Bhaurao Kolhatkar

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a brief history of marathi natya sangeet [1]

It was Balgangadhar Tilak, the nationalist leader, who gave Narayan Rajhansa (1888-1967) the title of Bal Gandharva. Ustad Mehboob Khan gave him early lessons in Hindustani music. He was hailed as a prodigy, and entered the Kirloskar drama company. Pandit Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale, who was part of the company, then took him on as a disciple.

Bhaskarbuwa[2] had a most resolute nature. As a teenager, he was insulted by Bhaurao Kolhatkar in Kirloskar Co. when his voice broke. He shaved off the long hair grown for female part to tonsure and told Bhaurao that he would face Bhaurao only when he is worth of the title 'Bhaskarbuwa' as opposed to 'Bhaskar'. Such strong will is necessary for extraordinary achievements.

a posting on a proposed research on marathi sangeet natak Many eventful years have elapsed since the story began. It was in or about the year 1880 that the first real drama was produced on the Maharashtrian stage. Though certain plays were ‘in the run’ even before that, the dramatic art of Maharashtra was in a sort of a crude state, till the first decisive step was taken in the year 1880. The late Mr. Annasaheb Kirloskar, aptly known since then as the father of the Marathi stage, staged a Marathi adaptation of the world-famous Shakuntala. The adaptation was made by Annasaheb himself. He had founded with the aid of a band of artists, who were more of singers than actors, the ‘Kirloskar Sangeet Mandali’ which included men like the late Mr. Bhaurao Kolhatkar, the late Mr. Balkoba Bavdekar and others,–names which marked the beginning of the history of the Maharashtrian stage. The artists being singers, Shakuntala and the plays to follow were in the nature of semi-operas. We have to distinguish these operas from the Western operas. In a Western opera, everything is spoken in tunes and verses, but not so in the Marathi operas. In Marathi, two kinds of plays are written. The one is purely prose and the other is prose mixed with songs, This latter I have named a semi-opera.

It was then whispered that according to the shastras (and I do not know if the shastras abhor the dramatic art so much), one who enters the stage thereby at once reserves a place for himself in the domain of hell. This belief, however, kept women altogether away from the stage which men slightly feared to tread. As a result, men played the male as well as female roles. The leaders of the time, disregarding the so-called threat of the shastras, too well recognised that the stage meant dramatic art which deserved to exist and deserved every encouragement. So it was that jewels amongst men, like the late Lokamanya Tilak and others, rallied round the ‘Kirloskar Sangeet Mandali’ and did whatever was in their power to popularise the drama in Maharashtra. Shakuntala proved a great success and Annasaheb wrote another play Saubhadra, dealing with the story of the marriage of Arjuna with Subhadra, which too caught the imagination of the public. Another great dramatist, the late Mr. Govind Ballal Deval, came on the scene and produced Shapsambhrama (a stage adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Kadambari) and Mrichakatika (a Marathi rendering of Shudraka’s Mrichakatika). All these plays were highly successful and the foundation of the Maharashtrian stage was indeed well and ably laid.

These plays which mark the first two decades of the history of the Marathi stage were either adaptations from Sanskrit or were written entirely on the Sanskrit plan of dramas. The female roles in the plays were being enacted by males, the foremost amongst whom was the late Mr. Bhaurao Kolhatkar. The duration of these plays was extraordinary, for I am told that the plays began at about 10 p. m. in the night and terminated only when the melodious murmurs of the birds at dawn began. Make-up had not advanced to a stage of nicety, and stage-lighting had to be done with the aid of powerful oil lamps. The beautiful songs of the artists, the superb acting of Bhaurao and the inherent popularity of the stories selected for the plays, no doubt made the dramas popular in spite of these shortcomings. The late Mr. Kirloskar who may well have intended to complete his drama named Rama-Rajya-Viyoga within a span of seven Acts but had written only two of them, staged that unfinished drama! The stage mania had advanced so much that stage fans flocked at the theatre even to witness that incomplete play. It was at the end of this period that Annasaheb Kirloskar passed away. Doubtless he passed away happy in the thought that the structure of the dramatic art was placed on a sound footing and would live after him.

