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Colossus of the Marathi Stage

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Colossus of the Marathi Stage

TRIBUTE / MOHAN NADKARNI, Illustrated Weekly of India, June 21, 1987

A luminary whose musical incandescence set the tone for the renaissance of the art form.

Mohan Nadkarni profiles the lonely genius.


I belong to a generation that was not destined to see Bal Gandharva at the height of his glory – as an actor-singer whose achievements in the field were hailed as the very ‘ultimate’ in the thespian art. He was already well past his prime when I first saw him, in the role of Meerabai in the play Amrit-Siddhi. It was the summer of 1934. The place was Hubli, now in Karnataka, and the venue of the show was the hallowed Mallikarjuna theatre.

The thespian, at 56, looked a little odd for the role. But the fabled charisma was still there to a remarkable degree. In his music, as well as in his acting. Which is possibly why he could draw such a packed audience at that afternoon show.

Almost three decades were to pass before I chanced to see the maestro again – but off-stage. The occasion was a felicitation function held in his honour by a leading cultural institution in Bombay. This was in August 1963.

Despite inclement weather, the auditorium, where the function was held, wore a festive look, as ardent fans of Bal Gandharva from all over the metropolis gathered to see and listen to the doyen of the Marathi stage who had just turned 75.

The most moving moment came when the veteran, crippled by paralysis, was carried into the auditorium in a sitting posture by two sturdy young men and seated comfortably on a broad armchair, amid a standing ovation from the audience.

Both during his lifetime and after his death, volumes have been written in Marathi on Bal Gandharva by scores of eminent writers and knowledgeable critics, highlighting the various aspects of his multi-splendoured genius. But to those not conversant with the language, these writing remain a sealed book, in the literal sense of the term.

But then, all things considered, Bal Gandharva was a maestro who belonged not only to Maharashtra but to the whole of India and even beyond.

According to Vasant Shantaram Desai, a retired judge and possibly the most prolific writer on the contribution of Bal Gandharva to the Marathi musical stage, there was a time when the thespian earned as much as Rs. 1.60 lakhs annually, for an unbroken period of 10 years from 1921, but yet found himself heavily in debt – not once, but twice.

Another important event in the maestro’s life showed his sense of patriotism. That was when he donated the entire proceeds from the staging of what came to be known as Samyukta Manapman, to the national-level fund started by Mahatma Gandhi in memory of Lokmanya Tilak. The staging of the play made history in the world of Marathi drama, in that it was presented under the joint auspices of his own mandali and the Lalitkaladarsha Sangeet Mandali, owned by Keshavrao Bhosale.

Bhosale, who was then regarded as a peer of Bal Gandharva in the field, played the hero and the latter, the heroine. The coming together of the two stalwarts on a common stage, for a national cause during those turbulent days of the freedom struggle, elicited unprecedented response from theatre-lovers from all strata of society. Tragically, Bosale died prematurely soon after the great show.

If, as is well known, Bal Gandharva died a pauper in Pune on July 15, 1967, after lying in a state of coma for three months or more, it was not because he had led a life of luxury or dissipation. It was his incredible, mind-boggling dedication to his muse that led him to utter penury. His was a spartan life and he spent his fabulous fortune for the preservation and enrichment of the stage art till paralysis incapacitated him in 1952.

In his scheme of things he also accorded high priority to the well-being of every individual member of his troupe. The Gandharva Mandali in its heyday had over a hundred people on its rolls and almost all of them lived under one roof.

Come to think of it, it can be truly said that the story of the life and career of Bal Gandharva is the story of the fluctuating fortunes of Marathi musical drama – its rise, pre-eminence, decline and revival, albeit in a feeble way, after the attainment of freedom and, more especially, after the emergence of Maharashtra as a unilingual stage. And the maestro lived to be 79 to witness the entire phenomenon.

Narayan Shripad Rajhans in real life, Bal Gandharva was born in a middle-class Brahmin family at Pune on June 26, 1888. He inherited his passion for music from his father, who held a modest job in the public works department, but the real encouragement to develop his musical talent came from his paternal aunt. Drama fascinated him right from his boyhood, and eventually led him to neglect his school studies, much to the dismay of his elders, although they were proud of his unusually musical voice and handsome physical features.

It was a family relative, Yeshwantrao Kulkarni, who introduced Narayan to Lokmanya Tilak. Kulkarni worked with the celebrated Marathi weekly, Kesari, of which Tilak was the founder-editor. When the 10-year-old Narayan sang a song in response to Tilak’s suggestion, the illustrious leader was so pleased with the boy’s music that he hailed him as ‘Bal Gandharva’.

It would seem that Bal Gandharva did not have much formal education in music, except for some grooming from a local teacher, Mehboob Khan, who taught him the basics of traditional music. But the musical environment and his musical temperament were there to spur him to strike out on his own.

Bal Gandharva was 17 when he joined the Kirlosar Sangeet Mandali, whose founder Annasaheb Kirloskar, pioneered the tradition of Marathi musical drama in 1880. Kirloskar, himself a versatile playwright and composer, had blazed a new trail in the field by writing and staging a string of powerful plays, beginning with Shakuntal, his Marathi version of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit classic, followed by mythologicals like Ram-Rajya-Viyoga and Soubhadra, both written by him.

Bal Gandharva’s association with the Kirloskar troupe in 1905, came in the wake of the sudden and untimely death of Kolhatkar, who was then regarded as the brightest singer-actor of his time. After grooming him in stage acting, Kirloskar cast Bal Gandharva in the title role in Shakuntal. That marked the teenager’s rise to unprecedented fame and popularity. He went from success to success with each new play, in which he played the central female roles under the banner of the Kirloskar mandali.

