By Saee Joshi
Natyasangeet or Sangeet Natak are Marathi language musical dramas, which combine prose, poetry and music to convey a story. This form of musical theatre has its origins in 19th century Maharashtra and soon became a popular form of entertainment for the common man. Most of the plays in the initial days would be based on mythological stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. However, with time, these plays also evolved to include historical and social messages. While there have been numerous musical maestros who contributed to the growth and development of this cultural phenomenon, there are three men who stand out as pioneers.
Bal Gandharva, born Narayan Shripad Rajhans, was the Natsamrat or King of Theatre of Marathi musical theatre for nearly half a century. Born to a common Maharashtrian family in June 1888, he was graced with a melodious voice. Young Narayanrao began singing bhajans (devotional songs) from a tender age. It was in one such singing performance in Pune that a member of the awed audience, Lokmanya Tilak, the great social reformer and freedom fighter bestowed upon young Narayan the name ‘Bal Gandharva’ or a ‘Young Celestial Musician.’
Bal Gandharva joined the Kirloskar Natak Mandali at the age of seventeen. His first performance was a female role in the Marathi version of the Sanskrit play ‘Shakuntala’. He acted in several plays – from classic to contemporary themes, almost exclusively playing female roles. His second marriage, after the untimely death of his first wife, was to a Muslim singer named Gauhar Bai, extremely progressive for that day and age. He acted in several anti-colonial plays as well during the course of his career.
He was proclaimed the ‘Natsamrat’ in 1944, and elected president of the Marathi Natya Shatabdi Sammelan, a conference commemorating the centenary of the Marathi Theatre. In 1955, he was given the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Padma Bhushan in 1964.
Though, time could not be at a standstill. As Bal Gandharva become older and women were no longer shunned from the stage, he had to move onto more mainstream entertainment: the film industry. He dabbled in the movies, but eventually returned to the stage after a few flops. Though he founded a flourishing company, the Gandharva Natak Mandali, he remained in debt due to the extravagance of the theatrical world. He suffered through a lot of grief, losing three of his children, and a paralytic shock in 1952. Bal Gandharva had been paralysed ever since, struggling and virtually penniless. He died on 15th July, 1967.
The Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir was built in his honour in Pune in 1968, and it still flourishes to this day, furthering Bal Gandharva’s legacy.
Deenanath Mangeshkar’s mercurial style and resonant voice made him one of the biggest voices on the Marathi musical scene. His distinctive musical legacy has never been replicated. Deenanath was born in what is now modern-day Goa, in a small village called Mangeshi, to a Karhade Brahmin priest and a Devadasi, Yesubai. In his teen years, he christened himself again as ‘Mangeshkar’, as a homage to the place he was born in, and to the deity of the Mangueshi temple, also called Mangesh.
From the age of five, young Deenanath began taking singing lessons from Shri Baba Mashelkar and later joined the Gwalior school. He was inspired by the variety and aggressive style of Gayanacharya Pandit Ramkrishnabua Vaze. He travelled to Bikaner for his formal training, under Pandit Sukhdev Prasad. He joined the Kirloskar Sangeet Mandali and the Kirloskar Natak Mandali at the age of 11, leaving it shortly after and founding his own Balwant Mandali.
Deenanath’s musical voraciousness and winning features resulted in him becoming immensely popular on the Marathi stage. The element of surprise in his arrangement of note-patterns fascinated theatre-goers.
Deenanath’s versatility expressed itself in his voice and plays. Dramas produced by Deenanath Mangeshkar were always resonant with nationalism and patriotic in nature. He worked with writers like K.P. Khadilkar, Veer Vamanrao Joshi and Veer Savarkar. Some of his most patriotic works include Manapaman, Ranadundubhi and Sanyasta Khadga.
Deenanath fathered Lata, Meena, Asha, Usha and Hridaynath Mangeshkar, who became the first family of Marathi and Hindi film music.
In the years of financial hardship and creative discontent in the 1930s, Deenanath began drinking heavily. He breathed his last in Pune, 1942, only 42 years old. The Mangeshkar family has established a hospital and research centre in Pune, the Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital, in his memory.
Vasantrao Deshpande is a household name in most of Maharashtra now, but this musical maestro could have very easily vanished into the haze that then surrounded the theatrical world. Born in 1920 to a Deshastha Brahmin family in Murtizapur, in the Vidharba region of Maharashtra, Vasantrao was exposed to the Marathi devotional songs that his mother sang from the early years of his childhood.
