manapaman”, “Swayamwar” and “Ekach Pyala” for sheer excellence not only in point of histrionics and music but also in costume, scenery, decor and orchestral ensemble.
For a supreme thespian like Bal Gandharva, it was also a relentless pursuit of the “ultimate” on the musical stage. His motto was “nothing but the best”. In the process, he strove to bring splendor and dignity, and grace and realism in whatever he did for the sake of his Mandali. For instance, all the costumes were made of silk. Brocades were made to order from Banaras for use on the stage. Gold-plated silver ornaments and semi-precious stones were used for jewellery. For his mythologicals, like “Soubhadra”, “Swayamwar”, “Draupadi”, and “Keechak-Vadh”, he is credited to have spent as much as Rs 75 thousand on the decor and scenery.
Bal Gandharva was the first stage producer to introduce the organ in place of the harmonium. He engaged top-notchers in the field like the percussion maestro, Ahmad Jan Thirakwa, the sarangi wizard, Kadar Baksh, and Vishnupatit Kambli, the organ wizard, to provide accompaniment to his music. Small wonder that in the hey-day of his incredible career on the stage, he went on winning laurels after laurels.
Although, in those days, he chose to hold his shows only in selected major cities in the Marathi-speaking regions of the old Bombay Presidency and the Central Province and Berar, his charisma was so irresistible to the stage-crazy connoisseurs that people would come all the way from long distances to witness his plays, whatever their venue. They engaged special buses and booked seat reservations by telegram to ensure access to his shows. To think that many of them would not hesitate to pay as much as Rs 100 per ticket to see the thespian perform in those days!
As mentioned earlier, he earned a fabulous income but spent it almost recklessly in the service of his Muse. That explains why he incurred heavy debts, not once but twice, in the course of his career. His indebtedness resulted in his estrangement from his two other partners, namely, Bodas and Tembe, who severed all their connections with the Mandali. Undaunted, Bal Gandharva remained its sole proprietor and continued his shows with the same confidence and dedication as before. He spurned offers from his affluent admirers to help him out of his financial crisis. The Mandali went into the hands of his creditors but his shows went on unimpeded. So much so, that by the beginning of 1928, Bal Gandharva repaid his debt and secured back his ownership of the company.
Another event that made history in the early twenties was the joint presentation of what has come to be known as “Samyukta Manapamam” by Gandharva Natak Mandali and Lalitkaladarsh Mandali, another troupe that almost view with that of Bal Gandharva in the field. Its owner, Keshavrao Bhosale, had made his mark as one of the finest singer-actors of that time. But there was no rivalry of an unhealthy character between Bal Gandharva and Bhosale.
The object of staging “Samyukta Manapman” was to raise funds in aid of the fund started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 in memory of Lokmanya Tilak, who had died just a year before. Those were the turbulent days of the freedom struggle and the two thespians, imbued with a spirit of nationalism, came together on the common platform to present the joint show. While Bhosale played the hero’s role of “Dhairyadhar”, Bal Gandharva cast himself in the role of the heroine “Bhamini”. Predictably, the play evoked unprecedent response from theatre lovers and made a substantial contribution to the Tilak Memorial Fund.
Tragically, however, Bhosale died prematurely soon after this triumph. But from then on, Bal Gandharva was destined to remain unrivalled in his field till advancing age and recurrence of indebtedness left him with no alternative but to close down his Mandali towards the end of 1934.
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—IV
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, July 12, 1987
It all speaks of the indomitable optimism of the man that Bal Gandharva decided to revive his company 15 months after he had closed it down. It was not a case of revival, but one of the reconstitution. For the establishment included veteran singer-actors who had left their jobs from several other companies. Among these were Krishnarao Chonkar, Master Naresh and others.
The thespian’s attempt to stage a come-back, in the figurative as well as in the literal sense, was no destined to succeed, because of various factors. By far the most important of these was the emergence of the Talkie as the most powerful medium of mass entertainment. This challenge from the Silver Screen almost dealt a fatal blow to the dramatic tradition as a while, in the process of which the multitude of Natak mandalis, big and small, began to collapse, one after another, in no time.
Those who ventured to switch over from the stage to the screen ended up in total disaster. These were all leading companies, like Balwant Sangeet Mandali owned by Dinanath Mangeshkar, Lalitkaladarsh, which came to be owned by another eminent actor-singer Bapurao Pendharkar and last, but not the least, Gandharva Natak Mandali as well.