In 1913, Bal Gandharva left the company to form his own Gandharva natak mandali. This he did in partnership with Ganpatrao Bodas and Govindrao Tembe. Bodas, who played the hero in several plays for many years, was one of the most eminent character-actors and teachers in stage-acting. Tembe, on the other hand, made his mark not only as a singer-actor, but also as an inventive composer and unrivalled master of the harmonium.

Although the three together formed a powerful trio, Bal Gandharva was the life and soul of the company which staged, besides old popular classics many new ventures like Samshaya Kallol, a hilarious comedy written by Govind Ballal Deval, another great playwright of the time.

But it was Bal Gandharva’s association with Krishnaji Prabhakar ‘Kakasaheb’ Khadilkar from 1916, that marked a turning point in the annals of the Marathi musical drama as well as in the life and career of Bal Gandharva himself. Already, with the emergence of classical stalwarts like Bhaskarbuva Bakhale and Ramakrishnabuva Vaze as composers of Marathi stage-songs, the musical format and content of pads had begun to undergo a radical change. And as it happened, both Bal Gandharva and Tembe had the benefit of studentship with Bakhale, while Keshavrao Bhosale was under the tutelage of Vaze.

Bakhale was a classicist by training, but electric in his temperament and outlook. In grooming Bal Gandharva, he took care to ensure that his style and manner of singing were suited to his interpretation of female roles.

Bal Gandharva’s presentation of Manapaman hits was in perfect accord with Tembe’s ideas and intuitions. Added to it were his own tender nuances that only served to vivify the emotional content of the songs. What was true of Manapaman was true of other plays that came from Khadilkar, like Swayamwar, Vidyahran, Savitri, and Draupadi.

Speaking of the wide variety of character roles played by Bal Gandharva, Vasant Shantaram Desai says that it is not only Khadilkar, but other eminent dramatists, like Ram Ganesh Gadkari, author of the social tragedy, Ekach Pyala, who wrote their plays with Bal Gandharva’s genius in view.

Indeed, the validity of his observation is vindicated if we go by Bal Gandharva’s inimitable singing roles as Bhamini (Manapaman), Revati (Shamshaya Kallol), Rukmini (Swayammer), Draupadi (Draupadi) and Sindhu (Ekach Pyala). Those like Desai, who were au fait with the thespian’s stage performances, testify to the fact that Bal Gandharva’s histrionics spanned as whole gamut of moods and emotions – from shringara to the elevated shantarasa!

Bal Gandharva often told his admirers and friends that he owed his success on the musical stage mainly to his guru, Bhaskarbuva Bakhale. His mentor reportedly used to advise him not to go too deep into the technicalities of classicism, but to sing what was pleasant, melodious and appropriate to the mood of the situation of the song, no matter if it called for some deviation from the set classical style.

Although music was the greatest attraction for theatregoers, it was not only musical excellence but also the total dramatic, effect that determined the success of the chosen play. But in achieving the kind of miracle attributed to Bal Gandharva, one simply cannot overlook the uncanny, harmonious cooperation he had from other veterans in his company like Master Krishnarao, who played supportive roles and also lent a rich variety of raga-based tunes to many pads in several plays. Krishnarao was, incidentally, a noted vocalist and a disciple of Bakhale.

Equally significant was the participation of singer-actors like Vinayakrao Patwardhan, an outstanding vocalist and disciple of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, and Gangadharpant Londhe, who played heroes along with Ganpatrao Bodas. Ironically, there came an estrangement between the great thespian and his comrades-in-arms, partly because of lock of tact and certain acts of indiscretion on his part. This could also be one of the factors contributing to the gradual decline of the Gandharva Company.

As is well known, it was the emergence of the talkie that posed the greatest challenge to the survival of the dramatic tradition in the early thirties. The ageing Bal Gandharva, harassed by his creditors and harried by internal dissensions in his huge establishment, decided to switch over to a career in films.

He entered into partnership with the Prabhat film company. His first venture as Sant Eknath, the main character, was a misadventure. His female role as Meerabai in another picture turned out to be a disaster. He also realised that the studio atmosphere in which he had to act under powerful arc-lamps and the equally severe limitations on the duration of singing was simply not his cup of tea.

In sheer desperation, the maestro was compelled to revive his dramatic company, with Goharbai playing feminine roles and younger singer-actors like Krishnarao Chonkar for male roles. He also took to the concert platform to render mainly devotional songs. These concerts were a big draw, even though his music could afford only a few vignettes of his past glory.

In fact, public adulation came to Bal Gandharva in profusion right from the beginning. Symbolic of the people’s adoration for the thespian was his unanimous election as president of the Marathi Natya Sammelan had to commemorate the centenary of the Marathi stage in Bombay in 1944. As always, official recognition came to him much later. He was the recipient of the Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

The Maharashtra government then came forward with the princely sum of Rs. 300 by way of a monthly honorarium in January 1961. It took the government three years to raise the honorarium to Rs. 750 and that too, after a good deal of criticism from the public and the press.

It is therefore comforting to note that it is the same state government which has taken the initiative to organise a yearlong celebration of the birth centenary of Bal Gandharva, on an elaborate scale.

Mohan Nadkarni has also written a biography of Bal Gandharva, published by the National Book Trust of India, and is available in several languages.


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