Though he had an exceptionally sweet voice, it was entirely by chance that he was discovered by Shankarrao Sapre, a local music teacher after his mother relocated them to Nagpur. He began learning music, and within four years had landed the role of Krishna in the 1933 film ‘Kaliya-Mardan.’ In Kolhapur, where the film was shot, Vasantrao discovered artists big and small, all of which served as an inspiration to him. Deenanath Mangeshkar, the star of the theatrical world at the time, even took the young Vasantrao under his tutelage.
Vasantrao imbibed all of their styles into his own, and he is to date the sole inheritor of Deenanath’s Mangeshkar’s mercurial musical flair. Vasantrao never stuck by a particular gharana, or music lineage, though he was initially trained by the Gwalior Gharana. He absorbed the good qualities of every gharana that he came across. He stayed in Lahore with his uncle for a short period of time, and it was here that his colourful style truly evolved.
He passed the matriculation exam and landed a job as a civil servant in Pune in 1941, which though highly unsatisfactory to the artist, provided him with financial security. Though he did not pursue music as a career for several more years, he built up a social circle in Pune comprising fellow music lovers and pursued his learning under different gurus.
The favour of Hyderabad’s Begum Akhtar was one of the most influential turning points for Vasantrao, and it was due to her support and insistence that Vasantrao finally started pursuing music full time in 1966. Though the initial years were difficult, he met with great success and respect. His most memorable role was that of the ‘Khansaheb’ in the play Katyar Kaljat Ghusli, which catapulted him into stardom. This role is still retained by his grandson and contemporary classical singer Rahul Deshpande.
Vasantrao had coronary issues in the 1980s, and though he lived long enough to receive the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award, he died on 30th July, 1983, at 63 years old. The Vasantotsav, an annual musical festival organised in his honour in Pune, is spread over three days in January.
Today’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita tells us about the importance of following one’s own destiny.
By Kayva Gokhale
One particularly hot summer, all the lakes and rivers in a forest dried up. A herd of elephants living in the forest knew that they must find a source of fresh water, otherwise they would suffer from extreme thirst. Soon, after searching far and wide, one of the elephants found a huge lake full of fresh, clear water. Overjoyed, all the elephants, led by their kind and wise king, marched towards the lake.
A colony of mice had also made their home near the lake. When the thirsty elephants came marching towards the water, they trampled everything in their path. A lot of mice came under their heavy feet and lost their lives. That evening, the mice that had managed to survive, gathered to find a solution to this problem. The mice decided to speak to the king of the elephants and request him to not use the path on which their colony was settled.
The next day, a small group of mice approached the king and told him of their worries. The king of the elephants was kind and compassionate. He immediately assured the mice that he would lead his herd through some other route and ensure that the mice were not harmed. The mice were relieved and grateful and in turn, they promised to help out the elephants whenever they were in need. The king smiled, convinced that these tiny mice could never help a majestic elephant, like him.
The elephants and the mice settled into their lives by the lake. However, soon a problem arose. One day when some elephants entered the lake to wash themselves in the cool water, they found that their feet were trapped in thick ropes and that they could not come out, no matter how hard they tried! They realised that they had walked into a trap set by poachers, who wanted to capture them for their ivory tusks. In the evening, a group of poachers arrived and pulled the ropes and the elephants out of the water. They then tied the elephants to the nearby tree and left to make some arrangements.
The captured elephants were worried. They could find no way to free themselves, and even the king was out of ideas. Then, he suddenly remembered his mice friends. When one of the free elephants came to visit him later in the night, the king told him to go to the mice colony and ask for help.
Soon, the escaped elephant returned with the mice, who were distressed seeing their elephant friends in trouble. They got to work immediately and chewed through the thick ropes that the poachers had used.
Within a few hours, the ropes gave way and the elephants were free once again! The king elephant thanked the mice for their help and realised how he had underestimated the mice due to their small size. From then on, both the elephants and the mice remained friends and kind neighbours to one another.
By Srinidhi Murthy
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature and has a rich oral and written history. Indian poetry, in particular, can be dated back to the Vedic times with Sanskrit poems crafted around more than 3000 years ago. Here is the list of must-read poetry books written by talented poets who marked their unique influences on Indian poetry in modern times.