In sheer desperation, but with a compulsive determination to pay off the debt he had accumulated for the second time, Bal Gandharva entered into partnership with the famous Prabhat Film Company, of which the ace producer-director, V. Shantaram, was the chief partner. Strange but true, the, ageing thespian decided to change over to a male role in Prabhat’s new production, “Dharmatma”, based on the life of the great Marathi poet-saint, Eknath.
The film failed at the box-office. To his ardent fans, to whom he was synonymous with feminine beauty, Bal Gandharva’s screen appearance as the poet-saint, was almost revolting. The Nat-Samrat, on his part, also realised that the studio environment, in which he had to play his roles under blinding arc-lamps and the equally intolerable limitations on the duration of his singing for the screen, were totally repugnant to his temperament and genius.
His partnership with Prabhat Film Company proved to be a flash in the pan and both the partners agreed to terminate it. But by strange quirk of fate, Bal Gandharva again found himself lured by another film company that offered him a feminine role as “Meerabai” in a film version of his old stage hit, “Amritsiddhi”, in which he had played his favourite title role. Even then this venture also proved to be a misadventure. His stage fans simply could not bear to see him, as he looked positively haggard and too old for his part as a young Rajput princes turned saint-poetess.
In 1936, Bal Gandharva returned to his Mandali and began playing his celebrated female roles in those old hits that had once made him the king of thespians. That was his – and his company’s – last-ditch fight for survival. It reached a point where he himself felt compelled to quit the stage for ever.
Long before he quite the stage, Bal Gandharva had taken to the concert platform on which he would regale his audiences with his favourite stage songs and also devotionals composed by great Marathi saints like Eknath, Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar. To lend variety, he also included immortal Hindi devotionals of Meerabai, Kabirdas and others. That was how, after he gave the final go-by to his epoch-making stage career, he took to concert singing as a whole-time pursuit till paralysis completely incapacitated him the last fifties.
Goharbai’s association with Bal Gandharva, who brought the popular singer into his company to substitute him for his feminine roles in his advancing age, created a great stir in the social and cultural milieu. It is widely believed that this association culminated into a civil marriage after the thespian lost his wife, Lakshmibai. Goharbai remained his companion at their residence at Mahim, a suburb of Bombay, for many years. But another tragedy befell the maestro when Goharbai also passed away, leaving him severely alone in the world.
I belong to a generation that was not fortunate in seeing Bal Gandharva at the height of his glory. And when I had the chance—only once – to see him on the stage, in the role of Meerabai in “Amritsiddhi”, he was well past his prime nearing 50. But the fabled charisma both as actor and singer was still there to a remarkable degree. I was then only 11 years old and my sole passion for the play was in it music part. And doubly so, because it was he whose recorded stage songs had nurtured and fostered my early musical sensibilities even while yet an infant.
I had another chance to see the maestro again. But it was his off-stage appearance. The event was a felicitation function held in his honour by a leading cultural institution in Bombay. This was in August 1963. In spite of inclement weather, his ardent fans from all over the metropolis had mustered strong to see and listen to the doyen of the Marathi stage who had just turned 75. It was significant that the packed audience had a preponderance of women. It truly symbolised the uncanny esteem and adoration his admirers still had for him.
What moved the audience most was the moment when the veteran crippled by paralysis and unable to move by himself, was carried into the auditorium in a sitting posture by two sturdy young men and seated comfortable on an armchair, amid standing ovation from the audience. It appeared that he could not have the stamina either to reply to the felicitation or to give a performance. But Goharbai, who was with him on the occasion, filled the bill, so to speak, by giving us a few glimpses of the maestro’s art.
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—V
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, July 19 1987
A Western critic (whose name I do not unfortunately recollect), speaking of the thespian art, has said: “The proof of an artist is in his creative effort; and though that is guided by what we call intuition, rather than by reason, the intuition needs to be trained and directed.
The sign of a finished artist is not his native genius but his taste, which his the result of broad human culture, and this requires a nurture that is not to be got simply from rehearsals and the application of grease paint.
The validity of these observations would appear to bring home, almost in their totality, the peerless attainments of Bal Gandharva as a singer-actor. Indeed, Bal Gandharva was not only a rare genius but also a man of culture. Humility was native to his soul, and he had the simple candour to tell his close friends and admirers how he owned his success on the musical stage. An interviewer once asked him who had taught him to play the role of a woman and interpret her emotions so well, the thespian replied, with a glint of gratitude in his eyes, that his mother and his sister were his true mentors. He spoke eloquently of their natural grace, their sincerity of character and their lofty charm in action and thought. He would first be content simply to watch them and admire them. Then he would try to put himself in their position and forget that he was a man. The expression came naturally to him. He did not have to act – he only had to be as natural as they.