He was succeeded by the late Mr. Bhaurao Kolhatkar at the helm of the ‘Kirloskar Sangeet Mandali.’ Mr. Deval, who had adapted the Kadambari and Mrichakatika for the Marathi stage, produced what may be called the first powerful and successful social drama in Marathi, namely, Sharada. Sharada is an effective landmark on the Maharashtrian stage, in so far as it diverted the attention of the actors and the playwrights from the purely Sanskrit type of adaptations and the Puranic (mythological) dramas to social subjects. Sharada proved to be a very powerful satire on the then current system, (actuated as it was by the greed of wealth), of the marriages of very young girls with aged bridegrooms.

Sharada therefore marked, what may be called, the advent of the social drama on the Marathi stage. Imbued with ideas of social progress another dramatist, the late Mr. Shripad Krishna Kolhatkar, appeared on the scene. From 1901 onwards he wrote plays dealing with such subjects as the drink-habit, women’s education, widow re-marriage, mixed marriages, etc. He, however, chose the romantic atmosphere for his social themes. In Sharada one could find vivid representation of the society of the day. In Shripad Kolhatkar’s plays, though the message was up-to-date, it was worked up in an atmosphere of kings, queens and palaces of an unknown age. Soon after he came on the scene, Bhaurao Kolhatkar died and the ‘Kirloskar Sangeet Mandali’ had no really powerful singer or actor who could be depended upon. The popularity of Shripad Kolhatkar’s dramas alone could let it pass over this crisis. Apart from the social appeal, the palatial grandeur of his settings, the mysterious element in his plots, Kolhatkar caught the imagination of the public with the appeal of his humour, which was novel on the Marathi stage in those days. It was he who for the first time definitely introduced real humour on the Marathi stage, and since then many an otherwise good drama has proved unsuccessful for want of the play of humour in it.

I have remarked in the beginning that the band of actors who assisted the late Mr. Kirloskar were more of singers than actors and so the plays performed by the ‘Kirloskar Mandali’ were in the nature of semi-operas. Till up to the year 1910 the tunes of these songs were chiefly selected from the Karnataki music or taken from the songs prevalent on the Gujarati stage. Some songs were composed on the tune of the Maharashtrian lavani which is said to be the ‘folk tune’ of Maharashtra.

The drama in Maharashtra did not for long remain a monopoly of the singers. Soon after success was attained by the ‘Kirloskar Mandali’ many similar dramatic companies had grown up, with singing talents amongst them, but I make no mention of them as they have not helped to make history. There had, however, grown up two great concerns which purely dealt in prose plays and those were the ‘Shahu-nagar-wasi Mandali’ and the ‘Maharashtra Mandali.’ The former was piloted by the great actor, the late Mr. Ganpatrao Joshi. He died in the year 1921 but he was one of those great actors that any country may be proud to have produced. He chiefly excelled in adaptations from Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Othello. Even European critics acknowledged that his was one of the best representations of Hamlet.

The other company, the ‘Maharashtra Mandali’ was led by the Tipnis brothers and the late Mr. Bhagvat. This company specially dealt with historical plays written by Mr. K. P. Khadilkar. Mr. Khadilkar, a disciple of the late Lokamanya Tilak and the sub-editor of the Kesari at Poona, revelled in the Shakespearean style of dramas, and often lent a political touch to his plays. His Kichaka-Vadha was banned by Government for this very reason. He adopted a style of drama which was more dramatic and powerful than it was poetic.

Of these two premier prose companies the ‘Shahu-nagar-wasi Company’ practically went into oblivion after the death of Ganpatrao Joshi, but the ‘Maharashtra Mandali’ was held high in public esteem up to the year 1930. Since the year 1917 it had produced a great male actor in Mr. Keshavrao Date, a more refined and all-round actor than whom has scarcely been seen on the stage of Maharashtra. The ‘Maharashtra Mandali’ specially dealt with historical plays depicting scenes from the history of the Marathas. It also produced some purely humorous plays, with no other appeal than the humour they contained. Mr. Date played his roles in these plays as efficiently as he played the serious minded roles in the historical plays. The ‘Maharashtra Mandali’ produced one very powerful social play, dealing with the subject of (and advocating) widow re-marriage.

