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Paying homage to Keshavrao Bhonsale

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The Economic Times, August 27, 1989

August 9, this year marked the beginning of the year-long stage-level celebrations in observance of the birth centenary of Keshavrao Bhonsale, the great singing thespian and founder of the Lalitkaladarsh Natak Mandali.

He was a contemporary of Bal Gandharva (whose birth centenary was celebrated last year) and it is on record that many knowledgeable stage lovers of the last generation, who had witnessed the performances of both the titans, regarded the former as a serious rival to the latter because, besides being a powerful singing-actor excelling in male roles, he was rated among the topmost Hindustani concert vocalists of the time.

Tragically, Bhonsale’s career was cut short with his death due to typhoid when he was barely 31. Although, Bal Gandharva was destined to remain unrivalled in his field after Bhonsale’s death, it is heartening that the latter’s birth centenary is being celebrated with the official initiative.

It is equally creditable that institutions sponsoring musical soirees have taken the cue from the government so soon, and the credit goes to the Dadar-Matunga Cultural Centre for the showing the way to other leading institutions in the field in paying homage to Bhonsale. It featured a composite programme to commemorate the maestro’s contribution to the tradition of Marathi theatre and Hindustani music alike, at its compact auditorium on August 9.

The four-hour programme, aptly titled “Keshavaya namah”, comprised brief performances by senior exponents thetre and classical music like Balchandra Pendharkar, Yeshwantbuva Joshi, Ahsa Khadilkar and Deepa Karlekar, with veterans of eminence like Govindrao Patwardhan on the harmonium and Bhai Gaitonde on the tabla.

The proceedings were marked by an element of novelty and originality, in that some of the singing artistes were given freedom to give verbal comment in respect of their chosen stage songs in an attempt to explain their peculiarities with special reference to Bhonsale’s vocalism.

To supplement and complement these comments, so to speak, there was Mr Shrikrishna Dalvi, who compered the entire four-hour presentation with his enlightening commentary. He was also responsible for the concept, format and content of the presentation.

Normally, in an event of this type, the emphasis is on highlighting the significant aspects of the contribution of the concerned luminary. It therefore seemed odd that for the most part, the proceedings were devoted to the contribution of Bhonsale’s illustrious guru, Ramakrishnabuva Vaze, to the enrichment of Marathi natya sangeet!

Vazebuva was also associated with Bhonsale’s mandali as music director, who gave several trendsetting tunes to the equally trendsetting songs staged by Bhonsale like “Sharada”, “Shah Shivaji” and “Haach Mulacha Baap” and several other classics. Vazebuva was a contemporary of Bhaskarbuva Bakhale, who was then playing the same role during his association wit Bal Gandharva’s troupe. Thus there was a sort of healthy competition among the two classical maestros in the same way as there was a race for excellence between Bhonsale and Bal Gandharva.

Be that as it may, so far as the memorial programme under summation is concerned. I have a boen or two to pick with Mr Dalvi in regard to the format and content of the programme as a whole. In the first place, there was no need to devote so much time to the elucidation of Vazebuva’s vocalism almost at the expense of Bhonsale’s inalienable right to eminence as a singing thespian on his own. Instead, he should have told the packed audience how Bhonsale, with his extraordinary genius, assimilated all that he learnt from his guru and enriched it by his own individuality.

By a lucky chance, it was Pendharkar, who now owns Bhonsale’s mandali as his third-generation successor, to rectify the oddity in Mr Dalvi’s compereship by singing Bhonsale’s songs and then demonstrating where they carried Vazebuva’s influence and his disciples originality. And he did it with confidence and authority, because Pendharkar, now 67, also happens to be one of Vazebuva’s last disciples.

Equally inexplicable, even unconvincing, was the inclusion of Yeshwantbuva Joshi and Deepa Karlekar. No doubt, Joshi belongs to another branch of the Gwalior gharana of Vazebuva and he claims the privilege of association with the maestro. But then Joshi is basically a Hindustani concert vocalist of eminence and has never impressed stage-lovers as an exponent of natya sangeet.

Deepa Karlekar, on the other hand, is a noted research scholar who has earned a doctorate in natya sangeet with special reference to the contribution of Bal Gandharva in that genre. It was understandable that her songs were deeply reminiscent of Bal Gandharva’s gayaki. What was not understandable, however, was that she was thought fit to be featured at all in this programme.

In sum, it was Pendharkar and Asha Khadilkar that brought the much-needed colour and sparkle to the musical part. It redounds to her credit that Asha, one of the most gifted exponents of natya sanget from the younger generation, could give us many brilliant glimpses of Bhonsale’s vocalism by assimilating whatever she could from his recorded music and listening to Pendharkar and other representatives of Bhonsale’s genre.

Speech-making, rightly or wrongly, becomes an integral part of such memorial events. But one wonders whether there can be no limit to their duration. Frankly, apart from the needlessly sprawling compereship, it is the speeches from Mr. Manohar Wagle and Mr Bana Paranjpe, who represented the sponsoring institution, and Mr Rajaram Shinde, a theatre personality and president of Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Natya Parishad, that induced an element of little listlessness and boredom at the very start of the programme. Indeed, the event, to my mind, was a rather curious way to pay homage to a great maestro.


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