P.L. Deshpande, popularly known by his Marathi initials ‘Pu La’, strode the cultural firmament of Maharashtra like a colossus for over four decades. He was a multifaceted genius – illustrious Marathi writer, film and stage actor, singer, harmonium player, music composer and director, and an orator. He was also a noted philanthropist.
Stamp on Deshpande
The Department of Posts issued a commemorative stamp in honour of P.L. Deshpande on 16 June 2002, his second death anniversary. The multicoloured stamp in the denomination of Rs. 4, has perf. 13.5, and was printed on Matt Chrome paper by photo offset process at Calcutta Security Printers.
The stamp has a portrait of Deshpande, and in the background is a picture of him in the role of Sant Tukaram in his play Tuka Mhane Ata. The cancellation, in the shape of a pen and a tambura, represents his writings and music. On the First Day Cover are pictures of some of his roles on the stage.
Purushottam Laxman Deshpande was born on 8 November 1919 in Bombay to Laxman and Lakshmibai Deshpande of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community. Pu La did his schooling in Bombay, went to Fergusson College, Pune, for undergraduate studies and did an M.A. from Willingdon College, Sangli.
He served as lecturer in a college at Belgaum for a brief period, and at Kirti College in Mumbai.
Deshpande took lessons in harmonium from Dattopant Rajopadhey of Bhaskar Sangeetalaya and attained proficiency in music. He provided harmonium accompaniment to several renowned vocalists like Bhimsen Joshi, Vasantrao Deshpande and Mallikarjun Mansur. Cassette recordings of his harmonium are very popular. His music was melodious and captivating. With his deep knowledge of music he also composed musical hits – from devotional songs like Indrayani kathi to songs for children such as Nach re mora.
He married Sunita Thakur in 1946; the couple had no children.
Deshpande was associated with All India Radio and Doordarshan for a long period, and was deputed to BBC for training for a year.
Pu La made his entry into writing with his contributions to Bombay magazine in the late 1940s. His Khogirbharati and Ammaldar announced the birth of an acclaimed author. In the next forty years, he wrote three one-act plays, seven plays for children, ten dramas, nine comedy books, four travelogues, three novels, nine essays on various subjects, 22 humorous essays and four one-man stage shows. His one-man shows like the wholesome entertainer Varyawarchi Varat, Batatyachi Chawl and As me Asami made him immensely popular in Maharashtra.
The hero of his most famous play Tuzhe ahe Tuzhepashi was a man with a fine taste in music who spoke Marathi in a slightly Urdu affected manner and had an answer for everything. The play an elegy of the aristocracy from the princely States – was a runaway success, coming as it did within six years of the States becoming a part of the Indian Union.
As mentioned in the information folder issued with the stamp on Deshpande, “the collection of sensitive pen sketches of ordinary people, titled Vyakti ani Valli, earned him the Sahitya Akademi Award. Tee Phoolrani and Teen Paishacha Tamasha were two adaptations from Shaw’s Pygmalion and Brecht’s Three Penny Opera respectively, transformed amazingly into Marathi as if they have sprouted from the Marathi soil itself. His travelogues were also sensitively written, in which people of distant lands were portrayed as human beings with all their idiosyncrasies.” He translated the Prison Diary of Jayaprakash Narayan into Marathi.
Deshpande was a versatile all-rounder in the world of cinema actor, playback singer, writer of screen plays, dialogues and stories, as well as music director. Some of the well known films which he directed and produced include Pudche Paul, Dev Pavla, and Doodh Bhat. He wrote the screenplay, composed music, directed and played the lead role in Gulacha Ganapati a film about a shop assistant.
Deshpande regaled his audience with sublime humour and satire. Anyone who has read his books or watched his plays craves to recount at least one ‘Pu La joke’ or a scene from his books, plays or films. His smile was an index of his innate humour. He was one of the few litterateurs who had the courage to publicly oppose the Emergency proclaimed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.
As mentioned in the stamp folder, “Though ‘Pu La’ preferred to call himself a performer, he handled many genres with mastery. In the Marathi world of art, he was nothing less than a legend. He helped an entire generation of Maharashtrians to shape their sensibilities through his writings and performances. He is particularly remembered for bringing humour into the everyday life of the common people through his works. His brand of humour was never malicious; it only tickled the person being made fun of.”
Pu La made a fortune from his literary and artistic creations, but led a simple and unostentatious life. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife Sunita set up a foundation in his name. Over the years the P.L. Deshpande Foundation has donated over a crore of rupees for a number of social and cultural initiatives. The beneficiaries of the Foundation include a re-addiction and rehabilitation centre, a hostel for children of prostitutes, Baba Amte’s Anandvan, a science laboratory at a village school meant for children displaced by the devastating Koyna earthquake.
Pu La was honoured with many titles and awards, including the Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, Sahitya Akademi Award in 1965, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1968, President of the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in 1974, Padma Bhushan in 1990 and Puneya Bhushan (Pride of Pune) in 1993.
Deshpande breathed his last on 12 June 2000 at Pune. He was described as ‘a cultural icon’ by Prof. G.P. Deshpande (famous Marathi playwright and Sahitya Akademi awardee) in an obituary published in Frontline. A cultural centre at Ravindra Natya Mandir was named P.L. Deshpande Academy. The Pu La Deshpande Udyan a gardenpark was created in Pune in memory of this giant of Marathi art, literature and culture. Beautifully laid out in the style of the Japanese Okayama gardens, it is also known as the Pune Okayama Friendship Garden.
(Author is a Music philatelist and old time associate of Sruti)