What humility, what greatness!
In the same vein did Bal Gandharva speak feelingly about those who groomed him so perfectly in music, as well as charcter-acting. In his shaping as a stage singer, he would mention a long line of mantors, beginning with one Mahboob Khan, who taught him the basics of Hindustani music. Then came his most eminent guru, Bhaskarbuva Bakhale, who was one of the greatest Hindustani vocalists of the time and whose gayaki embodied the very essence of three leading contemporary khayal gharanas, namely, those of Gwalior, Agra and Atrauli-Jaipur. He was also a composer of uncommon merit and pioneered a new trend in Marathi stage music during his association with Gandharva Natak Mandali.
Bal Gandharva regarded Govindrao Tembe and Master Krishnarao who were his gurubhals also among his mentors. He also acknowledged valued guidance from Kadar Baksh and Thirakwa, who were employed by him as part of his instrumental ensemble because of their pre-eminence in the field.
In making him a character-actor of such perfection, Bal Gandharva acknowledged Ganpatrao Bodas, his partner in the company, who also played hero in a variety of roles, and playwrights Kakasaheb Khadilkar and Ram Ganesh Gadkari, as his gurus. He also attributed his success to the patronage he received from the two princes, Sayajirao Gaikwad of Baroda and Chhatrapati Sahu of Kolhapur during their life time. Last, but not the least, was phenomenal following of his fans, whom he always acclaimed as “Majhe Annadaate” (my bread-winners.)
All said and done, Bal Gandharva’s versatility is in the fact that he achieved such a mind-boggling fusion of music and acting in feminine roles. It is no exaggeration to say that here was a thespian of the century without a parallel. Be it a shy “Rukmini,” a nervous “Subhadra,” a love-lorn “Bhamini,” a distressed “Draupadi” or a pathetic “Sindhu,” or a coquettish “Revati” — whatever the role, he entered into the very spirit of his role. His historionics truly spanned a whole range of human moods and emotions.
That is not all. He infused his moods and feelings in his songs which were necessarily situational. The sensitivity and feeling with which he sang them find eloquent expression even in the recorded versions of his stage songs. According to old timers, Bal Gandharva had cut as many as 200 78 rpm discs at different times in his long eventful career. With all their imperfectrecording quality, what makes them so unique is the rare combination of lyrical and vocal virtues enshrined in each. Whatever the song, his vocal lines change in natural undulations in perfect accord with the changing feeling expressed by the lines of the song.
Most of these records have long been out of circulation. But I know for a fact that quite a sizeable number of these discs are found preserved and cherished in many an old household not only in Maharashtra but even outside. I know of at least three names, one of whom is a Maharashtrian, Mr Prabhakar Datar of Bombay, and two connoisseurs of Gujarat, Professor Sharad Mehta and Professor Rohit Desai, both of Nadiad, who have preserved them as a musical treasure of perennial beauty.
The Gramophone Company of India (HMV) therefore deserves kudos that it has just released a 2-LP album of some of Bal Gandharva’s stage hits in commemoration of his birth centenary year. Side by side, the company has also released a twin cassette pack which contains the same repertoire. The fare heard from the LP album (PMLP 1461|1462) and the cassette pack (STHV 40181 | 82) features 28 ever-green pads of Bal Gandharva. The songs are from plays like “Swayamwar,” “Saubhadra,” “Vidyaharan,” “Ekach Pyala,” “Manapman,” “Sharada” and many others.
Disc-lovers of Marathi pad will recall that HMV had brought out a selection of 12 stage hits of the maestro in commemoration of his first death anniversary to 1968. Compared to the recorded quality of the 1968 disc, the new repertoire must be regarded as an achievement on the part of the technical experts of the company, who have harnessed all the latest technological skills into making it a truly remarkable job. To the present generation of stage lovers it comes as a marvel in Marathi stage music, coming from a miracle man that Bal Gandharva truly was.
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—VI
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, July 26, 1987
I vividly remember the controversy that had been raised by some of his antagonists about Bal Gandharva’s claim to be a basically classical singer. The controversy was needless, because it was simply meaningless. Those were my student days in Pune and I do not correctly remember who initiated it in the columns of two leading but rival Marathi weeklies, both published from Pune.