Madhushala – Harivansh Rai Bachchan (1935)
Madhushala (The House of Wine) is a famous Hindi poetry book that has 135 quatrains (i.e. a poem consisting of four lines), written by poet and writer Harivansh Rai Bachchan. The publication of this book in 1935, gave instant fame to the poet. One of the unique features of this poetry collection is that the poet ends every quatrain with the word Madhushala. In this book, Harivansh Rai Bachchan tries to explain the complexities of life with the four instruments i.e. Madhu (wine), Saaki (server), Pyaala (cup) and Madhushala. With some of his metaphorical lines, the poet also explains that the reader is the wine and he (the poet) is the cup. By filling the cup, the reader will become an alcoholic. Hence, the author concludes with this metaphor that Madhushala is incomplete without both the poet and reader. Due to its popularity, the original Hindi version has been translated into English, Malayalam, Bengali, and Marathi. The book is one of the first pieces of Hindi poetry that has been set to music with its CDs and cassettes. The poem also has been choreographed for stage performances.
Kamayani by Jaishankar Prasad (1936)
Kamayani, written in Hindi by Jaishankar Prasad, was published in 1936. Born in January 1889, Jaishankar Prasad was a novelist, poet, and playwright. In Kamayani, the poet sheds light upon the Vedic story of Manu and Shraddha, the first man and woman to survive the Pralaya (deluge) that was meant to end the world. Due to the incredible writing style of the poet, Kamayani emerges as an amalgamation of history and imagination for the reader. The book also explores the interplay of human emotions, actions, and thoughts with the help of mythological metaphors. There are fifteen sargas (cantos) mentioned in Kamayani namely faith, worry, hope, joy, lust, intellect, joy, struggle, philosophy, mystery, logic, shame, jealousy, action, and renunciation. The epic poem is considered one of the greatest Hindi literary works written in modern times.
Magadh – Shrikant Verma (1984)
Magadh, a poem written in Hindi by Shrikant Verma, was published in 1984. Considered as the crowning achievement of the poet’s life, Magadh has been established as one of the important works of Indian poetry in the late 20th century. The book consists of 56 poems written in 1979 and 1984. The poems in Magadha emerge as a reminder of the past that encounters the present and also provides the reader with a glimpse of the future. The poet Shrikant Verma presented a different style of writing in Magadh which connects the present to the history of the various historical and mythical cities. The tone of the poem is remarkably confessional and changes from nostalgic to ironic to sorrowful. Shrikant Verma was presented with the Sahitya Akademi Award posthumously for Magadh in 1987.
The Collected Poems of A.K Ramanujan – A.K.Ramanujan (1995)
A.K. Ramanujan was one of the finest English-language poets of modern India. The Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan was published posthumously in 1995 after the demise of the author. The book consists of the three volumes of poems published during the lifetime of the poet and also includes the fourth volume which was left unpublished at the time of his death. Some of the famous poems of A.K. Ramanujan, such as The Striders, A River, Still life, Extended Family, and Astronomer are added to the poetry collection of this book. The poems published in this book reflect the lifelong interest of the poet in structuralism, anthropology, folklore, and biculturalism.
Mera Kuch Samaan: My Poetry Collection – Gulzar (2014)
Mera Kuch Samaan: My Poetry Collection was published in English on 1 August, 2004. The book contains the selected poems of the Indian lyricist and poet, Gulzar. The book is a collection of four volumes which includes the original Hindi poems with their translated English verses. The three-hundred-page book also includes the collection of poems known as the Green Poems, which celebrates the poet’s innate connection with nature, along with the lesser-known poems hand-picked by him. The book also features hundred memorable lyrics of Gulzar along with the beautiful illustrations by the poet himself.
By Srinidhi Murthy
The word ‘novel’ originated in the 18th century from the Italian word “novella” to refer to stories. However, that doesn’t mean novels originated in the eighteenth century. Novels existed even in ancient times, although they were not categorised or labelled as such. In the Indian context, Banabhatta and Bhushanabhatta’s romantic novel in Sanskrit, Kadambari, is an example of that. Kadambari was started by Banabhatta and then was completed by Banabhatta’s son Bhushanabhatta after his father’s death. This ancient story has been dated back to the 7th century C.E. and is considered one of the first novels in world literature. So much so, that today the word ‘kadambari‘ is used as a generic term for a romance or a novel in Kannada and Marathi.
Experts theorise that the plot of this novel could have been adapted from King Sumanas’ story in Gunadhya’s Brhadkatha, a collection of stories in the extinct Paisachi language. This story is also present in Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara. Kathasaritsagara is considered to be the Sanskrit precis of Brhadkatha. Kadambari is a novel that attains beauty through its complexity. With multiple characters, sub-plots and flashbacks, it is an intricate tale that comes neatly together at the end.