It was Premasanyasa by the late Mr. Ram Ganesh Gadkari, about whom I will have to make a special reference later on.

These two dramatic companies, dealing with the prose section of the Maharashtrian drama, are those which need be mentioned for purposes of tracing the landmarks of our stage.

I now return to the ‘Kirloskar Mandali’ and take up the thread where I have left it. I have already said that after the death of Bhaurao Kolhatkar, the ‘Kirloskar Mandali’ lived less on any artistic talent of a superior class but more on the appeal which the plays of the late Mr. Shripad Krishna Kolhatkar had. But the public had not long to wait for a super-class actor. For, it was the year 1906 which saw the advent of an artist the like of whom is born once in a century–I mean ‘Balgandharva.’ His beautiful form gave him a special privilege of acting in the female role, his acting capabilities steered him through all the intricate roles that were assigned to him, and his celestial voice won for him the heart of any one who stepped into the four corners of his auditorium. By the year 1910 he had become the craze of the public. Ambitious authors like Mr. Khadilkar gathered round him, and in the year 1910 was produced Manapman, a romantic play with a social appeal, written by Mr. Khadilkar.

This play again is a landmark on the Maharashtrian stage. The Marathi operas which drew upon the Karnataki and Gujarati tunes, now entered upon a new phase and caught hold of the best tunes in Hindustani music. The credit for this eventful step goes to the late Mr. Bhaskerrao Bakhale, the Guru of Balgandarva, Govindrao Tembe, and Master Krishnarao.

Soon after this Balgandharva formed his own company and the crown of Maharashtrian drama was no longer with the ‘Kirloskar Mandali’ but was worn by the ‘Gandharva Natak Mandali.’ This company staged the plays of Mr. Khadilkar and the late Mr. Ram Ganesh Gadkari. Mr. Khadilkar wrote for Balgandharva plays depicting the story of the marriage of Lord Krishna with Rukmini (Swayamwara), the story of Kacha and Devayani (Vidyaharana), the story of Draupadi-Vastraharana (Draupadi), and the stories of Menaka and Savitri. Swayamwara which was produced in the year 1915 still attracts crowded houses. Balgandharva also produced in the year 1919 Ekachpyala, a play by the late Mr. Ram Ganesh Gadkari, a tragedy on the theme of the drink-habit, and this play is also even now running ‘neck-to-neck’ with Swayamwara.

Balgandharva played the female roles to such perfection that even to this date, at his age of fifty years, he is reckoned as the foremost exponent of the female element on the stage. His success indicated the high-water mark of the success of the dramatic art and of the dramatic profession in Maharashtra. His earnings were so huge that for years together he kept on playing before packed houses which paid him more than a lakh and a half of rupees per year. His celestial and melodious music got the choicest of tunes to dwell upon at the hands of the late Mr. Bhaskerrao Bakhale and Master Krishnarao, who is now the music director of the Prabhat Film Company of Poona. The accompaniments to stage music till the year 1919 had been the harmonium and the tabla. But Balgandharva effectively introduced the sarangi and substituted the harmonium by the organ. He engaged great artists like Kadurbux, a sarangi-player par excellence, and Tirakhva the foremost tabla-player in India. The drapery was brought to a perfect order and Rukmini and Draupadi wore such costly sarees as would be worn by the Maharanees themselves. Not only that, but he presented such novel designs in sarees and the ways to wear them, that the daughters of Eve from Bombay and Poona copied him. The art of make-up was also brought up-to-date and wigs and other devices were ordered from Paris direct.