But I distinctly remember classical stalwarts like Vinayakrao Patwardhan, one-time leading actor in Gandharva Mandali, who had alter broken away from the troupe, were ranged against him. The controversy, I recall, had turned so acrimonious that Patwardhan once dubbed Bal Gandharva “a cipher in classical singing”, even while he conceded that the latter was a “Nat Samrat”.
It is not as if the detractors of Bal Gandharva were not aware of his grounding in classical music. Maybe, they deliberately ignored it because it suited them to sustain the unseemly controversy. True enough, Bal Gandharva did not choose to sing as a concert performer of his confreres on the dramatic stage, because his career as a singer-actor had come to achieve more than most of his forbears and contemporaries had done in perpetuating classical music among his fans through an endless, almost kaleidoscopic, variety of pads based on Hindustani ragas and light classical varieties like thumri, tappa and hori.
In this context, it is englightening to know what Bal Gandharva had himself to say about his studentship with his principal mentor, Bakhalebuva. While grooming his protege, the master is said to have told him not to go too much into the technicalities of classical music. He guided him to sing what was sweet and soulful and, more importantly, suited to the mood or the situation of the stage song, no matter if it marked deviation from the conventional style of classical singing.
And can any one, in all honesty, deny the originality and virtuosity of his music? The very fact that all-time great veterans like Alladiya Khan (who, incidentally, was his guru’s guru) and Malka Jan often made a bee-line to his shows to listen to some of their favourite raga-based pads, specially those in which he conjured magical deviation from the conventional norms of form and structure!
According to the late Keshavrao Bhoel, the versatile musician, composer, author and critic and who was dispassionate in his comments, Bal Gandharva’s evolution and development as a singer went through four distinct phases. In the first phase, converting six years from 1905 to 1911, he had discerned in him an element of amateurishness. While it was musical to the core, it was replete with a surfeit of circular taans which revealed a strange mixture of sequences from lavani and tappa. It also lacked coherence of design.
Yet, Bal Gandharva had his audiences under his spell while playing his early roles in dramas like “Saubhadra”, “Shakuntal”, “Sharada”, “Mooknayak”, and others. The secret of their popularity was as much in his sweet and spontaneous music as in his alluring presence in his feminine roles.
Bhole takes the next five years as representing the second phase of Bal Gandharva’s further rise in eminence. Indeed, it is on record that he achieved unprecedented popularity by his roles in Khadilkar’s “Manapaman” and “Vidyaharan”. It was during this period that he had a thorough coaching from Bakhale and Tembe who composed tunes for his songs on the basis of styles and vogues from eastern Uttar Pradesh like hori, thumri and dadra.
The two inventive composers judiciously borrowed tunes from Hindi songs popularised by luminaries like Gohar Jan, Maujuddin Khan, Malka Jan and Pyara Saheb through their gramophone records. Bhole, however, here asserts that the over-emphasis on tone and style, in preference to the meaning and content of songs, only served to relegate the very essence of musical drama to a secondary position.
And, as time went on, it was music and not other vital features of a dramatic production, that came to enjoy precedence. Music loving audiences fell for this kind of entertainment. It is said by most other dispassionate stage lovers like Bhole that an average Marathi musical drama assumed the character of a sangeet mehfil and this was one of the vital factors that eventually resulted in a gradual but sure diminution of its popularity.
The next three years, covering the period from 1916 to 1923, mark the third phase of Bal Gandharva’s further rise in the field, according to Bhole. Plays like “Swayamwar,” “Ekach Pyala,” “Samshay-Kallol,” and “Draupadi,” which were enacted during these years, showed thespian at his best. The songs he sang for these dramas showed the most abiding impact of Bakhalebuva and Bai Sunderabai, both of whom had set them to tune, Sundarabai had made her mark as a top-notch exponent of light classical music from Uttar Pradesh.
In the final phase, that covered a decade till Gandharva Natak Mandali closed down in 1934, it was Master Krishnarao who, as Bhole puts it, lent tunes to songs in “Kanhopatra,” “Savitri,” “Amritsiddhi,” and “Vidhilikhit.” If many of the songs from these plays could not remain popular for long it was because the plays themselves in which they were sung could not succeed at the box-office. But some have survived and continued to be extremely popular with the succeeding generations of stage singers.
All said and done, Bal Gandharva remained a classicist even while he shone so resplendently as a peerless exponent of stage music. His sense of tone was as immaculate as his sense of laya and tala, which are quintessential attributes of a top-notch classicist. Those who listen to his recorded versions will understand what I mean.