A handsome hermit Pundarika and his friend Kapinjala meet the Gandharva princess Kadambari and her friend, Mahashveta while praying in a temple on the banks of Lake Achchoda. Mahashveta and Pundarika are smitten by each other instantly, but they go their separate ways since Pundarika is a hermit, who has left all worldly pleasures behind.
Though he does not pursue her, Pundarika pines for Mahashveta. Seeing his friend’s misery, Kapinjala informs Mahashveta of his friend’s love for her. She sets out to meet him, with the moon shining brightly to illuminate her path. While sitting under the bright moonlight that night, Pundarika looks up to see the smiling face of the Moon. Assuming that the Moon is mocking him, Pundrika curses the Moon to be born on earth and suffer the misery of unrealised love. The moon retaliates by cursing the Pundarika back, leading to his death. It is at this moment that Mahashveta reaches the spot and sees her beloved lying dead. Filled with grief, she decides to end her life, but the Moon, now regretting his hasty actions, stops her and assures her reunion with Pundarika.
She decides to wait for Pundarika at the banks of Achchoda as an ascetic. Her dear friend Kadambari, the Gandharva princess, vows to remain unmarried until her friend is reunited with her lover.
Soon, the Moon, stricken by Pundarika’s curse, is born as Chandrapida, the son of king Tarapida. At the same time, Pundarika is born to Tarapida’s chief minister and is named Vaishampayana. The two boys grow up together, becoming fast friends. When Chandrapida is crowned as the king, he is married off to the beautiful Patralekha. She is in fact Rohini, the Moon’s wife, who also takes birth as a human to accompany her husband. Chandrapida is also gifted a horse, who is actually Kapinjala reborn due to a sage’s curse.
Chandrapida sets out to conquer the surrounding empires, along with Vaishampayana and Patralekha. One day, while exploring, Chandrapida and his horse reach the place where Mahashveta is waiting for Pundarika. She narrates her story to Chandrapida and tells him about Kadambari’s vow. She takes him to Kadambari’s kingdom, Hemakuta, in the hopes of changing her friend’s mind. There, both Kadambari and Chandrapida fall in love with each other.
However, Kadambari decides to stay true to her vow and soon Chandrapida leaves. Both of them pine for each other, and soon Mahashveta sends for Chandrapida, unable to bear her friend’s pain. Chandrapida takes Patralekha with him and visits Hemkuta again. Upon receiving word from his father, Chandrapida returns to his kingdom, leaving Patralekha behind with Kadambari.
Meanwhile, Vaishampayana meets Mahashveta near Achchoda and proclaims his love for her. As a hermit, she is angered by his declaration and curses him to be reborn as a parrot, not realising he is the reincarnated Pundarika. Upon learning of his friend’s death, a grief-stricken Chandrapida too, falls dead at the banks of Lake Achchoda.
Kadambari and Patralekha reach the spot and are heartbroken. Kadambari prepares to die for her lover, but a heavenly voice intervenes and proclaims that Chandrapida’s body shall be preserved and Kadambari would soon be united with her lover. Patralekha, saddened by her husband’s loss, jumps into the lake on Chandrapida’s horse. When the horse enters the water, the curse is broken and Kapinjala gets his original form back. Kapinjala then informs Mahashveta that the man she cursed was actually Pundarika, who vows to wait for his return.
Kadambari continues to look after Chandrapida’s body at the lake and soon he opens his eyes, brought back to life by her love. Meanwhile, Vaishampayana completes his life as a parrot and regains his original form, that of Pundarika. Mahashveta is overjoyed and soon both the couples are married off with great pomp. Chandrapida hands over the kingdom to Pundarika and spends his time with his beloved Kadambari, sometimes on earth and sometimes in his celestial abode.
Read the classic tales from Indian literature in our title Great Indian Classics. Now available on the ACK Comics App, Kindle, Amazon, and with other major e-tailers.
By Srinidhi Murthy
The Modern Bengali Literature Era (i.e. post-1800), gave birth to numerous classic novels, biographies, religious texts and various poetic genres. Here is the list of some authors from Bengal, who will always be remembered for pioneering this golden period of Bengali literature.