Ram Ganesh Gadkari, the author of Ekachpyala, claimed to be a disciple of the late Mr. Shripad K. Kolhatkar. He wrote Premasanyasa (a play advocating widow re-marriage), Ekachpyala (a social play) and Bhavbandhana (a social comedy). By his advent the hitherto eminent playwrights went into the background. His rich language, his powerful themes and his more appealing humour won for him the laurels of the day. His was the power to make the audience weep in one scene, and in the very next to plunge them into fits of laughter. He adopted the Shakespearean style of dramas. The Shakespearean kind of drama saw its highest popularity on the Marathi stage in the plays of the late Mr. Gadkari.

Thus till the year 1922 the Shakespearean style was pre-dominant on the Marathi stage. A little before that, Mr. B. V. Warerkar, an author of repute, had concentrated on the social drama. He popularised his Hatch-Mulacha-Bap (a comedy on the dowry system), and Sanyasascha Sansara (in which he advocated that Christian Hindus should again be taken into the Hindu fold) at the hands of the late Mr. Krishnarao Bhonsle, a musician-actor few of whose calibre have appeared on the Maharashtrian stage. By the year 1922, Mr. Warerkar was very much impressed by the writings of Bernard Shaw, Barrie, Ibsen and others. After the year 1923, he introduced the latest English stage technique in his plays. He concentrated on the social drama and insisted upon the ‘one act, one scene’ composition. We have seen that in the eighties the performances extended from 10 p. m., to 5 a. m. Later on, the benevolent police had laid it down that all entertainments should end by 1-30 a. m. The conditions of social life were undergoing a great change and a demand was being made, especially at places like Bombay, for the maximum of entertainment in the minimum of time. Warerkar, for the first time, introduced in the year 1923 a piece which could be performed within the space of three hours. This was the beginning on the Marathi stage of the short drama written in up-to-date Western technique. It has now become more popular, so much so that the Shakespearean style of drama is getting out of date.

The scarcity of talents like Balgandharva made room for women to enter on the stage. Society and social conditions had undergone a change. Women had already appeared on the screen and to step from the screen to the stage was not difficult. Economic conditions compelled women to follow any profession they could honorably. There was the lure of wealth and popularity in the dramatic profession. Even before the year 1929, women of a very ordinary type had joined some stray companies, yet the first really eminent company in which women artists played the female roles was formed in the middle of the year 1929. This company was led by the great Maharashtrian songstress, Mrs. Heerabai Badodekar. She was supported by her sister Mrs. Kamalabai Badodekar who played her roles in a charming manner. This concern attracted huge incomes and great public support for a couple of years, but it saw its end in the middle of the year 1933 due to disruption and economic causes. By that time another band of artists had come forward, and they performed dramas in the English style. They were led by Mr. Keshavrao Date and supported by female artists, chief amongst whom was Mrs. Jyotsnabai Bhole. They produced adaptations of Ibsen and the plays written in the Ibsenian style. They presented a completely anglicised outlook. Their plays however failed to catch the imagination of the public and the concern was short-lived.

The absence of talented artists who could effectively continue the life-work of Balgandharva, the short-lived existence of the new concerns started on the strength of the female artists, the unsuitability of the Shakespearean style of dramas (which yet fascinated the public) due to change in social conditions, the failure of the short dramas written in the Ibsenian and Shavian styles for want of public appeal–all these had contributed to the weakening of the dramatic profession. While this was happening, in the year 1931 come the bolt from the blue–I mean the competition of the screen which had begun to speak. The talkies have disorganised the stage throughout the world, and no wonder that for a while the Maharashtrian stage faced the inevitable question, ‘To be or not to be.’ Leading actors of the stage went to the screen, and even Balgandharva did it for a year or two.

But the tide is turning. The lack of real merit in the talkies (barring a few exceptions) is again diverting the attention of the public and of the actors as well from the screen to the stage. In the middle of the year 1936 Balgandharva staged a come-back, and as I write this he is attracting huge crowds in Bombay. Though it is facing bad days, it can be surely said that the dramatic art has come to stay. Real talent is what the public are pining for. They are fed up with the talkies and I confidently hope that a new and prosperous era is in sight for the stage in Maharashtra.

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