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—VII
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, August 2, 1987
The incredible vogue which Marathi stage music has continued to enjoy is borne out by the fact that no concert of classical music in Maharashtra during the last seven decades or more has been deemed complete without at least a pad or two in the singer’s repertoire.
Even blue-blooded Muslim classical maestros like Abdul Karim Khan and Manji Khan, who flourished during the heyday of Sangeet Natak, gladly volunteered to regale their audiences with choice pads.
Although credit has to be fairly shared by a succession of generations of brilliant actor-singers who loomed large on the cultural horizon for so many decades, there can be no two opinions that Bal Gandharva emerged and still remains the foremost among them. His voice was indeed his fortune. In sensitivity, it could be likened to a seismograph. His uncanny sense of tone and rhythm had the precision of a laser-beam. In other words, he lent a new dimension to Marathi Natya sangeet like none else before and after him. In a way, his music can well be termed gharana by reason of its personality-bound style and approach.
It is not therefore surprising that uniqueness of his vocalism should bring an ever-widening following among singers not only in Maharashtra but even outside the Marathi-speaking region as well. In Maharashtra alone, the singers inspired by his natya sangeet are legion. There have been many actor-singers who tried to emulate him during his life-time. But after this genre came to be popularised as part of concert recitals off-stage, the number of his indirect shishyas has almost been overwhelming, and for this reason, any mention of individual names of these singers is simply out of question.
But it would be fair to mention a few top names in the field. The names that come to mind randomly at the moment are those of Lalji Desai, Jaymala Shiledar and Manik Verma. There are many others like Kumar Gandharva and Ram Marathe in whose styles one does discern some elements of Bal Gandharva’s vocalism. One may or may not agree with my view, but in most other cases, the singers, with all their sincerity and seriousness in their attempt to project the Gandharva sangeet, result in kntaton. And imitation can not lend charm to music or any other art all the time.
Comparisons can be way out, but with the possible exception of Jaymala Shiledar and Manik Varma, no exponent of Marathi natya sangeet has perhaps succeeded in projecting the content and spirit of Bal Gandharva’s gayaki in his or her performance. It is well to remember here that Jaymala Shiledar was singing access on the stage and had the opportunities to see and listen to the maestro while she was still performing on the stage. But that was not so in the case of Manik Verma, she has herself told me that she was a voracious listener of his vast recorded repertory and she tried to imbibe as much as possible from his vocalism. But she added that she had the benefit of guidance in the Gandharva gayaki from Haribhau Deshpande and Kamblibuva, who were both closely associated with the great master as members of his instrumental ensemble.
Now, coming to singers outside the Marathi-speaking region, I recall, with much admiration, the name of a Parsi gentleman, Rustom Hathidaru from Ahmednagar, who was once enlisted for two concerts by a music circle in Bombay more than a decade ago. Rustom Kaka, as everyone affectionately called him, was then already past his sixties and has since passed away.
Believe it or not, he was not a practicing musician but helped his father in his record-selling shop at Ahmednagar, in Maharashtra. The recorded music of Bal Gandharva was the rage in those times and his father would play his records for the approval of his prospective clients. He was thus exposed to the maestro’s music right from his boyhood and, in time to come, became quite adept in assimilating the maestro’s style in all its individual beauty and charm. Although Rustom Kaka did it as a joyous persuit for his own delectation, his involvement in singing soon became known to his circle of clients, friends and admirers.
Frankly, Rustom Kaka’s Bombay recitals came to me as something of a revelation. And more so, because his contribution seemed too good for his old age. His recitals have left abiding memories with me.
If the magic of Bal Gandharva hold a Parsi music lover under his hypnotic spell, still more surprising is the fact that a leading actor-singer from Andhra, K. Raghuramiah, worshipped the “Nat Samrat” and successfully tried to imbibe his historionics in the true manner of the mythological Ekalavya. Raghuramiah is now a septuagenarian and it is said that he is moved to tears in grateful remembrance of his indirect mentor.
So is the case of the celebrated Gujarati thespian, Jaishankar “Sundari”, who moved his Gujarati stage-lovers by his art inspired by the genius of the “Nat Samrat.” There may well be many more instances elsewhere in India where actor singer derived inspiration from Bal Gandharva’s art in varying degrees. Among these are Shivaji Ganesan and B. N. Chinnappa.
Among the numerous leading aficianado of the “Nat Samarat” outside the professional field are the Jnaopith Award winner and eminent Kannada literateur, K. Shivrama Karanth, and the versatile Bengali genius, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, who knew and loved the “Nat Samrat” and his art.