Rassundari Devi (1809-1899)
Rassundari Devi was the first Bengali author to write an autobiography. Her book, titled Aamar Jiban (My Life), was published in two parts, the first part in 1876 and the second, in 1906. Born in 1809, Rassundari Devi was raised by her widowed mother. As a child, she learnt the Bengali alphabets by repeating what was taught in the boys’ school that was held in her house. At the young age of 12, Rassundari Devi became a child bride. She learnt to read by herself post-marriage, due to her desire to read Chaitanya Bhagavatha. Rassundari Devi was the first woman in Bengali literature to write about topics such as her hardships as a child bride, the difficulties she endured to gain literacy and the experiences of her pregnancy and childbirth. She wrote about her experiences in a time when speaking about these issues was considered taboo for women. Her life is an inspirational tale of a woman who fought against all odds to fulfil her desire for literacy.
Peary Chand Mitra (1814-1883)
Born in Calcutta in 1814, Peary Chand Mitra is known for his contribution to the development of Bangla literature and Journalism in Bengal. His most noted novel, Alaler Gharer Dulal (The Spoilt Child) was published in 1857, under the pseudonym Tek Chand Thakur. This was one of the earliest Bengali novels and Mitra wrote it in colloquial language i.e. cholitobhasa, instead of using a formal literary style. His simple prose style was later also used by notable writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. This colloquial form and style later came to be known as the Alali language. At a young age, Mitra learnt Persian and he started to learn English only when he joined Hindu College in 1827. He was a regular contributor to Bengali weekly newspapers such as Hindu Patriot, Calcutta Review, Bengal Spectator and Bengal Harkara. Notable Bangla literary works of Mitra include Alaler Gharer Dulal (1857), Mad Khaoya Bada Day Jat Thakar ki Upay (1859), Krispath (1861) and Abhedi (1871). Peary Chand Mitra breathed his last on 23 November, 1883, in Calcutta.
Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844-1912)
Girish Chandra Ghosh was a Bengali writer, director and actor. He was credited with being responsible for the beginning of the golden era of Bengali Theatre. Girish Chandra was born in Bagbazar, Calcutta, on 28 February, 1844, as the eighth child to his parents. He left school in 1862, after he lost both of his parents and got an apprenticeship in book-keeping with a British Company. During this time, he was introduced to the works of Ishwar Chandra Gupta and started writing songs, poems and plays. Ghosh wrote around 80 plays on religious, social and historical themes. Some of his famous works include Sitaharan (1882), Chaitanyalila (1884), Validan (1904), Chatrapati Shivaji (1907) and Sankaracharya (1910). In 1893, he also translated Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Bangla. Girish Chandra Ghosh was the author of a large number of Bangla plays and his lifelong association with the theatre contributed immensely to the development of Bengali theatre.
Nabinchandra Sen (1847-1909)
Considered one of the greatest poets and writers of Bengal, Nabinchandra Sen is known for popularising the epic narrative of the Mahabharata in Bengali language, with his three-volume series – Raivataka (1887), Kurukshetra (1893) and Prabhas (1896). Born in Noapara, Chittagong, on 10 February, 1847, Nabinchandra earned his BA degree from General Assembly’s Institution – presently the Scottish Church College. In 1871, his first volume of poetry, named Abakash Ranjani, was published, followed by the second volume in 1877. Nabinchandra wrote the biographies of Buddha, Cleopatra and Jesus Christ in Bengali and translated verses of the Markandeya Purana and Bhagavad Gita. His five-volume autobiography, Amar Jiban (My Life), documented not only the politics and administration of his time, but also the social aspirations of the educated class in contemporary Bengal society. Nabinchandra Sen died on 23 January, 1909.
Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932)
Born in Calcutta on 28 August, 1855, Swarnakumari Devi was the first female Bengali novelist to gain prominence. She was the elder sister of Rabindranath Tagore and was fourth among the daughters of Debandranath Tagore. Swarnakumari Devi was primarily educated at home and she married the well-educated Janakinath Ghoshal in 1868. Eight years after her marriage, Swarnakumari Devi published her first novel, Deep Nirban (The Snuffing out of Light), which evoked the nationalist spirit. She composed the first Bengali opera, Basanta Utsav, in 1879. In 1896, Swarnakumari Devi started an organisation named Sakhi Samiti, which not only provided shelter but also education to women, especially widows and orphans. She worked as the first female editor of Bharati, a magazine started by Jyotirindranath Tagore. Author of many novels, poems, novels, essays and plays, the life of Swarnakumari Devi will always be remembered not only for her contribution to Bengali literature but also for her role as an activist who fought for women’s liberation.