No less magical was the term “Gandharva” by reason of its association with the “Nat Samrat.” During the last half a century or more, the Marathi stage is studded with a variety of actor-singers who have made their mark, like Sawai Gandharva and Choota Gandharva. There are exponents of natya sangeet who have never acted on the stage, but have also earned appellations like Kumar Gandharva, Guni Gandharva and Anand Gandharva. Whether all these “Gandharvas” have measured up to the greatness and preeminence of the original “Gandharva” is a debatable point. Suffice it to say that the very fact of the association of the term with a multitude of actors and/or singers of our time is a testimony to the uniqueness of Bal Gandharva if nothing else!
Bal Gandharva: On the sands of time—VIII
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, August 9, 1987
If Bal Gandharva remains a legend to the present generation and also generations yet unborn, he was a living legend to his contemporaneous audiences and confreres alike. What manner of man was this supreme thespian off-stage and in his personal or domestic life? What kind of life did this legendary man live?
Questions such as these are naturally apt to arise in the minds of those of the present and future generations. Even among his contemporary fans, there might also have been some, curious to seek answers to such questions.
Bal Gandharva was great as a man as much as he was an artiste. His intense humanism and concern for the well-being of his fellow-beings is reflected so heartwarmingly in the way he managed the affairs of his company.
It was a huge establishment, in which over a hundred people were employed. Almost all of them lived under a common shelter. They ate from a common kitchen. There were a dozen cooks who were assisted by an equal number of helpers to work in the kitchen. The food served was rich and varied, and fresh milk was an integral part of the daily menu.
It was managed like a huge joint family with Bal Gandharva as its head. He was a regular practitioner of yoga and attached great importance to matters of discipline and health. While he shared food with his employees, he kept beverages like tea and coffee out of bounds for consumption and, instead, he insisted on regular consumption of cow’s milk. And to ensure its uninterrupted supply, the company also maintained a herd of cows which formed part of the touring establishment! In the event of illness among the employees, he would take personal care of the patient with love, understanding and sympathy.
A teetotaler, he successfully shunned all manner of temptations which are almost always impossible to overcome for any one who may have spent his life in a world of make-believe, like the stage or the screen. Much more so, for one so supreme in the field. All this might sound incredible, but it is true. While close associates of the thespian vouch for this aspect of his personal life, the last few years of his association and eventual marriage with Goharbai will remain shrouded in mystery.
Bal Gandharva was a family man, who was faithful to his wife, Lakshmibai, till her death. He was equally affectionate to his children and brought them up with the right blend of love and discipline. Tragically, many of them died young and only two daughters have survived and are still happily in our midst.
How complete was Bal Gandharva’s devotion to his art can be seen from one solitary incident in his family life. As it happened, one of his darling daughters died on the day just before one of his drama was scheduled to be staged. Although the news of the family misfortune spread far and wide, and many of his fans implored him to postpone the show in which he was to play heroine, Bal Gandharva declined to do so, and said, with the composure of a true yogi: “The show must go on. The inevitable has happened in my family, but I simply cannot forget for a moment my duty to my audience and to you all”.
And as the play proceeded, the thespian was at his best in a tragic sequence, so much so that he moved the audience to tears. Can there be another example of such single-minded devotion to art?
One can therefore say, without any hesitation, that it is this quality of detachment—of the kind associated with a true karma-yogi described in the Bhagwad Gita—that sustained him in his last days. To those who remained devotedly close to him till the last, he appeared a man of no regrets, but one who looked back over several decades of his multi-splendoured career on the stage with a sense of fulfillment.
Bal Gandharva was shifted to Pune soon after Goharbai’s death. He lay in a state of coma for nearly three months before merciful death relieved him of his long suffering. Stage lovers of every hue and character prayed for the “Nat Samrat”. It is on record that Mr Y. B. Chavan, then a Union Minister and a keen lover of the arts, arranged for a rare drug from abroad, as a remedy to bring back Bal Gandharva to consciousness.
True, death comes to all. But when it befalls great men like Bal Gandharva, who are born but once in a millennium, they leave a void almost impossible to fill. Such a “yuga-Purush” was Bal Gandharva, who was a very human, plain Narayanrao Rajhans in his personal life.
Finally, before concluding this series (which seems to have turned out to be an attempt in narrating a kind of mini-biography of the “Nat Samrat”), I cannot but recall the closing lines of Longfellow’s immortal poem, “The Psalm of Life”
“Lives of great man
All remind us
How to make our life sublime
And departing, leave behind us
Foot-prints on the Sands of Time.”